Retired Teacher Jeffrey Hackler’s Memorable Education

Alan Suemori
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

In the first half of the ninth century, an itinerant priest landed upon the lonely shores of Shikoku, and inspired a legacy that still resonates today. His name was Köbö Daishi (aka Kükai) and he had already founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism and traveled extensively through China and much of Japan. As he wandered across Japan’s fourth largest island, the unassuming monk would cross Shikoku several times and establish temples, schools, dams and reservoirs that still exist today.

Perhaps most indelible of the gifts from this Daishi (a priest recognized by the Chinese Imperial Court and in Japan) to the human imagination is a legendary pilgrimage that requires travelers to roam the island. The pilgrimage calls to true believers, tourists and curiosity seekers from around the world. Over 900 miles in length, the route encompasses four prefectures, 88 registered temples and 20 unofficial religious sites before it comes to its end in an imperfect but unbroken circle.

For the faithful, Köbö Daishi, who died at the age of 61 in 835 AD, is a living presence that offers protection, comfort and companionship to all those who enter the henro (pilgrim) trail. “People make this walk for a variety of reasons,” says 67-year-old Jeffrey Hackler, a retired school teacher who completed the entire pilgrimage in 1995 at the age of 42. “Some people go because they are not well and they believe the act of walking and praying to Köbö Daishi at every temple will heal them. Others walk on behalf of a loved one who is ill like a grandparent.” While a few have abandoned their crutches because they believe the pilgrimage has cured them, most come away with a more inscrutable experience that only those who have completed the route appear to understand. “Ideally, most people do the walk when they are much older,” adds Hackler. “But if they complete the entire journey of all 108 temples their 108 earthly sins will be wiped clean.”

Hackler is a retired teacher from ‘Iolani School.

Hackler’s interest in the walk had been piqued by a chance encounter with author Oliver Statler whose seminal book “Japanese Pilgrimage” documented the trek in detail. “I first did part of the pilgrimage in 1981 and it changed my perspective on life,” says Hackler. “I was a young man in my twenties who had not grown out of being a college student. I was still a fun, happy go lucky, directionless fellow who hadn’t really found his niche. The walk made me realize that there was a lot more going on in this world than I realized, and I vowed I would return someday and complete the entire route.” Hackler’s second walk would only deepen what he had learned in the first pilgrimage; its lessons reverberate gently throughout his life even to this day.

Wandering through ancient forests, primordial mountain ranges and wind-blown coastlines, Hackler endured the unpredictable moodiness of Japan’s spring weather as he traveled across Shikoku. “Sometimes, I walked through snow, rain, hail and sunshine all in the same day,” smiles Hackler. “But because I was by myself there were many opportunities for reflection that helped me quiet those wild monkeys in my head. And there were a number of enlightening moments that helped me find my path in life which to this day I am eternally grateful.”

A henro, or pilgrim, group making the climb to the next destination, 1995. (Photos courtesy of Jeffrey Hackler)

Throughout Hackler’s journey, he benefited from the kindness of anonymous strangers who disappeared as quickly as they appeared. His benefactors included grandmothers, tour-bus drivers and even small white dogs that followed him serendipitously on parts of his journey.

“Traditional pilgrims dress all in white and they carry a walking stick which represents Köbö Daishi,” shares Hackler. “But it is said that the Daishi also takes the form of a white dog to keep you on the path and remind you of your purpose as a henro.”

Although the route is meticulously illuminated today by internet travel sites and English-language map books, Hackler’s sojourns were highlighted only by innocuous metal markers randomly nailed onto various telephone poles, trees and bridges along the trail. “I had to learn how to read a Japanese map book and staying on the correct route was a daily challenge,” says Hackler. “There was always the possibility of getting lost on some vague mountain path or rambling down the wrong forest road.” His greatest obstacle he openly admits, however, was his ego.

