Back to the West: a spiritual journey

· 7 min read >

In Florence, we often say: “If they aren’t fools, we don’t want them”. In other words, if they are not weird we do not like them, said ironically. And I, who have been judged fool many times because of my extreme choices, I want to reconfirm my status with this trip that does not even have a “normal” title. Inspired by the famous Chinese novel The Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, I took a one-way ticket to Japan, with the intention of starting my slow return home from the land of the Rising Sun, Japan. The intent is to stop in the various countries of Asia, living with the locals, learning their culture, above all spirituality and holistic arts, with the aim of bringing them back to the West and spreading them according to the original spirit.

Ritorno in Occidente

It was 2014 when I set foot for the second time in Asia, exactly in Thailand (the first was in India in 2010, but at that time I wasn’t “ready”). Even then I was clear about the spirit that would then characterize my future journeys: travelling, yes, but also learning and taking back home. In fact, during that first journey, I stopped in Chiang Mai to study Thai massage. I enjoyed Asia so much that every year I went back there, trying to visit a new country (even if in India and Thailand I went back a second time). Every time I stopped a little more but I always came away with a sense of emptiness and incompleteness, as if I had only tasted the crumbs of what you can get while living there.

This is how this project is born, from the desire to live the various Asian cultures, savour them as much as possible, learning at the source that spirituality and those holistic disciplines that are disappearing there too. Desire also nourished by the disappointment felt seeing how these same disciplines are transmitted here in the West: distorted in their essence, adapted to the marketing needs, analysed and disconnected between them.

How the project is born

You have to go back to the footsteps already taken, to go over again or add fresh ones alongside them. You have to start the journey anew. Always.”

Josè Saramago

The Journey to the West

Why this title? As mentioned above, it is inspired by the legendary story of Tripitaka and his 4 disciples which, in turn, is based on a historical event. The Buddhist monk Xuanzang, in the seventh century, tired of the inconsistencies in the Chinese sutras, after having learned Sanskrit, went on a long pilgrimage to India, partially covering the Silky Road. He stayed in the most important Buddhist centres, paying tribute to the most famous pilgrimage sites and studying at the University of Nalanda. He returned to China 16 years later, bringing with him a large number of sutras in Sanskrit and spending the rest of his life translating them. The fabulous novel The Journey to the West attributed to Wu Cheng’en is then written on this historical basis. This masterpiece is treated in more detail here.

Why the West?

First of all because India, in comparison to China, is on the West (many could argue that and they are right, it is in the South but compared to the then capital, Chang’an, and in general to the cultural centres and most populated areas of the huge country, India remains to the South West). But above all, because the West, in many cultures and traditions, is the land of the Gods. It is where the dead go to live an eternal life. The sun sets there bringing with it the secrets of death and resurrection, and all the souls who with him want to be reborn to new life. To the west is the mythical Atlantis, the legendary Hyperborea according to Hecataeus of Abdera; Tolkien places to the West the Land of the Valar, to which the elves, taking Bilbo and Frodo, return after their long existence in Middle-Earth.

As for me, being a person who comes from the West, it is a return journey, for this reason I chose Return to the West as the title. A return similar to that of Ulysses, in some ways: slow, full of encounters, adventures, unexpected events that can only transform and prepare you for the final “mission”, whatever it may be. The idea came when I was in Kos, Greece, working as a massage therapist in a 5-star spa. Fed up with so much falsehood, with how I was treated and with the methods used with customers, already sure to quit the job, during a massage I saw the light: what if I went to Japan taking a trip back to the West and stopping to learn as much as possible? So I dropped everything and decided to leave: open-hearted, with a flexible program, letting “destiny” choose for me the times and the ways, the goals and the meetings, confident that they will be the right ones for me.

The planning of the journey

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

T. S. Eliot

Travel arrangements

Although romance is beautiful, you also need to know how to keep your feet on the ground and have organizational skills. Being my budget limited, I relied on platforms like Couchsurfing and Workaway: the first allows you to be hosted by local people and live with them for a few days, for free, the second puts you in connection with realities that offer accommodation (sometimes even food) in exchange for simple jobs: so, I will collaborate with the Mickey House Cafe in Tokyo. A place where the Japanese can meet native speakers of other nations and thus improve the languages they are studying (English, Italian, Spanish, French, etc). In exchange for a few hours of chat a day, for 5 days a week, I am provided with free accommodation. It’s a great way to meet people, relate to their culture and make real intercultural exchanges, as well as to create friendships. Moreover, who better than a Japanese can know where to learn spirituality, martial arts and holistic techniques from true masters?

