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Mini-Walking Pilgrimages During COVID Times

By Xiaojuan Shu
Sep 10, 2021

“World peace would come when enough people attain inner peace.”
— Peace Pilgrim (1908-1981)

As I am writing this, it happens to be the birthday of Peace Pilgrim, who was born on July 18, 1908. In 1953, at age 45, she started her solo walking pilgrimages for peace across the US until 1981, the year she died. She walked more than 25,000 miles with only a few small necessities in her pockets. Her message to the world was: “I shall remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until I am given shelter and fasting until I am given food.”

Although the forms of pilgrimage on the road vary—from bicycling to high-speed rail, from three-steps-one-bow to full body prostration—the spirit of pilgrims from ancient times to present day around the world carries a shared sense of deep inward seeking. From that inward journey, an outer message can emerge. Inspired by the pilgrim spirit, I began my own walk.

Due to the pandemic, from fall 2020 to spring 2021, a dozen Dharma Realm Buddhist University (DRBU) students, like myself, were sheltered in Sudhana Center, a small residential campus outside the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (CTTB) in downtown Ukiah. At the end of the fall semester in 2020, I started my first mini pilgrimage, walking from Sudhana Center to CTTB (4.3 miles) and then back, distributing “mettā cranes” made by the students to the community members who lived near the route. During the walk, I began to notice how beautiful Ukiah was.

At the end of the spring semester in 2021, after graduating from the Certificate Program in Buddhist Translation, I walked from Sudhana Center to CTTB to volunteer. A month later, from CTTB, I walked to Abhayagiri Monastery (19.4 miles) and lived and practiced with the community there for a week. Then from Abhayagiri Monastery, I walked back to Sudhana Center (16.2 miles) to conclude my pilgrimage.

To reduce the exposure under the hot sun, I started early in the morning. During the walks, I noticed beauty and felt serenity, and gradually began to open up more to the larger natural world around me. Nature inspired both fear and awe in me.

As I was walking in the moonlight in the early morning, a sudden loud noise came out of the dark bush. My body froze, and my heart skipped a beat. The day before, I had heard about a mountain lion that had killed a fawn nearby. I waited, motionlessly, for quite a while before I resumed my walk. Soon the melodic and joyful chirping of birds before the morning traffic cheered me up and cheered me on.

During the long quiet hours on the road, I listened to the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua’s 1968 lectures on the Śūraṅgama Sūtra. With his words resonant in my ears, my spirit was uplifted.

As the road continued to unfold before me, I kept on walking. When weariness arose, I returned to the breath: just one breath at a time; meanwhile, I simply kept putting one foot in front of the other. Although I can’t articulate why I’m drawn to walking, I know, if I keep on walking, I will arrive exactly where I need to be. :)