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The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker's Guide to Making Travel Sacred
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The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker's Guide to Making Travel Sacred

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by Phil Cousineau, Huston Smith (Foreword by)

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Winner of Spiritualityh and Practice Best Spiritual Book of the Year Award, The Art of Piligrimage is a sacred travel guide in book form. Full of inspiration for the spiritual traveler, author Phil Cousineau weaves stories, myths, parables, and quotes from famous travelers with practical suggestions and accounts of modern-day pilgrims on their journeys.


Winner of Spiritualityh and Practice Best Spiritual Book of the Year Award, The Art of Piligrimage is a sacred travel guide in book form. Full of inspiration for the spiritual traveler, author Phil Cousineau weaves stories, myths, parables, and quotes from famous travelers with practical suggestions and accounts of modern-day pilgrims on their journeys.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Thinking of those who intend to embark on a journey with a deep purpose, Cousineau (ed., Soul Moments, Conari, 1997) explores why travelers plan trips and then, upon getting to their destination, have a sense of unfulfilled expectation. Cousineau suggests that this disappointment results from the way travelers engage with the place, not the site itself. Stories, anecdotes, quotes, vignettes, and practical suggestions from travelers and pilgrims throughout history create a guide to building a personal journey by learning to slow down and linger, savor, and absorb each stage--from the first strands of desire to travel through the journey to the return. To help the reader get involved, Cousineau includes a series of meditations and imagination exercises. Librarians aiming to reach both active and armchair travelers will find that this title circulates well.--Leroy Hommerding, Citrus Cty. Lib. System, Inverness, FL
Alfonso Grosso
In a world pervaded by profanity, books on finding the sacred in everyday life have a growing readership. Phil Cousineau's The Art of Pilgrimage is a brilliant exercise in reimagining the meaning of travel. An intrepid traveler and travel guide himself, the author is a poet, teacher, and gifted visual artist, as seen in the drawings and photographs that grace these pages. The Art of Pilgrimage is also a touching memorial to the author's father, who inspired his son with a love of books and the passion to peregrinate. Tourism today may be a thriving industry, but have we forgotten the soul of travel? This book invites us to recapture a lost art, not the exercise of "getting away" but of "getting into" our lives--into their sacred core. He invites us to see travel--the trips we take to parts unknown or the small journeys of daily life--through the metaphor of pilgrimage. We are all pilgrims, Cousineau reminds us, all traveling in time toward the mecca of life's meaning, the great source of saving imagination. Recounting his own travels and testimony of the world's great travelers--my favorites were Peace Pilgrim and Basho--Cousineau shows us how to transform a disappointing vacation into a life-changing adventure. You begin by honoring the longing to travel. How many of us like to dream of travel, of voyages of discovery, but never quite take to the road? "Uncover what you long for and you will discover who you are," writes Cousineau, who invokes the prophet Jeremiah who talked of traveling "to find rest for your souls." What of departure? We're told of the ceremonial side of sacred travel, a side we neglect nowadays. We may not feel the need to hear Mass or have our satchels and drinking gourds blessed, as was common in the Middle Ages, but the soul-savvy traveler today can try to slow up, become more mindful, commemorate the moment of departure--do whatever it takes to feel the solemnity of leaving, the bittersweet risk of getting lost on the way, the possibility of never coming back. The important thing is to see a piece of life with fresh eyes: bring a notebook, a sketchbook, and go easy on your camera and camcorder. Remember that to sketch something you have to see it intimately, with your whole body, through responsive fingers. By contrast, the camera is a shallow and promiscuous tool for capturing images. Sacred travel, says Cousineau, is about self-discovery; it is not a frivolous escape but a focused form of life. Moreover, the rough spots we run into while traveling are not "in the way"--they are the way. Now suppose you arrive at your destination, off the beaten track or crowded with profane tourists. Cousineau is full of hints on how to gain a soulful purview of the scene, which may be no more than discovering the right bench in the right part of town, reading a sentence of poetry or leafing through your guidebook. Preparation, which doesn't interfere with serendipity, is essential to sacred travel. Like the hero's, the pilgrim's journey ends with bringing a boon back home: "The measure of our pilgrimage is the story, gift of wisdom, we can share with the folks back home." Reading this book brought back memories of my first and happiest travel adventures, and left me sniffing the air and glancing about, eager for my next voyage. I am especially grateful for the fertility of the main metaphor: pilgrimage. Clearly, for Cousineau, life itself is the great pilgrimage; he has given us a guidebook for reimagining the art of living. Not many books qualify as good friends, as companions for the road; this one does, and I heartily recommend it.
Parabola Magazine

