Monday, December 30, 2013

A Buddhist Pilgrimage and “the Way of Saint James”

Diane Wilde

Photo courtesy of St. Joseph Catholic Church and School

The El Camino de Santiago de Compostela (the Way of Saint James of the Field of Stars) was unknown to me until about one year ago. I had not heard of it, had no interest in it when I did hear about it, and wondered why someone attempting to live the path according to the Buddha’s teachings would even consider walking this traditional Catholic pilgrimage. When I was invited to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of Bay Area friend Gail Seneca by hiking the El Camino (the Way) along with twenty-three others, my first reaction was “no way!” The no way was based on my misguided sense that I should concentrate my free time traveling in Buddhist countries and engaging in Buddhist-type pilgrimages. However, the idea of hiking eight to fourteen miles a day in northern Spain was appealing. I assured myself this was only due to my own love of roaming―and certainly not desire for a pilgrimage! After all, according to Webster’s Dictionary, the first definition of a pilgrimage is defined as: “a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion, a pilgrimage to Lourdes for example.” How errant and shortsighted my view turned out to be.

Before I get into mind states, insights, blisters, and shin splints let me offer a very brief history of the El Camino. Archeologists believe it started out as a Celtic pagan pilgrimage undertaken by the ancient inhabitants of northern Spain. It began somewhere in the French Pyrenees and ended up at the Atlantic Ocean or Cape Finisterre, the headland in Galicia, northwest Spain. After an arduous hike of 850 kilometers or so, the pagan pilgrim burned his or her clothes and was considered “reborn.” When Catholicism came to Spain, and as a spur to extricate the Muslim invaders, the former pagan pilgrim path became the Way of Saint James. Saint James, one of Jesus’ original disciples, apparently managed an arduous walk to Spain from Jerusalem in order to spread the Gospel shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion. Upon James’ return to Jerusalem, he was seen as a threat to Herod, the local Roman prefect, and was summarily beheaded.

How his artifacts ended up in Santiago, Spain depends on who is telling the story and which legend is offered. One tradition says that two of James’ disciples somehow maneuvered a boat from Jerusalem to Spain that was loaded with a stone sarcophagus holding James’s relics. Eventually, the two exhausted disciples could go no further, and his relics were left at that exact spot. That spot became Santiago. “Santiago” is a diminutive, affectionate Spanish toponym for “Saint James.” According to another legend, Saint James conveniently came back to life 500 years after his death, during the Reconquista when Spaniards fought the Moors, the Muslim inhabitants of Spain. St. James, who apparently in his former life was a gentle soul, ministering to the poor and downtrodden, now took on a new truculent persona. This miraculous Saint James is pictured encased in battle armor, majestically sitting astride a fierce, rearing white stallion. He wields a huge sword while wading into the thick of a Spanish-Moorish battle, slaughtering Moors by the dozen. Thanks to this apparition, the tide was turned to Spanish advantage, and the Moors were defeated. Christianity became the religion of the land. In many cathedrals in northern Spain, this militaristic St. James—brandishing his sword while controlling his impressive mount—is referred to as “James the Moor Slayer.”

People who hike the El Camino are referred to as peregrinos (pilgrims). El Camino attracts not only Catholic pilgrims, but also many spiritually minded people as well as those who merely wish to test their resilience by hiking the entire Camino. Hiking the northern Camino (called the “the French Wayˮ) is approximately 850 kilometers and usually takes five to eight weeks to complete. The peregrino walks twenty to thirty kilometers a day. Some peregrinos prefer to hike portions of El Camino, coming back year after year until the entire Way has been traversed.

Walking through Castile, the land of castles
Twenty-four of us met in Bilboa, Spain to become acquainted and prepare ourselves for our own journey on the Way. We would only be hiking for twelve days, and we were doing El Camino in privileged style. We would be dropped off in the morning by a private bus along the Camino at the most scenic pilgrimage hiking spots. We were given some precautionary instructions, a description of the day’s walk, and the name of the town where we would be met by our guide. Depending on the fitness and/or swiftness of each individual, the daily walk usually lasted four or more hours and was a distance of twelve to eighteen kilometers. As morning ended and we reached the day’s “town,” we would gather at a predesignated spot, have lunch together, and often be offered the option of an afternoon hike. As the day ended, we would be whisked away to a hotel or a converted monastery for the evening in our autobus that had the logo on the side, “Te gusta viajar” (you love to travel). In the evenings, we frequently had a group session, sometimes a Dharma talk (three of us were Dharma teachers), and then we would gather together for a very late dinner. Per the Spanish style, we did not eat until eight to nine at night when restaurants finally opened. Then to bed where very tired legs made sleeping easy. Each morning, Susan Moon (well-known and beloved Buddhist author and Zen teacher) organized a sit before breakfast, and the day’s activities commenced.

