As you probably already know from reading my ABOUT ME page, I struggle to use my voice. I can advocate for others with ease but am hesitant to speak up for myself. This habit reared its head while hiking a portion of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage walk.
On May 28, 2013 my mother died, and her wish was to be cremated. I honored her wish but bemoaned the fact that I didn’t (and still don’t) have a backyard where I could spread her ashes. So, I decided that each time I traveled I would take some of her ashes with me and scatter them on my journeys.
On our first full day hiking the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage, we were met by a yamabushi – a priest of the Shugendo faith. The Shugendo faith is a blend of local, folk-religious practices, mountain worship, Shinto, Taoism and esoteric Buddhism. Our guide was sharing a story that a few years ago a client’s parent passed away while on this hike and that the priest led a ceremony in honor of her parent. Immediately after she finished speaking, my gut began to quiver and the reverberation of my heartbeat could be felt in my ears. I had been carrying my mother’s ashes waiting for the right moment to scatter them. I began to wonder if the Shugendo priest would be willing to perform a ceremony for my mother, especially given that cremation is part of the Japanese culture.
A whirlwind of habitual thoughts raced through my head. The first one was that I didn’t want to be a bother. I didn’t want to impose this upon the priest, nor make our guide uncomfortable by asking her to translate what I wanted. I also didn’t want to make the tour group uncomfortable with this impromptu ceremony. And, yet, on a visceral level I knew I had to ask. I waited a while as I wrestled with do I or don’t I and then…finally…spoke up.
The priest was not only willing to perform a ceremony but also communicated to our guide that I asked just in time because we were about to approach a scenic overlook, which looked out onto the sacred landscape from where we had begun our hike earlier in the day. After everyone had finished taking their photos, our guide explained to the group what was going to happen. I stood beside the priest holding my mom’s ashes as the priest began chanting. It had been overcast the entire day but when he started chanting a single shaft of light held both the priest and myself. I know this sounds trite and overly dramatic, but it’s the truth. Shortly before the priest finished his prayer the that bit of sunlight tucked itself behind the clouds. When the priest finished, I walked down to the cliff’s edge and tossed my mom’s ashes into the air.
As I walked back toward the group, I was stunned by how many of my new friends had tear-streaked faces. I was embraced with hugs as they said how unforgettable that moment was and how honored they were that I shared it with them. Just a half an hour before, I was filled with doubt and worry that I would be considered a nuisance and yet here I was being hugged and thanked. As we began our descent down the mountain, I felt an energized sense of ease. I had honored my mother’s wish by spreading her ashes and my wish that I continue to practice speaking up for myself when those moments arise.
* The photo below is of the sight where I spread my mother’s ashes. The torii gate in the distance is called Otorri and is the largest torii gate in the world. When you walk through the gate (as we had done) it is said you are moving from the secular world to the spiritual world.