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soixante huit

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What do you make of birthdays when you’re getting old? I’m told that Zen practitioner no longer mark the occasion (although some make a fuss about the Buddha’s own). I woke up this morning with the familiar mix of physical and emotional aches, made the same cup of tea and pot of oatmeal as I often do.

Same old, same old — yet new and for the first time. This is a day like any other, yet it is not. I’ve never been here (nor have you, come to think of it). Celebrate? Why not celebrate this moment? And say a prayer of thanksgiving —

Praised be your father and mother,
Who loved you before you were,
And trusted to call you here
With no idea who you would be.

Blessed be those who have loved you
Into becoming who you were meant to be,
Blessed be those who have crossed your life
With dark gifts of hurt and loss
That have helped to school your mind
In the art of disappointment.

On this echoing-day of your birth,
May you open the gift of solitude
In order to receive your soul;
Enter the generosity of silence
To hear your hidden heart;
Know the serenity of stillness
To be enfolded anew
By the miracle of your being.

source: O’Donohue, J. (2008). To bless the space between us. Doubleday, p. 51. image: self-portrait walking along the camino.


before rock ‘n’ roll

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Following last night’s meditation, a couple of people commented on something I’d said earlier: “Let your breath be your refuge.” Not sure where those words came from, except that I meant to remind us to bring attention again and again to that which is real and now. 

To meditate in the Soto Zen tradition, as best as I can articulate, has no goal or outcome: sit still and observe what arises, teachers tell us. Thoughts, feelings, sensations, be a witness to all that comes into awareness. Welcome everything and escort your attention to the next breath — inhale, turn-around, exhale. Take refuge in the breath, in the place and instant where everything begins and everything ends. Where nothing exists, no pain, no joy, mere emptiness.

Notes: The subject line is a fragment from a Van Morrison song, “In the days before rock ‘n’ roll / when we let the goldfish go / before, before …” (Enlightenment album 1990). The word refuge stems from Latin refugium, “place to flee back to” also “safe haven.” image: I took this on last year’s hike on the Camino near the German-Luxembourg border. During the Black Death (ca. 1348) villagers would leave food and messages at this tiny chapel for those afflicted by the plague.  

camino snippets

Got lost today. “Lost” is of course relative if you set out to make the walk itself the purpose, not the getting-there. Still, after walking (mostly uphill) for three hours, it comes as a bit of a shock to recognize the wayside little chapel (do they all look alike?) as the one you stood in front off the previous evening and to read on a nearby marker that the village you left two days ago is a mere 4K away? Yikes! How did that happen? Or, better, where to from here?

The drawback of having left the fancy topographical map somewhere (lost on day one) and eschewed the carrying of a compass (“no need, all you have to do is keep an eye on the river”) is that both would have come in handy at that moment! Not having met a single human being all morning, chances were slim to ask a farmer or hiker for directions.

Instead, I sat down, drank some water, ate hazelnut chocolate, chuckled and got up to retrace my steps to the nearest fork in the road. Downhill, at least. The rest of the day turned into a bit of a fiasco: walking alongside a busy thoroughfare (drivers tend to ignore roadside pedestrian walking a mere hand’s width from their speeding Auto); stomping across muddy fields and gathering a kilo of clay on each boot; a sudden and steady downpour undisturbed by the shower-proof qualities of my anorak; sliding down a vineyard so steep that I had to dig in my heels and self-made hazelnut walking sticks lest the slate-strewn path between rows of vines became a death slide; and finally allowing myself to wait for a local bus (the kind that stops at every big tree in every village up and down the river), filled with noisy schoolkids, none of whom seemed to have received the memo about offering a seat to an older person. But the bus was dry and the driver kind enough to point out a village café where they served delicious lentil soup and purple-plum cake while I waited for the connecting bus.

Finally arrived in Trier, Germany’s oldest city (founded by Romans in 16 BC). A little culture shock: well-dressed throngs, name-brand boutiques, McD’s and Subway. Oodles of outdoor cafés under sunny skies — felt right at home in my mud-splattered garb and bright-yellow pack. The Tourist Office could find just one vacant room at € 66 (in contrast to the average of € 27 I’ve been paying in villages along the way). While trying to find said hotel, I did the un-manly thing of asking for directions and a kind gent offered to take me to his local pub (run by a Yugoslavian family) where they gave me a room for € 25/night, with shower and WC down the hall, TV with all the channels. And when they say single room, the mean a bed for one narrow person. Once more, all’s well. May your day go well.

taking half a day off

How wonderful! Walked for a little more than 3 hours, mostly uphill over steep hills bordering the Mosel River. This was one of the rare times where the pilgrim’s path didn’t follow the curves of the river (as shown on yesterday’s map), but up one side of the Hunsrück Mountains and down the other. Hard work and what a way to feel strength and endurance, seeing the effects of 4 months of thrice-weekly training: grâce à Mylene.

