I first undertook the Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage in 1993, when an old nun, Ama-san, from the Buddhist temple next door to me, recommended the pilgrimage as part of my recovery from cancer. I had been living in a small rural village nearby to Mt Fuji for some years and I welcomed her wisdom, even though I wasn’t a Buddhist at that time. While I was making preparations, Ama-san came to my house and presented me with a large bundle of papers saying, “These are prayers from your fellow villagers: they are being entrusted to you to take with you on your journey and offer at the Kannon temples along the way.” I then learned that this custom of one person from the village going on the pilgrimage and taking the prayers and petitions from the other villagers had been practiced in Japan for over a thousand years.
When I asked Ama-san what kind of prayers they were, thinking that maybe the villagers were sending a hundred variations of Buddhist version of the “Lord’s Prayer,” she read some of them out to me: they were all prayer requests to Kannon, asking for her divine help. These requests included asking for help with their harvests, to help conceive a baby, to pray for a healthy birth, to find a wife, to get relief from illness, to pass exams, for protection from harm, to find a job, for a safe journey…
Whilst I was very honoured to be taking the villagers’ prayers, I wasn’t a Buddhist and so I was little apprehensive about how to offer them. “Don’t worry about that,” the old nun said, “Just recite these prayers as they are written here, just as if you are Ueno-san or Furuya-san or any of the villagers themselves standing there in front of Kannon-sama.” Deep creases formed in her 80 year old face as she smiled warmly and patted my hands, now holding the bundle of prayers, “Every person’s prayer is different; every person has a different idea of who Kannon is and what they need from her. Just offer their petitions with an open heart and mind.”
I did as Ama-san had said, and I felt as though I shared my journey with all the villagers themselves as I travelled around the thirty-three sacred places offering their prayers and petitions. It was a profoundly rewarding experience, and when I returned the villagers greeted me with thanks and tales of how mysterious things had happened to them as a result of my offering their prayers.
I was so deeply moved by this connection with my fellow villagers and with this sacred power of Kannon that I decided then to become a Buddhist. I then dedicated myself to Kannon and went on the pilgrimage every year, taking not only prayers from the villagers but from people from all over the world and all walks of life and spiritual traditions, who had heard about my prayer ministry. When I returned to Australia, I continued this practice. Now I am a Buddhist priest and my pilgrimage to Kannon is part of my ongoing Buddhist practice as the “Prayer Vessel,” a nickname given to me by the abbot who ordained me in Japan.
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