A funny thing happened on this pretend pilgrimage. It turned into a real pilgrimage. The best way I can describe what took place is that it became a retreat—a walking retreat. As we started out in the morning, our group of peregrinos would gather in small walking “pods.” With hiking sticks in hand and lots of early morning enthusiasm, we would set off with a chorus of “Buen Camino!”—the traditional greeting offered to peregrinos along the Way. After perhaps a kilometer or two, the pods slowly dispersed, and each individual began walking his or her own walk. Some peregrinos were somewhat slow (me). Some were quite quick as they took off with long confident strides. Others meandered along the day’s route, taking photos, meeting other pilgrims, and exploring ancient castles or quaint villages. But mostly we walked in silence. No one planned to be in silence; it just happened that silence seemed the natural way to walk the Way.

This is when I realized what a joyous pilgrimage this was. Knowing that an untold number of people had walked this same path for thousands of years as a simple act of faith lent a timeless yet completely present quality to the experience. Those from the past as well as those of us now were all walking together as pilgrims. As my mind inevitably drifted away from the immediate experience, I would effortlessly bring my focus back to just this: feet touching the earth. The same earth for all of us. Being with various physical sensations was easy and provided another method for coming back to “just walking.” New physical maladies presented themselves and then receded into the background to be replaced by yet another, interesting affliction. There were times when pain was completely gone, and I felt gratitude for a body that kept me going. When a shin splint or blister reappeared, it became a visitor who would have a short stay and then fade away yet again. I welcomed them all. This was being alive, and I was grateful for my life. At one point, as gratitude became my prevailing state of mind, I spontaneously began reciting the Metta Sutta.

A rainy day in Pedrafita do Cebreiro
Then there was the rainstorm. Fortunately for us, the weather in northern Spain had been perfect. We were told that it as an abnormally mild year. Ah impermanence! As the bus approached our drop-off spot outside León, rain began in earnest. Thunder, lightning, and wind lent such drama to the Spanish landscape! We pulled on our ponchos, doing our best to protect our daypacks that held our precious snacks, cameras, phones, hats, jackets, water, a few euros, and toilet paper. We were given last-minute instructions about how to handle lightning if we saw it striking close by (get close to the ground and stay away from trees). Then we were off. The recurrent thought in my mind both on the bus as I scrutinized the rain and at the beginning of the day’s walk was, “I don’t like this. I don’t want to be wet. I get cold and miserable when I am wet. I shouldn’t walk today.” Within five minutes after starting the day’s hike, my hiking pants, waterproof shoes, and socks were completely and thoroughly soaked. My glasses were useless, and I took them off—being in a foggy blur was preferable to “rain blindness.” The wind wrenched my poncho completely from one side of my body to the other. My mind performed an ongoing chorus of “Why am I doing this? I don’t like being wet. I should have stayed on the bus.” Then the blessed insight. I checked my body and noticed that being wet wasn’t so bad! My blistered feet were now rolling in soggy, cushiony socks. The temperature was a mild 65 degrees. I wasn’t cold―actually I wasn’t uncomfortable at all. The thought of being wet and how miserable I should be was the only place where I suffered. The experience of walking in torrential rain itself turned out to be exhilarating. Challenging and wonderful. How many times had I taught the Buddha's simile of the "second dart": the first dart being circumstances we cannot control and the second being the additional suffering we add onto the experience with our own reactivity! I was elated that I had removed the second dart and smiled to myself when I noticed even the first dart wasn't that bad.

Passing a house with cows living on the bottom floor in Galaci
“The Path of the Buddhaˮ and “The Way of Saint James.ˮ These are merely names. The pilgrimage is experiencing the sacredness of our own life journey and the connection we have—and hopefully will experience with all living beings, past, present, and future. After two weeks on the Way, walking the final few kilometers into the city of Santiago was bittersweet. It all happened too quickly and none of us wanted this exquisite experience to end. I was reminded yet again that the journey is its own reward―the goal is arbitrary and will be replaced over and over again. Gail Seneca said at the end of our journey together, “Walking the Way was an act of faith.ˮ I agree. What is left now is deep gratitude for having the privilege of pilgrimage along the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Thank you Saint James.

Diane Wilde: Volunteer Chaplain & Mentor

Diane Wilde has studied meditation in various traditions since 1990. In 2001 she was a founding Sacramento Insight Meditation. She founded Buddhist Pathways Prison Project and coordinates thirty volunteers who offer Buddhist services at eight California prisons. She is a graduate of Sati Center’s Buddhist Chaplaincy Program and Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s Community Dharma Leadership Training Program. To read more about Diane's experiences in this capacity please click here.


  1. So proud of you Mom! Love you lots ~ JD

  2. Gracias...thank you...I thoroughly enjoyed reliving our wonderful experience together on the Camino. And thank you for putting into the written word many of my thoughts and experiences.
    May this new year bless you and be filled with ongoing Buen Camino!
    xxo Carole Sirulnick