Gone Beyond: A Pilgrimage to Japan

Apr 01, 2024


"It took six months of navigating the labyrinth to develop the pilgrimage to Japan into a once-in-a-lifetime tour unlike any other. I almost lost my mind! The lessons of pilgrimage are hard won and the results are seldom what we expect." 

Details for GONE BEYOND: A Mystical Pilgrimage to Japan are here

I expected such a once-in-a-lifetime, completely custom-designed experience would attract a lot of interest, but I never anticipated what it would take to pull it off.

I’d like to take this opportunity to give you a little backstory and reveal one of the central themes that emerged during my development of the tour as fodder for this month’s newsletter.

I’m calling this year’s pilgrimage Gone Beyond, not only an homage to the mantra of the Heart (of emptiness) Sutra revered throughout East Asia but also as it captures the energy it took to deliver this project. It was a heroic effort that balanced paradoxical but complementary forces of human perseverance and surrender to the divine. As an archetype, I believe this has carry-over implications for how we all face the collective civilizational challenges today.

As we have made our way through the second month of The Crucible together, exploring the psychology of Carl Jung, we have been self-reflecting on how dualities are often split in our psyche, one prized energy occupies our consciousness and orients us in the world, another is considered reprehensible, and is repressed in the unconscious. The work of alchemy is to recognize the inherent value of each force, and to bring, like estranged family members, back into integration.

For example, masculine qualities of assertiveness or discipline may have been prized in childhood, reinforced later in society, and so adopted as a primary driver of the ego, while its opposite, feminine passivity, receptivity, or self-care, may have been adversely branded as “lazy” or “weak” and repressed. Discipline on its own can lead to an internal locus of control as well as outward success but can only get us so far until we’re completely exhausted and some part of our being sends up symptoms of caution before we collapse. 

Conversely, passivity or timidity may have been privileged in childhood and adopted as a motivation by the ego, while exertion was demonized, considered threatening to others, and repressed. Perhaps then one takes everything in life seemingly in an easy-going or quiet way, but no high measure of success is achieved, no outspoken risk is taken, no boat rocked, no boundary laid, and therefore no outward respect is gained or no internal sense of accomplishment results. There is always a hidden cost to imbalance in the psyche. 

For me, over the last six months developing this pilgrimage I leaned on a familiar energy of exertion. I pushed and pushed, and pushed. There were so many obstacles in Japan, like maze impasses in a labyrinth, I kept stumbling in the dark and hitting my head against closed doors. The language barrier, rigid, unspoken cultural expectations, and planning from afar, repeatedly led to denied access for me as a foreigner. I needed a good local Japanese tour operator, an insider, to help me navigate the landscape. The challenges continued. 

I went through six different tour operators, hiring and firing them one by one, until I found the right partnership. Some were too expensive, after all, Japan is not India or Nepal, it is a developed nation with relatively high prices. Other operators wanted to sell me their off-the-shelf tour instead of supporting me with a customized one. Routinely catering to tourists, most operators didn’t understand the value prospect of custom building a stage for someone of Geshe Tenzin Zopa’s stature or the kind of committed, die-hard pilgrims we attract on these trips. The opportunity was in danger of being squandered, of becoming ordinary and banal, I just couldn’t settle for that, nor just give up. Many of you may relate to that feeling of not being able to move forward or back in the metaphoric birth canal.

In a way, this is the mythological scenario we all face as our civilization undergoes collapse, transition, and rebirth. It’s a challenging time in the collective labyrinth, things don’t work seamlessly anymore as they break down, the outer and inner obstacles abound, the uncertainty pervades, and we are all feeling to tight squeeze of the bardo between death and rebirth.

The more impasses we face, the easier it is to concede, to settle, or to quit. We may opt to lower the bar, to blame ourselves or others, or to give up altogether. The fact of the matter is that when things get tough or seem impossible, especially on pilgrimage and on the spiritual path in general, that is when the night is darkest, that’s exactly when the warrior in us needs to rise to the occasion and stretch our capacity beyond our perceived limits to discover something new. It’s a purification process, what I call “the burn”, voluntarily stepping into the fire of the crucible to forge a new amalgam of our soul, that wasn’t previously known or accessible.