After only five days of walking, I seem to have left everything behind (except the occasional Internet contact). While schlepping up a muddy section of a steep hill it occurred to me that each time my foot touches the ground it is for the first and for the last time — coming and going, leaving only temporary traces. Just as in everyday life except that we tend to be deluded into thinking that things have permanence. A haiku death poem by Zen master Togyo:

When autumn winds blow               
not one leaf remains                         
the way it was.

Today a half-day break — kind of. After finding a cheap and impeccably clean room in a private home (with the tiniest bed and an even tinier 3-piece bathroom), I set out for what turned out to be a 2-hour meander through the vineyards. Mostly Riesling grapes here, hanging in plump bunches on endless rows of vines up steep hillsides, soaking up the ever-shortening hours of autumn sunshine. Afterwards into the touristy “old town” to savour cherry cheesecake and coffee and watching the world go by. A wedge (a gaggle, a whiteness) of swans overhead, honking as they go. All’s well.

notes while walking

More and more my mind stay right here, this breath, this step, this drop of sweat, this bird ahead, this rosehip, that corn flower. Monkey mind settles naturally as I walk. One long walking meditation. Yes, the mind does roam a bit, but along narrow frequencies: to the beloved, briefly, for comfort and reassurance, to family, in passing, with concern for their well-being. Back to Canada, rarely: all that is out of reach, thus not worth a second thought.

Reminded of a line by Almaas (see yesterday’s source) about wishful thinking, about hope: “The orientation on hope — hoping for something in the future — disconnects you from who you really are” (p. 158).

Looking at one more ancient ruin today (a castle built in 1351, sacked 13 times over the ensuing 290 years by Swedish, French, Italian, Dutch, and Spanish troops) made me ponder the “good old days.” Bunch of thieves, robbers, murderers! In the last village, for instance, much fuss is made of Countess Loretta (1400-1430), who displayed ingenuity not associated with females of the day. After the death of first her husband and then her father-in-law, she was vulnerable: without a protecting man, yet responsible for a castle, peasants, lands, finances, enemies at the gate, and an underaged son (the future lord). So what did she do?  Engaging the help of three knights, she kidnapped the regional duke-bishop as he sailed up the river, imprisoned him  for nine month, and didn’t let him go until the King of Bohemia mediated a hefty ransom, a Pope’s pardon, and guarantees of military protection. Today she’d be called a terrorist accused of murder, kidnap, extortion, and unlawful confinement.

Tonight the first rain in days, the air refreshed: aaaaahhh. I’ll stop writing and take myself for a stroll in this mediaeval city, with churches and castle in yellow flood lights. Have to get out of this smoke-filled internet cafe. May you be happy.

images top: those are not my legs! bottom: ruin near Trarbach/Mosel.

when a monk walks, he walks.

Greetings all,

haven’t posted for a few days due to travels and jet lag and relatives without a computer. Internet cafes are becoming a rarity. Everyone smokes here. But I know that my home is safe (house-sitter) and that it rains here as well as there: the garden is being taken care of. I plan to write whenever possible as I begin my walk along the Mosel (Moselle) River tomorrow. It’s part of the Camino network of trails that eventually lead to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. ‘Camino’ means  ‘way’ in Spanish — pilgrimage trails from all over Europe leading to the NW part of the Iberian peninsula. But that’s not my destination. In fact, I have no destination. I’ll simple walk, putting one foot in front off the other. In the words of 13th-century Master Dogen, “With every step I am at home.” Good practice.

dusting off my pilgrim’s boots

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For this October, good health permitting, I’m planning to resume my walk along the Camino, the 11th Century pilgrimage route that has feeder paths all over Europe and culminates at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in NW Spain. During the years 2005-6-7 I walked for three weeks each, starting at the Bishopric of Würzburg in southern Germany and ending at the Swiss-French border in Geneva.

Thousands of people hike along the paths each year and you don’t have to be religious to do so. Many cover the distance in stages over several years; some walk alone, others in groups and as families; increasing numbers ride bikes and (yes!) donkeys. Pilgrims sleep in hostels (refugios), private homes, or simple guest houses. Organized tours now do it by mini-bus and stop long enough for everyone to take pictures of where they think they’ve been. 

This year’s anniversary of the death of St. James (Santiago in Spanish) falls on a once-every-ten-years Sunday. Because of this special event, church authorities expect 10 million visitors at the cathedral (which holds relics of the ancient saint), of which an estimated 240,000 will arrive by an 800-km route through northern Spain beginning at the French border in the Pyrenees. 

Not being a fan of mass-anything, especially while on pilgrimage, I plan to resume my walk not where I left off (in Geneva) but near Oporto. From there, the usually less crowded Camino Português route goes north through Portugal and along the Spanish Atlantic coast into Santiago. An extra-90-km hike leads to Finisterre (Land’s End), so named because Europeans once thought it the edge of a flat earth. Modern tradition has it that here, at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, pilgrims burn a piece of clothing to mark the completion of their journey. 

I’ll say more about my research and preparations as time goes by. Please write if you’ve been there or thinking of going sometime before you die :-).