Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


An English translation of Musume Junreiki by Susan Tennant
(Bowen Publishing, Bowen Island Canada, 2010)

Many readers of this review will know of the Shikoku pilgrimage. Today, thousands of people each year still follow the pilgrimage route around Japan's smallest island, Shikoku, to visit each of the 88 temples connected to Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon school of Japanese esoteric Buddhism. Historically, and probably today too, people have undertaken the pilgrimage for any number of reasons: as a spiritual search, to seek good (or avoid bad) fortune, to find a cure for illness, looking for adventure and many others.

This book is an account of one woman's experience of the pilgrimage. The translation is a work of considerable scholarship and also, I should think, a labour of love. As well as providing the reader with a thoroughly idiomatic translation, the translator provides useful footnotes to explain the usages, clothing, food, vegetation etc. particular to the time and place. She adds extensive end notes putting the pilgrimage and Takamure in context, a glossary of frequently encountered terms and a bibliography. Susan Tennant has previously written about the Shikoku pilgrimage and clearly has a deep understanding of its importance to many Japanese. Part of the value of this book is that it may convey some of that feeling to a Western audience.

The main part of the book consists of articles written by Takamure Itsue for a newspaper. The articles are brief and read as journal entries. Takamure Itsue was unknown to me before I read this book, but she lived until 1964, leading an unusual life for a woman of her time and becoming well known in Japan as a feminist, social historian, political activist and literary intellectual. Apparently, she wrote other accounts of her pilgrimage some years later but Tennant tells us they lack the charm and emotion of the original articles.

I found, as one often does, this book to be not quite what I had expected. Takamure was 24 when she went on the pilgrimage - young enough to impress the people she met along the way, but older, and more experienced than she looked. She was well educated and, for a Japanese woman of her age and background, it was unusual to set out on the pilgrimage alone (although she did not end up going alone - an 'old man' that she met ended up travelling with her as her attendant). It is hard to know what her motivations were. She was ambitious that her account be published. She seemed sometimes flattered, sometimes embarrassed and sometimes simply annoyed by the attention she received on her travels. Some of the articles are matter of fact accounts of where Takamure was and who she met - and Takamure is good at setting the scene of unfamiliar places - but most digress into her thoughts and feelings, and here the tone varies immensely.

What I expected, from the time and place, was an account of indigenous Buddhist piety. This is not on offer and I was naïve to expect it. Although Takamure barely touches on the events in the wider world, she was writing at a time of transition into the modern world for both East and West. The woman revealed in her articles embodies a complex mixture of the traditional and modern, of naïveté and knowingness. She expresses conventional Japanese appreciation of nature and conventional Buddhist ideas of the transitoriness of experience and of life itself. She regularly gives account of the Buddhist practices of the pilgrims, but reveals little of any deeper meaning she might take from the practices. Perhaps this is discretion. Perhaps it is in consideration of her audience which was the readership of a general newspaper, not a specifically religious community. She encounters a priest who discusses with her what seem to be Jodo Shinshu teachings. She is unimpressed, preferring a rather nebulous 'Zen-like' philosophy - but, as far as we find out, not a Zen practice. At times, Takamure rather comes across as a modern spiritual tourist! I would be very interested to know in which direction her spirituality developed subsequently.

I can recommend this well-prepared book as an introduction to the Shikoku pilgrimage and as an introduction to an interesting woman.

- Mark Healsmith

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