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Red Wheel/Weiser
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Anniversary Edition
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7.80(w) x 5.70(h) x 0.80(d)

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By Phil Cousineau

Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 2012 Phil Cousineau
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57324-593-7


The Longing

For in their hearts doth Nature stir them so, Then people long on pilgrimage to go, And palmers to be seeking foreign strands, To distant shrines renowned in sundry lands.

—Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

In February 1996, together with my brother Paul, I took the long boat ride up the Mekong River in Cambodia to see one of the great riddles of the ancient world, the sacred sprawl of ruined temples and palaces that a twelfth-century traveler said "housed numerous marvels."

On our first morning at the walled city of Angkor Wat, we witnessed a glorious sunrise over its lotus-crowned towers, then began the ritual walk up the long bridgeway toward the sanctuary. Our arms were draped across each other's shoulders. Our heads shook at the impossibly beautiful sight of the "marvelous enigma" that early European chroniclers regarded as one of the Wonders of the World, and later colonialists described as rivaling the divinely inspired architecture of Solomon.

We walked as if in a fever-dream. Halfway down the causeway, we paused to take in the beauty of the shifting light. We snapped a few photographs of the nagas, the five-headed stone serpents, that undulated along the moat and of the chiseled lacework in the colossal gateway looming before us, then grinned at each other and took a deep breath of the morning air. At that moment, we noticed a gray-robed Buddhist nun limping by us on her way to the temple. Her head was shaved and bronzed. When she drew even with us, I held out an offering, which she calmly accepted with stumps where once had been hands. Stunned, I then realized why she had been walking as if on stilts. Her feet had been severed at the ankle and she was hobbling on the knobs of her ankles. I was stricken with images of her mutilation by the demonic Khmer Rouge, then wondered if she'd been a victim of one of the 11 million landmines forgotten in the forests, fields, and roads of Cambodia.

Her eyes met mine with a gaze of almost surreal serenity. Utterly moved, we offered a few dollars for the shrine in the temple. She calmly accepted the donation in a small woven bag, bowed, and limped away, like a thin-legged crane moving stiffly through the mud of one of the nearby ponds.

The encounter with the Cambodian nun was an ominous way to begin our visit, a gift briefly disguised as a disturbance. Her enigmatic smile eerily anticipated the expression on the sculptured faces of the fifty-four giant bodhisattvas that loomed in the Holy of Holies above the nearby pyramid temples of the Bayon. Each time I met their timeless gaze, my heart leapt. As the lotus ponds and pools throughout the complex were created to reflect each work of religious art, the faces of the bodhisattvas and the nun mirrored each other. I began to think of the nun as the embodiment of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the god of inexhaustible compassion, who has come to symbolize the miracle of Angkor for millions of pilgrims.

How far does your forgiveness reach? the sculpted faces ask from a thousand statues.

As far as prayers allow, the nun's eyes seemed to respond.

I rambled through the ruins with my brother for the next several hours, stunned by our sheer good fortune of being there. The Angkor complex was destroyed in the fifteenth century, then forgotten for 400 years and overrun with the stone-strangling vines of the jungle. Marveling at the beauty laced with terror in the stories of our young Cambodian guide (who told us the local villagers believed that Angkor was built by angels and giants), time seemed poised on the still-point of the world. This was more than an architectural curiosity, a pious parable of fleeting glory; it was a microcosm of the universe itself. According to scholars, the walls, moats, and soaring terraces represented the different levels of existence itself. The five towers of Angkor symbolized the five peaks of Mount Meru, the center of the world in Hindu cosmology. This was the world mountain in stone, a monumental mandala encompassed by moats that evoked the oceans. A visit was an accomplishment demanding the rigorous climbing of precipitously steep staircases, built that way not without reason.

