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The Berlitz-Kikoyan skull-tap gives me idiomatic Tokyo-Bay argot, but the pilgrim's prayer, as ancient as the pilgrimage is long, defies easy translation: "Homage to Kobo Daishi, source of spiritual yearning, guide and companion on our quest." So much more elegant and simple in Japanese: Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo; easy on my lips as I kneel before the image in the Daishi Hall for the short preparatory ceremony. The muttered chains of repetitions, mantralike, slip between self and spirit, ease the excruciating self-consciousness of an over-tall, over-here, Euro. With red hair. At an alien altar.
The first thing prayer changes is the prayer, Masahiko—companion, guide, fellow pilgrim on this thousand-mile journey—tells me. And the last thing also. I hope so. I pray so.
There is no longer an incumbent at Temple One; a big Neo-Shinto shrine has wedged itself into the compound of the old Buddhist temple like a cuckoo chick into a sparrow's nest; its priest maintains grounds and buildings out of a sense of architectural and historical respect, but wary of offending the spirits, he does not assume any religious responsibilities. Our albums—the pilgrim's passport, to be stamped in vermillion with the official seal of each of the eighty-eight sacred sites—are marked by a coin-in-the-slot robot much in need of a new coat of paint. A sluglike feral zoomorph—brilliant yellow, with long trailing blue tendrils—feeds parasitically on the muscle-unit, tracking spirals of silver slime. The bright red stamp on the pure white paper is reassuringly exact, definite, bold, a statement of resolution. No going back now. We are committed. All the world knows the proverb that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. What is not so widely known is that here, at Temple One, one takes that single first. Here also at Temple One is the last step, a thousand miles and eighty-eight temples later. Like the quest for enlightenment, the Shikoku pilgrimage is a circle, never beginning, never ending. Destinations are false goals; it is the Way Gone that matters.
We pause before the temple gate where we have left the bicycles to pay our respects at the Shinto shrine. The shrine is busy. Prayers for this, supplications for that, requests for healings, petitions for aid, for small, cybernetic miracles, for offenses to be pardoned and misfortunes lifted. It does not do to affront the simulacra of the ancestors. Linked through the Life Assurance Company AI matrix into the international datawebs, they can shovel a truly cosmic amount of shit your way. Religions, like pilgrimages, go in circles. As the Shingon Buddhism of Kobo Daishi—the saint in whose literal footsteps we follow—overwhelmed and absorbed primitive ninth-century Shinto, so twelve centuries later a renascent techno-Shinto of persona-simulation and soul-taps has pushed Buddhism into a seemingly terminal decline. What say the attenuated joys of nirvana against the recording and storing of memory, experience, and emotion with the hope of someday breaking through into true personality reconstruction?
Worshipers stare as we approach the massed banks of miniature television screens, each bearing the simula of some dear departed summoned back from informational limbo. Photographs, mementos, memorabilia, the toys, tricks, and trivia of living are epoxied to the television shells. The accepting, enfolding spirit of the Daishi Hall is shattered; my fears of being an alien in an alien place return redoubled. Masahiko reassures me. It is our white robes and sedge hats—the mark of a pilgrim, a henro—that are attracting attention. They are a rarity these days. Once thousands made pilgrimage each year; now if there are fifty geriatrics in a chartered coach it is a sign of mass spiritual revival. Once the ashes of the dead were taken to Mount Koya, across the Inland Sea in Wakayama Prefecture, Shingon's most holy place, to ensure rebirth in Amida's Pure Land in the West. Now on the local shrine anniversary, those insured with the big corporations come to have a year of recorded memory, emotion, experience downloaded from their soul-taps into the biocores.
I clap my gloved hands three times and run my yencard through one of the readers suspended on webbing straps from the lower branches of the cedars. At the beginning when everything can seem like an omen, you need all the good karma you can get. I wonder: Mas says that Japan's population has been falling steadily since the advent of soul-tap technology; have the life assurance companies accidentally created a dearth of spirits to be reincarnated?
As we leave the shrine an old woman comes pushing through the crowd in the gateway to press some small coins into our hands. She insists we accept. I am reluctant, Masahiko advises I take them. They are settai, pilgrim offerings; a tradition as old as the pilgrimage itself of bestowing small gifts upon henro: a few coins, like these, some summer fruit, a bowl of rice, a meal, a back massage. To refuse is pride. Humility of spirit is the Way of the pilgrim. Many of the ancient—and not so ancient—henro begged their way around the whole thousand miles. As etiquette demands, we give the old woman printed name slips. Mas's excites great interest, being a slip of ten-second smartplastic depicting Danjuro 19: Kabukiman!—his creation and Japan's number one anime superhero—transforming into one of his Classical Theater alter egos to battle evil. My humbler contribution is received no less thankfully: the old woman tells us the ceiling of her master bedroom is papered with henro name strips collected over several decades. Her continued physical vigor she attributes totally to their spiritual efficacy.
