The Theosophical Society in America

Thinking Aloud: Tourist or Pilgrims?

By Chris Richardson

Chris RichardsonWhen asked about the one thing he would do to change the world, Rupert Sheldrake, a deeply spiritual biologist, responded, "Change tourism into pilgrimage."

Three summers ago I spent thirty days in the remote backcountry of southwestern Colorado, climbing mountains and navigating through the wilderness. Life was at its simplest then. My group would mark out a spot on a map, determine a route and then begin the difficult trek. We were cold, hungry, and tired every day, but the difficulties were as simple as the goals. You could see the mountaintop from a mile away, and even if occasionally obscured, the end point was definite and you knew when you got there.

Yet, if ever you thought that all the work of climbing was just for that moment on top of the mountain, you would be disappointed. Our silent mantra was "It is not the destination, but the journey." We knew it was the struggle that was transforming us step by step. The view from on high was wondrous just because it showed us how far we had come.

This summer I spent six weeks in Japan. I had been preparing for a year—studying the language, working two jobs to pay for the trip, and reading about the culture. When the day came, I was trembling. It was my first time out of the country, my first time in a place I could not rely on the one thing that had always kept me safe—English.

Like a warrior who realizes his own limitations and seeks the counsel of the wise, I came to Japan as a child. Casting my armor aside, I stood in the house of the family with whom I was to live, feeling naked, able to express only the most basic needs. I was in something much bigger than myself and would have to be vulnerable if I wanted to learn. You have to empty your cup if it is to be filled. Such is the essence of beginner's mind.

It is easy to spot tourists. They are not a part of the world they are visiting, but instead observers looking for the exotic. They take pictures, but never really see what they are photographing. They buy postcards of each famous place they run through on their way to the next famous place. They wonder at the idyllic beauty of the country while they pamper themselves in Western hotels. And unless something unforeseen occurs and they are forced into a position of need, they return home unchanged.

Pilgrimage requires participation and is an important aspect of religion. The divine is sought. The pilgrim embarks on a difficult journey to be in the presence of the holy, and is made holy in the process. The pilgrim's journey is one of transformation.

Pilgrimage is a powerful experiential metaphor for life itself. This world is suffused with the presence of the divine and it is precisely our struggles and suffering that open our eyes to it. If we participate in our lives with reverence, with an open mind and an appetite for new experience, we become pilgrims, transforming our world as we ourselves are transformed. There are no souvenirs from this journey, no snapshots. There is only us.

Chris Richardson is a Young Theosophist on the Olcott staff, working in the Wheaton Quest Bookshop. This article is adapted from one in the fall 1999 issue of The Young Theosophist Movement, a newsletter by and about younger Theosophists.