There are many reasons why people walk the ancient pilgrimage routes of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela which have been traveled by faithful Christians over centuries to pay respect to the remains of the Apostle St.James and receive the blessings. Some do it for exercise and trekking, some to seek adventure, some to take a break, some to step out of the ordinary, some to reflect and find answers in their life.
I was called by nearly thirty years ago when I first read about this ancient route and later on to become a pilgrim when I saw a wandering Tibetan nun as she was walking in the rain to a holy site on a little island in Wales. The impression stayed with me ever since and was one of the great inspirations for my own going forth into homelessness. And then I learned about Tudong in the Theravadian tradition, a wandering journey and practice in renunciation which I felt drawn to ever since I entered the monastic life.
Walking the Camino as a Tudong in combination means trodding the footsteps of thousands which have walked this path before and connecting with its history while stepping out of the familiar and into the unknown which is what I did – day by day, over two months, and more than 800 km along the northern coast of Spain, going for alms food and sleeping (mostly) under the stars. My refuges: porches and gardens of churches, chapels, hermitages and ruins, coastlines and forests and sometimes a warm bed in a donation based pilgrim hostel, a monastery or in the home of some kind people living along the way opening their doors. The hospitality, care and generosity I experienced throughout my journey were heart-warming and nourishing, the companionships and wisdom which emerged from the encounters with hosts and pilgrims alike deeply inspiring and rewarding.
Everyone had their unique story as to why and how they came to walk the Camino – a broken heart, the loss of a loved one, a gap in their lives, the search for peace and freedom. Some walked it for the first time, some repeatedly, exploring different routes, and some took it in stages over several years. Some discovered basic goodness in everyone, some the strength within themselves, some our shared vulnerability and some a sense of possibility. The unifying element for all however was journeying on the path itself, towards its destination, with every step, day by day, a little bit, determined to arrive. Whether the sun was shining or whether it was raining, whether alone or in community, whether at ease or in agony, this shared intention towards a common goal provided everyone with the energy and zeal to keep going and a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself. Common questions among each other ‘where did you start?’, ‘how long have you been walking?’, ‘which route are you taking?’ ‘when will you arrive?’. Some walked fast and some were slow, some were on bikes and some with their dog, some carried heavy while others went light – each one traveled in their own particular way yet everyone was heading in the same direction. Some pilgrims were so inspired by the experience that they decided to give back to the Camino and be of service to others by volunteering in hostels or creating new ones, opening their doors to offer food and shelter to fellow pilgrims on the way!
The experience of walking the Camino reminded me in many ways of Dharma practice and the path of liberation, the rewards we can experience in the here and now and the challenges we are faced with on the way, the potential in each of us to blossom and shine, the power of a shared intention and of Sangha, our intrinsic relatedness.
The Camino and the experience of walking it does not end in Santiago de Compostela but continues if we allow it to flow into and throughout our lives, through us and into the world around – like ‘a stream of love’ as one fellow pilgrim beautifully described, receiving, nourishing and carrying us forward, gently and effortlessly, towards the great and silent ocean, vast and infinite.
in solitude and silence