If the masculine warrior energy in us is exhausted, perhaps then, at that moment of impasse, the feminine lover within our shadow can emerge with deeper self-care and compassion. Or if the usual mode of reason reaches its limits, perhaps then faith is born by stepping over the threshold into the unknown. At each crossroads, when we can neither go forward nor back, there is a bardo womb of potential new beginnings, from where an emergent gift, quality, and insight can be born. But the treasure is only hard won by facing a dragon, victory doesn’t occur without taking a risk; to earn the reward we must make a metaphoric blood sacrifice of comfort, predictability, order, pleasure, and identity cohesion.

Many times, I turned to my wife Emily and said, “I don’t think I can do this anymore, I don’t have the right partner or team, I don’t have the access, I don’t have the energy, I’ve run out of patience, and I’ve run out of time.” There were ample reasons to quit, especially when repeated hurdles impacted my mood or began affecting our relationship. 

But something deep inside me was relentless. Pursuing the project against the odds and absorbing the emotional impacts wasn’t rational. Despite being exhausted, low on confidence, and out of options, I had the vision to execute, a guru to express devotion towards, and students and friends who had placed in me their trust. Then there was the mystery, something, or someone, had a hook in me, that I couldn’t name, understand, or escape.

The other side of exertion was its opposite force, surrender. There came a day only a few weeks back, a proverbial line in the sand, where I said if I don’t get a sign from the universe, I’ll let the pilgrimage to Japan go despite investing countless hours of my time in development. But I made a vow, that my “quitting” wasn’t evidence of failure, rather it was a trust fall into the divine flow. 

I had learned and grown so much these past six months, proved to myself the value of being oriented towards virtue, especially in the face of the impossible, and as a result, the pilgrimage had already had its effect on me, purifying karma and collecting merit, even if we never embarked as a group. On the other hand, if the tour was meant to happen, then the energy of the ninth-century Japanese tantric master Kukai and his mandala atop the sacred Mount Koya would have to emerge as a guiding light to lead the way. 

Then suddenly, two angels appeared to rescue me and salvage the tour. Matteo, the Boddhisatva tour operator and founder of Sejiva from last year’s flawless pilgrimage to Indonesia, and Akiko san, a Japanese yogini here in Bali who met Geshe-la last year, both stepped up and came forward to help me. Matteo understood the brief instantly having seen the impact Geshe-la has on others and the local ecosystem and how to creatively host his dynamic, expansive, infectious energy. Akiko, coincidently a contemplative practitioner with a samurai spirit, was an experienced pilgrimage guide of spiritual Japan, with exclusive access to hidden gems such as on the mystical Kumano Kodo trails. Combining both their skill sets with the assets of pilgrimage guest houses and local wisdom keepers I discovered on my trip to Japan last October, we had all the active ingredients to make this a once-in-a-lifetime tour. The only thing we lacked was time, which was ticking away rapidly.

So, we all pushed together, working tirelessly day and night. Vacillating between exertion and surrender to the divine flow, each of us taking our part and then working as a team, the tour quickly began to take shape, doors began to open, and the spirit of Kukai and Koyasan renewed our hope as we quickly manifested a dream. 

Now, back to you. Back to all of us. Our civilization is in free fall. We stand at a precipice or an impasse, unable to go forward or back with the same energy that got us here. How can we access the spirit to Go Beyond? To go beyond striving and allow acceptance to emerge from the collective unconscious. To go beyond reason and allow intuition or faith to be renewed. To go beyond heroic solitary efforts and allow the team or collective to achieve what no one alone can do. To go beyond intellect and embody compassion, or to go beyond sentimentality and be energized by the fierce wisdom of emptiness. To go beyond the ordinary storylines, the safe bets, the easy, off-the-shelf options, the familiar default strategies, and to take the risk, to apply great efforts, to blaze new pathways, by calling into the dark abyss of our own shadow for divine presence and guidance, so that the as yet untapped extraordinary genius in each of can emerge. 

That’s what I think will happen on this tour to Japan. It’s what happened last year when our pilgrims participated in a joint Shiva-Buddha tantric ceremony not seen in five centuries atop the biggest mandala on the planet. When we all finally make our way to the Koyasan sanctuary atop the sacred mountain in Japan, putting the active ingredients of Geshe Tenzin Zopa, Shingon tantric monks and nuns, Kukai’s legacy, and all our collective energies of determination and surrender, into the crucible, who knows what will emerge from that alchemy. But it’s going to be epic. It will, I think, serve as a broad reminder to others interested in rebuilding civilization, to likewise never quit, but to persevere together in the face of extraordinary challenges, while taking refuge in a sublime unseen force, so we may go beyond the known world, into a more sublime one that we can scarcely even imagine.

Until soon, All best wishes


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