“There is no Garden of Eden” was the judgment that greeted me, as an impressionable boy, in the pages of my teenage hero, D. H. Lawrence, “and the Hesperides never were.” Lawrence was my hero, though, precisely because he could never stay fixed in any one dogma and was intensely alive to the limitations of his own perspective. So he continued, “Yet, in our very search for them, we touch the coasts of illusion and come into contact with other worlds.” Touching the coasts of illusion was not something I was wild about at 15—and no one has yet to describe the incandescent English novelist as a Buddhist—but in his restless movements both within and without, Lawrence seemed to be offering a useful challenge (and complement) to the injunction I see whenever I step into a temple in Kyoto, aimed at innocent seekers after truth: “Look Beneath Your Feet.”
A Buddhist, at least in theory, is more aware than most that travel, as Emerson had it, is a fool’s paradise if you think you can find anything abroad that you couldn’t find at home; everything we need is here and now. The Buddha himself found all the reality he required just sitting in one place. And to travel in search of anything is an even greater invitation to illusion, if only because expectation so reliably defeats itself. In the classic Sufi story, a holy fool who has lost his key in his living room circles around in the street, looking for it there. Why? Because there’s more light in the street, he says, underneath the lamps.
And yet, and yet: not many months ago, I went up to a little fishing village in northern Japan with the Dalai Lama. The place had been leveled during the tsunami eight months earlier— thousands had been washed away to sea—and, as soon as he heard about the tragedy on the BBC, the Dalai Lama told the villagers, he knew he had to come to visit the people who remained there. There was little he could do, practically speaking, to help those who had lost almost everything, but he could at least remind them that they were not alone.
Over and over, during the week I spent with him on his annual November trip to Japan, he used the word “pilgrimage” of his trip to Tohoku. A “pilgrimage,” he might have been saying, is a journey into reality, the facts of old age, suffering, and death that we are obliged to observe and then to work with; a pilgrimage is a journey into others, too, the necessary complement to the four hours of meditation the Tibetan lama observes every morning alone. A pilgrimage is a journey into community and the world and what we can possibly share with others. “Going out,” as John Muir famously had it, is “really going in.”
Sitting in the little temple that had somehow withstood the oncoming water, the boxed remains of those who had no relatives to claim them at his side, the lifelong pilgrim in red robes recalled how he knew a little of what his listeners were going through because he, too, in 1959, had suddenly been forced to leave his home, without even saying good-bye to his friends “and one small dog.” A few days later, even as he drew closer to freedom, he heard that many of those he’d left behind had been killed.
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