“One of the reasons why I developed shin splints is that sometimes I tried to walk as fast as other henro on the trail,” remembers Hackler. “I had to keep telling myself that this pilgrimage was for me. It’s not to show that I am faster than someone else or more capable. I didn’t listen, and I ended up injuring myself because I let my ego get in the way of my journey.”

The other challenge facing most walkers is deciding what to bring and what to leave behind. “The pilgrimage forces you to assess what is necessary, and what is superfluous,” says Hackler. “If I were to do it again I would carry no books, no pencils and one change of clothes. It’s a very Zen thing to focus on only what is truly important, but that was the pilgrimage: It was just me walking from temple to temple, following an obscure trail, and in the process learning a lot about myself and how to tame that ego in me.”

Located in every prefecture is also a nanshö or obstacle that must be overcome in order for the pilgrim to go forward. The barrier may be a cave, a steep ascent, a difficult crossing or an internal crisis that will test the mettle of the traveler spiritually, physically or mentally. For many henro mastering the nanshö can be the difference between finishing the walk or ending the journey prematurely. “There were times when I couldn’t sleep at night because I was so nervous about what was ahead,” says Hackler. “I didn’t know where the nanshö was or what form it would take so I kept expecting it to be right around the corner wherever I went. After awhile I learned that every roadblock in your life is in your mind and that was what I shared with my students in school. The hurdles that are placed in front of us are often made more daunting by us. The nanshö is just another experience and how we approach it can make all the difference in the world.”

One particular moment on the pilgrimage in 1995, however, would prove nearly fatal as Hackler ended up lost, disoriented and completely bereft of food and water. “I started off on a simple five-hour walk, but I made a mistake and followed a logging trail that took me up into the mountains. I kept looking for trail markers but the path seemed clear so I kept going.” Before long the wayward hiker found himself caught in the bottom of a deep ravine with no idea which way to go. “I was exhausted, dehydrated and utterly alone. I didn’t know where I was and everything felt hopeless,” says Hackler. “Then out of nowhere I heard a temple bell somewhere in the distance. It energized me and somehow I was able to scramble out of the ravine and back down the mountain to a public road.” Hackler believes his harrowing experience was Köbö Daishi’s way of telling him to lower his ego once again and remember that he was just another pilgrim, no better or worse than anyone else.

Jeffrey Hackler in reflection after a 51-day pilgrimage.

Not surprisingly, the words of his friend and mentor, Nobuo Morikawa, also rang in his head throughout both treks. Morikawa had guided Statler on his journey decades before and provided Hackler with topographical maps, practical advice and first-hand expertise which would prove invaluable on the trail. “I remember him saying, ‘It’s not the destination, it’s the walk.’ I was a young kid when he first said that to me and I had no idea what he meant, but eventually I realized I was living my life always focusing on the next destination and not on the days in between. I hadn’t been paying attention to the present moment or the gift that each day brings. When I was growing up I had all these aspirations, dreams, and ambitions and the pilgrimage helped solidify what was truly essential in my life. I’m comfortable with who I am now and that’s all because of my walk.”

On the final days of Hackler’s second pilgrimage, he descended from the clouds of a mountain temple, gave thanks to Köbö Daishi for safe passage at a local shrine, and rejoined his wife and sons who were waiting nearby in a rural village in Shikoku where he had started his walk 51 days earlier. “Every one of us is on a journey whether we know it or not, and we all have our own paths to follow,” concludes Hackler. “The pilgrimage is a circle that never ends: its teachings keep resurfacing at different times in my life. Some days when I’m facing a problem I think back to what I learned on my walk and how it might help me. And so this pilgrimage is still going on today even though it ended 25 years ago in a different country thousands of miles away.”

To learn more about the Shikoku 88-shrine pilgrimage today, see p. B-1 of the February TV guide in this issue, which includes “SHIKOKU88: Eat, Pray, PLAY!” an NGN TV show about modern-day henro travels on the island, which premieres on Tuesday, Feb. 2, at 8:35 p.m.

Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here