Self-Realisation on the Kumano Kodo

Self-Realisation on the Kumano Kodo

William Henry Searle

Published in Vol. 5 Issue 2 of Written River
Abridged from Lungs of My Earth: A Personal Ecology (Hiraeth Press, 2015)


“More and more I realize mountain forests are good for efforts in the way.
Sound of the valley brook enters the ears, moonlight pierces the eyes.
Outside this, not one further instant of thought.”
—Zen Master Dogen

“Just as a white summer cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon following the breath of the atmosphere – in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life that leads him beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present to him, though yet hidden from his sight.”
—Lama Govinda, The Way of the White Clouds

I walked the Kumano Kodo. The trees were tall, the path narrow, waters clear and cool. For one week I lived a shrine at a time, gathering humility, patience, progressing towards a truth I had always felt homesick for. I wanted my footsteps to become as light as blossom and my breath to become the breeze that barely sounded through the cedars, to dissolve and merge into the breath of the greater life. The blue sky shining between the highest branches I had ever seen was the purpose, no more than that, of my walk. I did not want to become more than the things I saw, heard, touched on the Kumano. I wanted to become them, I did not want to reach after something more because so far such reaching had brought about no lasting good. I entrusted myself to the path that would bring me no further than the simple abundance of the tall trees, the fragrant woods, and birdsong that echoed to the moon. This way was the beginning and the end. Outside this, not one further instant of thought.


Day One


Off the bus at Takijiri I craned my neck up at the steep woods of the Kii Mountains and was taken in by a deep and silent green that smoked with an early morning mist. The bus crunched on the lay-by gravel as it U-turned and grumbled back over the iron and wood bridge, lurching away around the long bend of the narrow road, disappearing into the slow avalanche of mist that was curling and sweeping down, covering the bridge, the river but not the river’s sound; I held onto that sound in my ear as I adjusted my heavy pack and walked towards the beginning of the Kumano Kodo, listening to the river below and hearing my heavy heels clunk on the road.

Eager to walk off this heaviness that cloaked me I bought a bamboo staff from a small tanned man who couldn’t stop bowing and stepped off the road onto the path made soft by a carpet of pine-needles and crisp leaves. A stone-trough of clear water gurgling out from a bamboo pipe was full of faded copper coins, shimmering like sleeping bronze minnows. I washed my hands and paid my gesture, bowed and turned towards the arch-shrine that loomed above me into the tree canopy. The path ran beneath it and veered up into the dense woods out from which birdsong I had never heard before thronged. Here I was at the threshold of a journey. The mist thickened, this world was quiet.

The way rises abruptly
Into cedar mists,
Strange birdsong,
Water breaking here and there.

Arriving in Takahara for my first night’s rest I sat upon a round rock with my back pressed against an old cedar, and looked out over the Kii Mountains whose tops were almost peering up through bulks of cloud. Down from the woods beside the first house an elderly lady, the first person I had seen all day, was bent low over her vegetable patch, rummaging and sifting through the soil.

Standing, taking a copper yen coin from my pocket and placing into gently into a small wooded casket that was used to prop up a weathered holy figure sheltered by a stone housing no bigger than a shoe-box, I then bowed three times, breathing out as I bent down, breathing in as I lifted, thinking upon my heart in this ancient place.


Day Two


Soft, soft rain loosely fell through the tallest, straightest trees I had walked through so far.

Rain on the Kumano Kodo
Is a hundred bamboo staffs
Clicking on path-stones.
Who holds this one?

After hours of walking in the falling veils of rain and mist I arr­ived at Chikatsuyu, a village tucked between mountains, hidden from time. Hioki River, grey and shallow and wide, ran on through Chikatsuyu towards the Pacific, undergoing a pilgrimage of its own, in its own time. Down out of the green mountains that met to form a deep cleft, the river spilled and flushed onward down the wide valley floor.

Make peace with me, the real, I felt the river say as it ran between my fingers and bulged up and around at my elbows as I submerged my right arm into the folding waters. Grey crystal, illuminated by the white stones that lined the bed, the water flurried up my arms as I waded out to the centre of the river.

Breathless, taken back, I vaulted back up out the water, the wind clothing me in its cold clasp, and waded back to the bank to warm myself on the stones.

River eagle at Chikatsuyu.
Empty village of quiet stone.
Dripping water washes bitter
dust from hardened cares.

Day Three


Hot bright day, the mists, clouds, and rain seemed like a dream that faded away with each waking second more in the mountain sun. The deep green slopes vividly glimmered. One crow shone like a black jewel as it tumbled down through the maze of cedars catching the rays of the sun and the rays of shadow.

