This morning, I write to a friend who didn't get the job he really wanted. Knowing how good you would have been at it, and how much you cared about it, I am so sorry to hear this. There's more: Knowing how winding the path is, and how strange, I know that the next turn in the labyrinth will bring you to a place that resembles what you thought you wanted, only more closely, only less outside of yourself, and more naturally accessible. You will find it and it will find you. You have been seeking one another for millions of years.
The labyrinth is a single path, emphasizing the turns rather than the straightaways. The maze is a mess of traps, but also only has one way through. I see these two are the same place, with different narrators. Do you feel the world is fundamentally out to get you? Welcome to the maze. Do you feel the world is fundamentally in cahoots with your own essential nature? Welcome to the labyrinth.
The darkness. The sense of being stuck in the darkness, or of feeling your way through it. When I was 21, a family who'd lost a son in a mountaineering accident gave me a grant to go photograph a Shingon Buddhist pilgrimage in Japan. I had to park my crutches outside the Gothic hall where the interviews were held, in order to be convincing in my role as would-be walking pilgrim. In the end it didn't really matter, because mostly, I rode in the back seats of my fellow pilgrims' gleaming white Toyota sedans, dusty bottom sliding on the laminated lace covers they'd wrapped tightly over the upholstery.
The deal was pretty paradoxical: start out with the intention of walking, and within twenty minutes, someone would screech to a halt, insisting politely that I join them for the day's temple round. Start out with the intention of hitchhiking - say, because I was lonely, or because my rain gear hadn't yet evaporated the previous day's monsoon - and I would walk for hours. So, Pavlovian-wise, I learned to set out with a steady walking pace, and accept the help that came to me if it chose to. Eventually, though, this bothered me. Come on! More sedans? This is no way to have an Adventure.
So, walking on the side of a busy highway, I turned down a friendly offer. No, thank you. Today I am a walking pilgrim. Two hours later, when the same car stopped again, the charms of my resolution had worn off. Hideo, as it turned out, was ferrying his mother, a Shingon priest, to and from the hot springs. He was a devout pilgrim, and she was a straight-up über pilgrim, having walked the 88-temple circuit around the island on and off for more than sixty years, often in straw sandals. I would have been an idiot to turn this family down when they offered bed, rest, company, food, and friendship.
For the next few days, Hideo drove me to the temples near the house he shared with his mother and sister. Because he actually knew where the temple were, and was intimately familiar with them, I could take a break from O tera wa doku desu ka? (where is the temple? one of my only reliable semi-Japanese phrases), and relax into seeing things more deeply.
Shingon is "esoteric Buddhism," meaning that there are elements of the practice that are openly revealed, and others that are secret. Another way of saying this is that there are things you learn through experience that you can't know through ungrounded curiosity.
Anyway, under one temple there was a labyrinth. The door of course was secret, and the space was meant to stay dark, even though it was painted all over with black-ground murals. Hideo asked me if I wanted to go down there, and of course I did. I remember holding his warm potter's hand. I remember my fingertips brushing the wall, counting the openings to pass, and the openings to enter into. I remember the sense of being in a space carefully engineered to evoke fear, and to channel it. To evoke love, and to assert its power in the dark.
Now, I know this was probably a space for dark practice, as in, for voluntary retreat in the dark, allowing the mind to reveal itself without the familiar anchors of day and night, let alone white sedans and friendly old people. I did not know to ask Hideo or his mother: Have you practiced down there? What did you learn? Who taught you the turnings, and what was it like when you missed them?
I grew up with The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula Le Guin's amazing story of the priestess Arha, and her slavery, and her dominion over the dark turnings of the Labyrinth under the Tombs. She sends prisoners to their deaths there, and she sends herself to the rescue of the light there.
That book had its threads in the afternoon I spent much later, an Arha myself, envisioning hauling all the mummified remains of those I'd neglected to death, up to the light of day, out to dissolve into dust, and be released. The experience, sitting in that nunnery shrine room in Devon, was of clearing the labyrinth of my past debts. You, and you, and you, countless of you, I have allowed to die without nurture. I have starved to death without light or water. All of that is over now. You are clean. You are clear. I give your bones back to the light. I release you from this cycle, and in doing so, I release myself.
Hideo didn't want to let me go, but he was a good man, and so he did. We drove to the pass just below the next temple, and he dropped me off in the parking lot. The temple keepers gave me access to their shower, and then I slept in the woods at the edge of their grounds. It was something I needed to do: to be a stranger, to be cold, to face the wet without someone's guest room. In the morning I set out to close the loop, to find the exit of this 88-temple wander. The ending was the beginning. Same place, three weeks later. Hello, temple priests with your spotless robes & appealingly smooth shaved heads! I made it! And here are the scribes' signatures, the mailman's belt, the trucker's hat, and the grumpy monk's bracelet to prove it.
I don't think I'll ever go back to Shikoku in this lifetime, but the basic scenario of it: this broad circle around an island, this shared journey, this imperative to set out with an honest heart - all of these apply everywhere, always coming home.
The fingertips brushing the unseen frescoes, deep under the altar we see at the surface. Here we are. The possibility of keeping the labyrinth clear, so that others may pass. The faith that leads us to know that what we think we lack is actually a window into what we are preparing to receive. All of these. All of these, and more.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.