Outside the temple gate, we unlock the bikes. I check the bags—Mas's assurance that no one would dare steal under the gaze of the guardian deities who flank the gate, sifting souls, does not convince me. The demon box is where I left it, untampered with, untouched. Safe. Of course. But why does the best man at a wedding check his pocket for the ring every twenty seconds?
Ryozen-ji's attendant town is busy; narrow streets overhung with neons and tattered plastic banners advertising European consumer electronics are crowded with trucks and pickups both hydrocarbon and muscle-powered. Smart market stalls and street vendors' booths hung with long, lovely vegetables—fed on nightsoil and artificial light until unbelievably huge and ripe—remind us that, despite the close-packed midrise emergency housing thrown up to accommodate refugees from the decaying offshore corporate arcologies, this is at heart farming country. We weave an uncertain course between darting biopower mopeds, their riders' eyes grim beneath helmets and smog masks. Massive, slow-moving tractor-trailer combines intimidate the roadside stalls and lean-to shelters of streetdwellers. Even in such company, we turn heads in our fluorescent MTB gear, white hip-length henro robes and inverted bowl-shaped henro hats clipped over safety helmets. The sedge hats are inscribed in quarters with the words of a very ancient, very Buddhist poem. As the urban drawl in my tap is not up to the highly Sinicized language of classical Japanese literary style, Masahiko translates:
For the benighted: this world's illusions.
For the enlightened, knowledge: all is vanity.
In the beginning was no east, no west,
Where then, north and south?
Draw your own conclusions, pilgrim.
The henro's staff, bell, and stole that identifies him as a layman engaged on religious works we have had to forgo. Instead we have twenty-four-gear DayGlo Dirt-Wolf freestyle MTBs hand-calligraphied by Masahiko with prayers and proverbs for the protection of travelers. Hard physical exertion and closeness to nature is an essential part of the pilgrimage: the God head in all things is the spirit of the Daishi's mountain Buddhism. That is why the most perfect way around the eighty-eight Sacred Sites has always been on foot. But in the postindustrial Japan of the second decade of the third millennium, Buddhism is in decline, the old path is impassable in many places, and the threat from bandits and power-armored akira gone AWOL from local security companies increases every year. We must cover long stretches of national highway, and inns and temple lodging houses are no longer numerous. On the terrain bikes we can honor the principle of achieving enlightenment by our own sweat and, where the path remains, follow the steps of the Daishi.
The steps of the Daishi. Dogyo Ninin: another pilgrimage proverb, painted by Mas on the front and rear shocks. We Two, Pilgrims Together. The belief has always been that Kobo Daishi walks at the side of each pilgrim, at times unseen, at others appearing in different forms and guises, occasionally manifesting himself in the full glory of his enlightenment. Dogyo Ninin. In honesty, the ideograms on our forks should read We Three, Pilgrims Together. Another shares the Daishi's place as invisible companion. Not by virtue of grace or enlightenment or any especially spiritual quality, but because of who she is, what she is.
I last saw her—unseen guest—in Capetown.
"Can't keep away from each other, can we, Eth?" After the Marrakech Room, her agency-ware had a decade's worth of industrials with tax-bucks to dump and commissions to offer stacked up. Maslow-Huitsdorp had outbid the competition (but then the Suid-Afrikan bioindustries could outbid almost anything except the European multinationals) and were weaning her off jet lag in the shadow of Table Mountain before taking her up to Bloemfontein to survey a site. As ever, I was a skulker in the shadows of the European Embassy, this party in the Kursaal where we met an attempt to woo the emergent black entrepreneurial caste away from Pan-Islam to Dame Europa's fiscal tit.
"Karmic cycles, Eth. It is predestined that our life paths cross and recross. Round we go, and round. In a previous existence we were probably Tom and Jerry." Her face had always held too much personality to be merely beautiful. Features wide, flat, scribbled by a child's crayon, ugly-beautiful, and that soft cockatoo crest of black hair that was always always always falling into her eyes. "Oh God, get me out of here. Everyone's so pretty and witty and gay. I need your uncompromising yeoman stodginess."
We walked on the beach, away from the stifling heat of the Kursaal. She slipped off her shoes and fastened them to her belt, let warm sand caress bare soles. The ocean fell and ran, fell and ran on the long beach.
"Atlantic or Indian, Eth? Where exactly does Atlantic end and Indian begin? If you're in a boat and cross the line, can you tell?"
Her entire life, it seemed then, had been made out of questions and considerations like those, of the peripheries of things.
"Heard from Mas?" she asked.
I told her that Danjuro 19: Kabukiman!, slayer of ronin, akiras, renegade robots, and Yakuza, Sword of Righteous Justice, et cetera, was now syndicated to fifteen Pacific Rim cable channels.
