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

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

4.0 7
by Phil Cousineau

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For the intrepid traveler, there are more resources than ever before. But what about the traveler who is at a crossroads in life, longing for something else, neither diversion nor distraction, beyond escape and mere entertainment? What about those eager for a journey that is personally meaningful? For millennia this cry has been answered by pilgrimage, the


For the intrepid traveler, there are more resources than ever before. But what about the traveler who is at a crossroads in life, longing for something else, neither diversion nor distraction, beyond escape and mere entertainment? What about those eager for a journey that is personally meaningful? For millennia this cry has been answered by pilgrimage, the transformative journey to a sacred center. The ancients referred to this path as the Way of the Pilgrim, an acknowledgement of travel for the sake of devotion, commitment, even penance to a holy site, a destination that blazes with meaning -- in short, a journey of risk and renewal.

The Art of Pilgrimage is a guide for travelers ready to embark on a sacred journey and for armchair travelers curious to know what it means to travel with soulful purpose. Geared toward the modern-day pilgrim looking for inspiration and a few spiritual tools for the road, it combines stories, myths, parables, and quotes from famous travelers of the past with practical suggestions and contemporary accounts from people traveling the sacred way today. Not a guidebook to holy sites, this book is designed to help travelers focus on the purpose and intention at every satge of their journey no matter where they are going. The Art of Pilgrimage includes stories of traditional pilgrimages such as those to Canterbury or Jerusalem, but also ones to Shakespeare's home, Graceland, or the "Field of Dreams" in Iowa. Phil Cousineau recounts anecdotes from his own travels covering over 50 countries and offers readers the advice he gives when leading tours for the Joseph Campbell Foundation.

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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Read an Excerpt

Art is here taken to mean knowledge realized in action.

—René Daumal

PILGRIM, n. A traveler that is taken seriously.

—Ambrose Bierce

One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions
that will make happiness;
one only stumbles upon them by chance,
in a lucky hour, at the world's end somewhere,
and holds fast to the days ....

—Willa Cather

Chapter One

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 ofSolomon.

    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 P‚rigueux 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 Temple 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.


Meet the Author

Phil Cousineau is an award- winning writer and filmmaker, teacher and editor, world-wide lecturer, storyteller and TV host. With more than 25 books and 15 scriptwriting credits to his name, the “omnipresent influence of myth in modern life” is a thread that runs through all of his work. He lives in San Francisco, CA. Visit him at www.philcousineau.net.

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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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