"It is clear," wrote Vice Admiral Bonard, an early colonialist, "that the worshiper penetrating the temple was intended to have a tangible sense of moving to higher and higher levels of initiation." Our three days stretched on. The hours seemed to contain days, the days held weeks, as in all dreamtime adventures. We were graced with one strangely moving encounter after another. Silently, we mingled with saffron-robed monks who had walked hundreds of miles in the footsteps of their ancestors from Cambodia, Thailand, India, and Japan to pray in the sanctuary of a place believed for a thousand years to be the center of the world. Gratefully, we traded road stories with travelers who'd been through Burma, Vietnam, and China. After dark, we read the accounts of fellow pilgrims who had been making the arduous trek here by foot for centuries, from China and Japan in ancient times, then by car from France and England, and by boat from America.

Though neither Buddhist nor Hindu, wandering through the site I was more than smitten by the romancing of old stones. In the uncanny way of spiritually magnetized centers of pilgrimage, I felt a wonderful calm exploring the derelict pavilions, abandoned libraries, and looted monasteries. My imagination was animated by the strange and wonderful challenge to fill in what time had destroyed, thrilling to the knowledge that tigers, panthers, and elephants still roamed over the flagstones of these shrines when Angkor was rediscovered in the 1860s.

But through our visit the dark thread ran.

With every step through the ghostly glory of the ancient temple grounds, it was impossible not to be reminded of the scourge of Pol Pot, the ever-present threat of landmines, and the fragility of a site that had endured a thousand years of historical chaos. The maimed children and fierce soldiers we encountered everywhere were grim evidence of a never-ending war. Once upon a time, foreigners were spared the horrors of remote revolutions, but no more. In a local English-language newspaper, we read that Pol Pot had ordered the executions of three Australian tourists, saying only, "Crush them."

Overshadowing even this were the twinges of guilt I felt for having undertaken the journey—Jo, my partner back in San Francisco, was seven months pregnant with our baby. Though she was selflessly supportive, I was uneasy. So why make such a risky journey?

To fulfill a vow.

Twice in the previous fifteen years, my plans to make the long trek to the ruins of Angkor had been thwarted at the Thai-Cambodia border. Dreading that war might break out again and the borders clamp shut for another twenty years, I believed that the research trip my brother and I were on in the Philippines serendipitously offered a last chance to fulfill a promise to my father.

On my eleventh birthday, he had presented me with a book, not a Zane Grey Western or the biography of my hometown baseball hero, Al Kaline, that I had asked for, but a book with a bronze-tinted cover depicting sculptures of fabulous creatures from a distant world. These creatures were not from a phantasmagorical planet out of science fiction, but the long-forgotten world of the Khmers, the ancient civilization that had built Angkor.

From that moment on, the book came to symbolize for me the hidden beauty of the world. With the transportive magic that only books possess, it offered a vision of the vast world outside of my small hometown in Michigan; it set a fire in my heart and through the years inspired in me the pilgrim's desire to see this wondrous place for myself.

When my father became ill in the fall of 1984, I drove cross-country from San Francisco to Detroit to see him and, in an effort to lift his spirits, promised him that when he recovered we would travel together. I tried to convince him that after years of unfulfilled plans to see Europe, we would travel together to Amsterdam and visit Van Gogh's nephew, whom he had once guided on a personal tour through Ford's River Rouge complex in Dearborn. After Holland, I suggested, we could take the train to Périgueux in southern France and track down the story of our ancestors who had left there in 1678. Then, I said haltingly, we could take a direct flight from Paris to Phnom Penh and visit Angkor Wat. He seemed pleased by the former, puzzled by the latter.

"Don't you remember the book you gave me as a boy?" I asked him, disappointed in his response to my cue. "The one on the excavations at Angkor?" He riffled through the memory of a lifetime of books he had bestowed on friends and family Then his face lit up, and he harrumphed, "Oh, yes. Angkor, the Malcolm MacDonald book, the one with the sculptures of the Terrace of the Leper King on the cover." He paused to consider the possibilities of our traveling together, then painfully readjusted himself in his old leather reading chair.

