100 Journeys For The Spirit
Foreword By Pico Iyer
Hardcover, 240 pages
List Price: $29.95
I walked last night into a 12th-century temple set against the eastern hills of Kyoto. It was an illuminated wonderworld: five-pointed maple leaves and camphor trees were lit up by soft lanterns in the warm late-autumn night. Stands of eerily bright bamboo stood over a small waterfall, a teahouse and a small garden. Figures walking in front of the shoji screens of bare tatami rooms looked like silhouettes. Every November, for a few weeks, Shoren-in and other Buddhist temples in the ancient capital of Japan open their gates after nightfall so visitors can enjoy the last flare of colours before the dark of winter.
Yet as I walked among the stone lanterns, along a narrow path beside a pond, my annual autumn pilgrimage, I noticed something even more remarkable. The college kids, grandmothers and other foreigners walking beside me were not at all the people I'd seen waiting on the street outside, 30 minutes before. They, too, were lit up, in less obvious ways, and newly hushed. And the effect was not just because of the cell-phone cameras that flashed to catch them in the same frame as the azaleas. It was as if they had stepped into a kind of natural church, and, whatever their tradition or belief, were ready to let something speak to them. Or even through them.
We all know how we can be turned around by a magic place; that's why we travel, often. And yet we all know, too, that the change cannot be guaranteed. Travel is a fool's paradise, Emerson reminded us, if we think that we can find anything far off that we could not find at home. The person who steps out into the silent emptiness of Easter Island is, alas, too often the same person who got onto the plane the day before at Heathrow, red-faced and in a rage.
Yet still the hope persists and sends us out onto the road: certain places can so shock or humble us that they take us to places inside ourselves, of terror or wonder or the confounding mixture of them both, that we never see amidst the hourly distractions and clutter of home. They slap us awake, and into a recognition of who we might be in our deepest moments. I will never forget walking out onto the terrace of my broken guest-house in Lhasa, in 1985, and seeing the Potala Palace above what was then just a cluster of traditional whitewashed Tibetan houses, its thousand windows seeming to watch over us. I will never forget, too, visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem two years ago and feeling, whether I wanted to or not, all the prayers, hopes and complications that people had brought to it. The place is as dark, irregular and everyday as the fights it houses — as worldly and human as the Potala seems the opposite — and yet the very fact that so many millions have come for centuries to pray and sob among its flickering candles ensures that many more will do so, even if, like me, they're not Christian or Buddhist or anything.
Places have charisma, in short, as much as people do. I've been travelling with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, from Hiroshima to Zurich to New York to India, for more than 30 years now, and I've noticed how often — almost inevitably — even the most hardened journalists or non-Buddhists break into smiles, or actual tears, when he catches their eye or rubs their hand in his. The same happens with his close friend, the Anglican Desmond Tutu. Charisma (from the Greek, "gifts from the heavens") can't be replicated, and there's no recipe or reason for its existence, but certain places pull us as mysteriously as if they were answering questions we hadn't thought to ask.
So when you encounter the (highly arbitrary) list of special places that fill this book, we hope that you'll be moved to challenge the selection, to add candidates of your own, to ask if Angkor Wat is really more inspiring than Banteay Srei down the road, or whether Bolivia doesn't have a power that Peru might have lost by now. The value of a list like this is to stir you into making up lists of your own, which may include places not so far from home at all. When I was in my mid-twenties I travelled from Bali to Havana to Reykjavik in search of a place that would take me out of time and space. Then, not fully satisfied, I came back, as parable suggests, to my mother's house in California — and found the private heaven I'd been looking for in a monastery three hours' drive up the road.
We travel, as Proust famously said, in search not of new sights, but of new eyes with which to see everything, old sights included. And though those eyes are available to us, as Emerson pointed out, even when we just sit quietly at home, some places so startle or quiet us that we can't help but see things differently. At the end of the last century, an editor at an online magazine asked me to write an essay on a "Sacred Space". He was expecting a piece on Machu Picchu or Stonehenge, I knew, but I wrote about my little blond-wood desk. He asked for a second essay, and I wrote on memory, everything inside me. Yet if I hadn't been to Greece and Burma, if I hadn't stood, wordless, before Ayers Rock and Notre-Dame, I'm not sure that I'd have been able to see how much was available to me at my desk or just by closing my eyes and looking back. A journey of the spirit only starts with somewhere wondrous. It continues wherever we are, through the doors that wonder has opened.
Excerpted from 100 Journeys For The Spirit. Copyright 2010 Duncan Baird Publishers. Foreword copyright 2010 Pico Iyer.