For once the morning was clear and it was even warm enough to ditch my parka and rain jacket as I walked through a maze of narrow streets on my way to the 68th temple on the Shikoku trail. The temple was all but empty this early and a drowsy cat seized the opportunity to laze on the moss-covered steps leading up to the bell tower. Nearby, a cherry tree was showering the ground with blush petals. At the Main Hall, two women in their fifties were halfway through the Heart Sutra. I like reciting the verses simultaneously with other pilgrims, so I stood next to them and read the English version to myself. Even though they don’t match up timing wise, I still feel a sense of unity as the rhythmic Japanese syllables form a hypnotic background for my internal English drawl.
The two women moved to the Daishi Hall while I was still on the Kigan-mon prayer, asking for harmony and happiness for all. By the time I was ready to join them again, there were two other, younger women in front of the Daishi Hall, though not so wrapped up in spiritual training. They were taking photos of each other while behind them the two pilgrims were bowed over in prayer. One of the girls made an exaggerated pose and a peace sign and I wanted to hurt her for it. I am neither a pious person, nor one who has gone a day without breaking some rule of conduct, but I decided to be offended, both, because I felt they were intruding into the private space of the two pilgrims and because I now had to wait for them to be done taking photos so that I could lose myself in the words, and not in contemplation over how my butt looked on their iPhones.
Now fuming, I sat down on a bench, making sure my crossed arms and death stare conveyed my impatience and disapproval. At the same time, the other Masha, the one who set out walking around the world, sacrificing four toenails in the process all in the quest of greater love and compassion was gently whispering (she never raises her voice, not even at herself) “What are you doing? I thought we talked about this.”
She was right. We had agreed to stop judging people a while back. We also agreed to stop acting entitled. Or bitchy. This was a public space, where anyone could and should take as many pictures as they like and those of us who are bothered by it need to suck it up.
While being gently chastised by my higher self, I began to feel ashamed and as all four women walked away, I made a promise that would last no more than five minutes to send only love and understanding in the direction of the two budding photographers. The next temple was only a short climb of stairs away and when I got there for a second I thought I had taken a very short trip back in time— there were the two pilgrims in prayer, and in front of them the two women snapping photos of themselves. Equally Groundhog Day-esque was my reaction. Again, I sat down on a bench, proudly wearing my discontent on my face, even as I began reading the sutras under my breath. “ With the deepest respect for the Buddha’s fundamental vow of universal compassion, I will establish myself in the pure conviction that we are all one, and not apart.” Except for those girls, they get blacklisted. “As a disciple of Buddha, until the end of all future time I will not have thoughts of ill will.” Totally, but with the exception of the two newest additions to the aforementioned list. “ With my whole heart, I offer this prayer. May all people be happy and may every being in the world be benefitted equally.” Damn it. I had to admit defeat. I was being a jerk in the house that Buddha built with all of his compassionate wisdom. And now I was using bad language as well.
In my annoyance, I had rushed through my prayers, finishing just ahead of the other women. I was in front of them as the three of us walked over to the office to get our pilgrim notebooks stamped. And then I did something really tiny, something that probably went unnoticed by everyone but me—I paused and pretended to look something up in my guide thereby letting the two other pilgrims be first in line to get their stamps. It was a pinprick of a gesture, but it was the first thing I thought of to try and make amends for my foulness and tip the scales of the morning back to happy.
Once they finished taking care of pilgrim business, the women came up to me, smiling, oblivious of the battle that had raged mere inches from them not ten minutes before, and asked me where I was from, expressed their disbelief and their awe that I was doing the whole circuit alone and on foot and then one of them reached out her hand, holding a friendship bracelet, with pink knots in the thread creating a pattern of hearts. “Ossetai” she said, gift. I reached into my bag and found one of the small strips of paper that pilgrims drop into boxes with wishes written on the back and hand out to anyone who has offered you an ossetai. I handed her the white slip, bowing my head slightly. In return both women reached into their bags for their own wish-granting bits of paper. Then we took a selfie. And then one more with me wearing one of the women’s conical henro hats. Before we said goodbye, I received yet another gift– a bright red scallop shaped charm with a green bell. And just like that, my hands full of unwarranted presents, my lukewarm heart melted.
It’s possible that had I not let the women go ahead of me things would have turned out exactly the same, but it’s much more likely that had I taken my turn at the stamp office, fair and square, I would have kept the dissatisfied look on my face and left before either woman had a chance to so much as breathe in my direction.
I have seen this a million times—taking one baby step beyond the standard baseline of human decency that is expected of me creates a force of goodness that is inequitable to the energy I’ve exerted. I believe that making the choice to extend that tiny bit of kindness paved the way for everything that came after, and I don’t just mean the warm exchange I had with the two pilgrims. Their giddy gift giving rippled out through out the day. It stayed with me as I sailed past the two girls with the camera in the parking lot, still snapping away. It made me want to sit down on a grassy lawn on a riverbank to watch baby ducks and a puppy in a pink striped sweater for no other reason than that it brought me joy. I hold the feeling of gratitude brought on by the ossetai responsible for the little ceramic pilgrim a woman gave me on the street, the green tea offered at the next temple and the two bean paste filled mochi that another pilgrim bought for me.
In the name of full transparency, I have to admit that the feeling almost wore off by the end of the day as hotel after hotel told me they were full. I was sitting on a swing, in the dark and in the rain eating the mochi I had been saving for when I’d find myself in warm room. The small inn that the swing belonged to looked brand new and warm. Though I rang the bell repeatedly, no one came. Looking at the amount of worn, muddy boots gathered at the entrance, I figured that they were full and so were ignoring any calls this late at night. While my mouth was busy with the sugary chewy sweets, and my heart was sinking as my brain tried to think of a place to safely pitch my tent, some other part that I am not entirely sure belonged to me was busy convincing me that a day like this could only end well.
I sat glued to the swing for almost twenty minutes, but then as I am sure you’ve already guessed, the front door of the inn swung open. Two minutes later, as my host was leading me up the stairs to a clean, cozy room, he told me that it was the last bed he had available. “You’re very lucky,” he added. Don’t I know it.