"Come a long way from a man, an anime deck, and a secret nocturnal vice," she said.
"He wants me to go on some crazy thousand-mile Buddhist pilgrimage with him," I said. "Says it would be good for my soul."
"He's probably right."
"He probably is." Even before Capetown, even before her, I had decided I would go. For my soul.
She took my hands in hers, studied them minutely.
"No more kid-glove treatment, Eth?"
"Synthetic skin. Looks better. It comes off as easily as the gloves."
"That's what frightens me, Eth."
She let go of my hands, took my face between the palms of her hands, looked into my eyes. Gently but firmly she slapped me across the left cheek. Again and again and again, fitting her words to the tempo.
"Stupid stupid stupid boy. Always heroes and angels, isn't it, Eth?"
She stalked away toward the lights of the Kursaal. An International Fireworks Convention in town the same time as Europa's Three-Ring Diplomatic Circus was coming to a climax in the sky beneath Table Mountain.
"You're not fucking worth it, Ethan Ring. There only ever was you; is that not enough?"
In the morning the assignment was waiting for me on the room fax. I called at the desk to leave a goodbye, and an apology for her. The lobby was full of hung-over black businessmen hunting down breakfast. The white receptionist said she had left before dawn.CHAPTER 2
This first day of the pilgrimage we move up the Yoshino Valley, visiting each of the temples there and staying over at Temple Ten where the priest is a relation of a relation of a friend of Mas's. This is good farming land, a many-colored land: neat fields of yellow rape, purple clover, the sheer startling viridian of rice shoots, but mostly we make our way down footpaths and tractor tracks between tall, whispery groves of sugarcane. Near Temple Three we passed a big syrup factory; rural Japan seems to have adopted the biomechanical revolution more quickly and completely than the monstrous, decaying urban sprawls. The houses that we pass, the neat hamlets, the new villages, are all green-roofed, the engineered grass has the warmth and rusticity of the old rice thatch but never needs replacing. The few remaining sheet-metal roofs are garish and sharp-edged in comparison.
I do place and people a disservice to paint them as rustic characters. These quaint hamlets and villages are the heartland of the post-industrial revolution; each green roof sports a satellite dish to keep Juniors One Two Three in touch with the orbital EmTeeVee and sports channels, all along the valley construction teams from the big telecom companies are laying new fiber-optic cables. This is telecommuter land. Those casually dressed farmers who wave to us as we wheel past are the new caste of lawyers, doctors, accountants, designers, engineers, management consultants, near-space laborers, deep-sea miners. When Mas had a sebaceous cyst removed from his back, the only human he saw during the operation was the receptionist. The cyst had been excised by a teleoperator robot controlled by a surgeon three hundred kilometers away in a country manor among the green and pleasant golf courses of Shizuoka Prefecture. "Faith healing for agnostics," Mas calls it. When he called for his checkup, even the receptionist had been replaced by a suite of interactive software. "When it descends to sticking needles into holographic simulations of the patients to make them better, it'll really be cybernetic macumba."
Every Eden has its serpent. Among wage-earning professional A-type males age thirty-five to fifty the most frequent cause of death is suicide, the second, exercise-induced coronaries. Death by volleyball. I suppose if I were Adam in a beautiful, perfect paradise where every need, every whim, was catered for, without change, without challenge, I might develop a taste for apple.
Wrong god. In Buddhism, what shit you get is of your own making. You don't inherit someone else's racial midden. The doctrine of Kobo Daishi's Shingon school is that any man may achieve enlightenment in this present life, not solely after struggling through countless thousands of painful incarnations. The Japanese have always been an optimistic people. You make your own karma.
The climb out of the valley to Temple Ten is steep. Thigh muscles throb and ache. After a long day in the saddle, we do not need this. It is as if the pilgrimage is testing our constitution and resolve: the way will only get harder; are you up to it, pilgrim?
Pilgrim drops down into low gear, grabs thrustbars, leans into pedals. I think I can I think I can I think I can ...
I know I can.
The altar in the Daishi Hall of Temple Ten enshrines two images, both statues of Kannon, Boddhisattva of Mercy. According to temple legend, the first was carved by the Daishi from a living tree; the saint bowed three times before each stroke of the adze. The second is a woman weaver, a refugee from some Kyoto palace intrigue, who offered the saint a cut of her cloth—hence the name Kirihata-ji, Cut-Cloth Temple—to replace his ragged clothes. In reward for her piety a purple haze descended, and she was enlightened and transformed into a statue. After our devotions, Priest Mizuno shows us both images. I murmur with properly respectful awe, though both are crude, a few rough slashes in a wooden log. I suppose one must see with the eye of faith. The point, the priest tells us, is that anyone, including women—at the time an heretical notion, dogs had a better chance of gaining nirvana—may aspire to enlightenment.
Excerpted from Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone by Ian McDonald. Copyright © 1994 Ian McDonald. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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