"I just wish I were as confident as you that I was going to recover," he said with the first note of despair I'd ever heard from him. "Of course, I'd like to see these places with you. It would be wonderful." Then his voice broke. "But I don't know, son, if I'm going to make it."

No one I've ever met has pronounced the word "wonderful" like my father. He stressed the first syllable, "won," as if the adjective did indeed have its roots in victory and triumph. He so rarely used upbeat words, so when he did I knew he meant it. Hearing it there and then, watching this once-ferocious and formidable man sit in a chair, unable to move his hands and feet because of a crippling nerve disease, I was shaken. Still, I feigned confidence and courage and promised we would hit the road together as soon as he recovered.

He didn't. Four months later, on the very Ides of March which he had announced every year in our house as though it were the strangest day on the calendar, my father died in his sleep.

Shortly after the funeral, while packing up the books in his stilled apartment, I made one of the few vows in my life. I promised myself I would take the journey for both of us, make the pilgrimage to a place made holy by the play of light on stone and the devotion of pilgrims who had walked astonishing distances so that they might touch the sacred sculpture and offer their prayers on the wings of incense.

And, in so doing, perhaps restore my faith in life itself.


We journey across the days as over a stone the waves. —Paul Valéry

All our journeys are rhapsodies on the theme of discovery. We travel as seekers after answers we cannot find at home, and soon find that a change of climate is easier than a change of heart. The bittersweet truth about travel is embedded in the word, which derives from the older word travail itself rooted in the Latin tripalium, a medieval torture rack. As many a far-ranging roamer has suspected, there are moments in travel that are like being "on the rack." For the wandering Bedouins, "Travel is travail." The ancient Greeks taught that obstacles were the tests of the gods, and the medieval Japanese believed that the sorrows of travel were challenges to overcome and transform into poetry and song. Whether we are on vacation, a business trip, or a far-flung adventure tour, we can look at the trying times along the road as either torment or chances to "stretch" ourselves.

But what do we do if we feel a need for something more out of our journeys than the perennial challenges and pleasures of travel? What happens if the search for the new is no longer enough? What if our heart aches for a kind of journey that defies explanation?

Centuries of travel lore suggest that when we no longer know where to turn, our real journey has just begun. At that crossroads moment, a voice calls to our pilgrim soul. The time has come to set out for the sacred ground—the mountain, the temple, the ancestral home—that will stir our heart and restore our sense of wonder. It is down the path to the deeply real where time stops and we are seized by the mysteries. This is the journey we cannot not take.

On that long and winding road, it is easy to lose the way. Listen. The old hermit along the side of the road whispers, Stranger, pass by that which you do not love.

* * *

"I left Tangier, my birthplace, the 13th of June, 1325," wrote Ibn Battua, one of the most remarkable spiritual seekers who ever ventured down the long and winding roads of the world, "being at the time twenty-two years of age, with the intention of making the Pilgrimage to the Holy House {at Mecca} and the Tomb of the Prophet {at Medina}. I set out alone, finding no companions to cheer the way with friendly intercourse, and no party of travelers with whom to associate myself. Swayed by an overwhelming impulse within me, and a longcherished desire to visit all those glorious sanctuaries, I resolved to leave all my friends both female and male, to abandon my home as birds abandon the nest." A nineteenth-century drawing of the Mosque at Mecca, revealing hajji, pilgrims, prostrating themselves and circumambulating the Ka'aba.

For twenty-nine years, Battua made pilgrimages from Spain to China, roaming 75,000 miles, three times the distance covered by Marco Polo. When he finally returned to Morocco, he wrote in his astonishing rihla, or travel book, that his native land was "the best of countries, for its fruits are plentiful, and running water and nourishing food are never exhausted."

If it is so that one's home is the "best of countries," why do millions of us, every year since time immemorial, cast our fates to the wind and follow the ancient tracks of the pilgrim roads of the world? By what "overwhelming impulse" are we swayed to travel to faraway places at great cost and often at great risk?

For Ibn Battua, the longing was a chorus of calls: religious, scientific, poetic, political, and mercenary. He was the quintessential pilgrim, spiritually grounded, soulfully inspired, responding to what Goethe called "the holy longing," the desire to be caught up in a deeper quest.