The second mode concerns being in the monasteries, in the spiritual and religious communities of the place. I have already contacted several Zen Soto monasteries that provide hospitality to foreigners and allow them to live a kind of short monastic experience, to receive teachings (in English), to practice Zazen and some of the arts related to the Zen tradition. I’m waiting for answers but being this during the second part of my time in Japan, I’m not in a hurry. Unfortunately, the monasteries in Japan do not accept work in exchange for hospitality and always ask for money, some more, some less. Some, being now a fashion custom, even ask for 80-100 € a day! Fortunately, thanks to various friends, I found channels to contact serious and less attached to the money monasteries.

The third mode is working to get some money. The only problem is that many countries are quite strict on the issue of working visas and permits for foreigners (Japan is one of these). So this possibility will not be applicable anywhere. There are poorer countries, like Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, etc. in which there is a great need for English teachers even non-native speakers: in that case, it will be easier to obtain work permits to fund my ambitious project. There is always the possibility of doing some massage in private or doing some yoga lessons under the table, but it is always a risk doing these things in a foreign country with a mentality very different from ours.

Finally, the last mode is simply travelling. It will be not convenient to stop for a long time in every country and in some of them, I will just explore them by passing by. Always with the same philosophy of seeking spiritual places, masters, learning techniques and disciplines. In all this, there will also be moments of leisure, fun, a mere cultural or playful exchange: we are human beings! This section of the blog created specifically, apart from talking about spiritual and holistic elements, will therefore also deal with naturalistic, cultural, social and playful elements.

Itinerary

If there is something difficult, in projects like this, it is an itinerary. I chose the country of departure, I found where and how to do Workaway, but I’m still looking for the monastery, for example. In Japan, with a tourist visa, I can stay for 3 months. If all goes well, I should be able to use them all or almost. Once the time is over, I will move to South Korea, that it is not planned yet! But if things go as I hope, I will be in Korea at the beginning of November, which means it coincides with the onset of cold and “bad” weather. So the idea, after Korea, is to head south, passing from Taiwan and maybe stopping a while in the Philippines. At this point, the question arises whether to visit again Indonesia (visited in 2017) to see those islands that I have not yet seen and then proceed to Malaysia, to greet an old friend, to pass through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, China, Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal and end up in India. Or from the Philippines go directly to Vietnam and continue as above. We’ll see along the way! Being a project that I share with all of you, I am open to suggestions of all kinds.

What to expect

All of life is a coming home. Salesmen, secretaries, coal miners, beekeepers, sword swallowers, all of us. All the restless hearts of the world, all trying to find a way home.”

From the film Patch Adams

To risk or not to risk?

Doing projects is good, getting organized as well, creating expectations never. Like all crazy ideas, carried out to pursue a dream, alone, without the help of any kind, with little money, the risk of failure as soon as it starts is high. I take note of it and consider it a possibility that is part of the journey. I put my face on it and don’t regret it. I leave on a journey from which I could return after a month or not come back at all … But if I don’t do it now, maybe I’ll never do it. It’s YEARS that I want to do something like that and every time I always found an excuse: money (recurrent), time, work, girlfriend, etc. There are a million reasons for not leaving, fortunately, the few motivations I have are so strong as to overcome all the others.

Support

Certainly, having the desire to share all this with other people gives strength and concreteness to the project, which does not remain the small and fragile dream of a man in his middle-age crisis, but maybe it is participated, even if only for a small part, by friends, relatives and strangers who have similar desires to mine. Very often I meet people who tell me: “I can’t wait to see the photos of your next trip! I always follow you, it’s like travelling too”. This gives me hope and motivation in moving forward. Although it is a personal project and what I most care about is the experience of the journey, more than any destination or result, what I will live and learn will be primarily shared upon my return and, whoever wants to use it, will be welcome. Also in this perspective, I decided to put a nice DONATE button with the hope of receiving a minimum of monetary support, as well as psychological and emotional support.

See you soon!

I conclude this article just to tell you to stay in touch because every important element of the trip and the project will be shared on this blog in the special section that has the name of the project. This is not the end of the article, but the beginning of a great and beautiful experience! I would really like to make you participate as much as possible, so I won’t be alone and you can enjoy a little bit of Asia while staying at home.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn.

My evening-rest and sleep to meet.
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

Tolkien

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