Meanwhile, according to the German scholar of travel, Winfried Löschburg, "the longing to defeat distance, the longing for the unknown became stronger and stronger in parts of Europe. It was the desire to escape the baronial castle or the convent-school, and move out into the wide world through the town gates...." Anatole France wrote that during the Age of Exploration, the urge was described as un long desire, the passionate pursuit of the hidden or forbidden, the novel or the legendary; impossible to satisfy but equally impossible to ignore.

The impulse to travel is as old as stone, as timeless as the rising and setting of the sun. Zora Neale Hurston felt that "Travel is the soul of civilization." To some, the urge is for motion itself, as with Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote, "For my part I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." The very word traveler conjures up images of the romance of movement. Henry David Thoreau wrote, "A traveler. I love his title. A traveler is to be reverenced as such. His profession is the best symbol of our life. Going from—toward; it is the history of every one of us."

To others, like the French novelist Colette, travel suggests sensuous possibilities: "I am going away with him to an unknown country where I shall have no past and no name, and where I shall be born again with a new face and an untried heart." To the rapscallion rover Mark Twain, long journeys held out the possibility of self-improvement: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." The nomadic Bruce Chatwin told how a tramp once described his own compulsion to wander: "It's as though the tides was pulling you along the high road." In her landmark anthology Maiden Voyages, Mary Morris cites Lawrence Durrell's splendid description of Freya Stark as an example of the way women "move differently through the world." Durrell writes, "A great traveler ... is a kind of introspective; as she covers the ground outwardly, so she advances fresh interpretations of herself inwardly."

There is a tradition of travel as a kind of peripatetic university. In his classic book Abroad, Paul Fussell writes, "Before the development of tourism, travel was conceived to be like study, and its fruits were considered to be the adornment of the mind and the formation of judgment. The traveler was a student of what he sought...." But, Fussell postulates, the romantic aura and aristocratic associations surrounding travel changed irrevocably with the humbling horrors of World War I. Now there is no more true exploration, no serious travel, only "jet travel to ruins."

Excerpted from THE ART OF PILGRIMAGE by Phil Cousineau. Copyright © 2012 Phil Cousineau. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Phil Cousineau is a bestselling author, editor, photographer, award-winning documentary filmmaker, adventure travel leader, and independant scholar who lectures around the world on a wide range of topics from mythology, mentorship, and soul. His books include The Art of Pilgrimage, Soul Moments, Riddle Me This, and The Soul Aflame. A protege of the late Joseph Campbell, Cousineau is also the author of The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work. He lives in San Francisco, California.

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The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seekers Guide to Making Travel Sacred 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
T-Amityville More than 1 year ago
I read this book a while back and I keep on coming back to it--so very inspirational. Now I'm sending it to friends who are traveling. Cousineau's writing is rich and enjoyable.
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My all time favorite book. It is not only a guide for making travel meaningful, but also a guide for how you choose to live your life. VA48
www.LindaBallouAuthor.com More than 1 year ago
If I think about the criteria for a sacred journey as outlined in The Art of Pilgrimage, I have been applying Cousineau's suggestions for the past decade or so. (1) Ask yourself what would constitute a sacred destination for you. (2) Read deeply on the desired goal. (3) When you get there try to absorb the mystery of the place and the spirits that have preceded you. As a travel writer that is what I do. What he does not emphasize is how important it is to go by yourself so that you may sink into the experience without the distraction of others. Possibly this is because he leads cultural tours and acts as a guide for groups seeking a more intense travel experience. My most sacred journey was a trip to Waipio Valley on the Big Island of Hawai'i. This verdant valley framed by 3,000-foot cliffs has been the resting place of chiefs for centuries. The bones of ancestors are hidden in caves in the walls of the cliffs. The gateway to Milu the underwater spirit world of Po is on the edge of the crescent shore at the mouth of the valley. It was imperative that I make this pilgrimage alone so that I might commune with the ancients. Reading one of Cousineau's books is like a refresher course in art history and English literature rolled into the new age. There are enough quotable quotes to get you through the most erudite gathering with flying colors. Always well written, and thought provoking, I find his books a welcome respite from the ordinary. Linda Ballou Lost Angel Walkabout-One Traveler's Tales
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