Sweet wind, I breathed it in deeply, closing my eyes now and again to let the wavering light play about my closed eyes. The wind felt more like a light, or if the air itself became light, a blowing light some organ deep inside rejoiced to feel.

Leaving Waraji Pass I headed clumsily down the rough path of root and broken stone that suddenly brought me out into a clearing as it levelled off at the mountain base to a clear river that brushed over smooth stones and slid on like a continuous pane of blue glass, smashing silently against the stones. I watched the shadows of a red and gold chequered butterfly dance on the surface of the turquoise stream. That grove was so quiet I could almost hear the butterflies wings rasp against the air as I entered the cool arms of the water, stripped of all my clothes, naked to Kumano.

I am brought to Life
By the sight and scent
Of purple blossom whirling
around Minashaku shrine.

By mid-afternoon, the dirt path widened into a broad stone track that brought me, suddenly, out of the wood and onto a road that curved down around the round mountain side towards my place of rest for the night, Yonumine via the grand Hongu Taisha shrine, all of which were hidden from my sight by the sloping walls of mountain woods.

At the first bend in the road a strong wind blew, bursting up from the valley, colliding in the tree-tops, flushing a big raven from a branch. Flustered by the wind’s rude awakening, the raven called three times in that stomach-deep way of theirs, tipped its bright black wings left to right and swished down the road, swerving up the left and taking its perch on a branch that stuck out over the wooded ravine. Throwing its baggy bearded head and throat back as it called,  another wind came rollicking up the ravine, shaking the raven’s perch but this time, feet sunk tightly in the bark, it stood its ground and called again, three times, out of triumph. Wind and raven were at war, clamouring . . . but for what? Walking beneath the raven that paid no attention to me, I was reminded of the local Kumano legend of the three-legged raven, Yatagarasu, which guided Emperor Jimmu in his dream to establish Japan’s first Imperial Court at Yamato. I would do nothing as grand and founding as that, but the idea that this raven may be a guide hooked me. He flew on, dipping and diving down the road, too quick for me to pursue. Would I see him again?

The three-legged crow
Flies towards a three-fold moon.
It is time to awaken
From a two-fold world.

Passing through Fushigami vallage I watched a small boy run down the hill from his house to hold his mother while she dug at a rice terrace with an iron L-shaped tool. They were the first people I had seen all day and their actions, the boy and the mother, seemed a fluid part of the landscape, not at odds with it but quiet in their ways like the trees themselves that overarched the giant staircase of the rice-terraces.

Late-afternoon sunlight paled to a ghostly gold hue giving off a heat that was on the brink of being lost to the cool of evening. A badger tottered towards me on the path immediately after leaving the tarmac road, quite happy and busy in its gait, then slunk stealthily into high thick grass. I parted the grass with the end of my staff but saw no happy black and white figure glaring back at me.

The path snaked through fields, rising to a ridge down which an ancient staircase led towards Hongu Taisha Temple that was hidden from my sight by the dip and rise of the land. I took a moment on the quiet of the trail to bring myself back to the simple motion of my breathing, clearing the mind for the event of Hongu Shrine.

A blossom-shower of egrets
drifts through Hongu Shrine.
I am a wing of white petals
As I bow, fold, then rise.

Day Four


I meditated in the dark before dawn at Yunomine in the moonlit cell of my ryokan. A full moon, distant and pinched, yellow-white and surrounded by her stars, was the point of my focus, letting each part of me flow into her glow that filled the inn-room, the night-sky, my eyes, with a ghostly light of peace my breathing became a part of – my breath not my breath but the Spirit that circulates through every pore of Being, igniting the essence of every living thing.

I reached Koguchi village by early afternoon, spending a while lazing in the clear blue waters of the river, toeing the rapids and floating in the deep baths of lagoons margined by mica-glinting rocks. As I floated on the swirling waters, letting the current turn my body like a mother’s careful hand, mirroring the slow spin of the black kites as they wheeled higher and higher, taking my breath, my being with them as they sailed up into the sky in the infinite blue that, the longer I stayed in that cocoon of stillness, expanded and became as vital as my own heart and blood, if not more.

The Way blows along.
Who am I to say
The wind does this,
My breath does that?

Day Five


Pine needles, the curve of a single leaf budding into complete shape, the sunlight upon a tree, even the sound of my own feet scuffing up the steep and tiring steps of the Ogumotorigoe path came together in a single rhythm within which each thing had its right place and could flourish into the fullness of its being in concord with the rhythm within which it participated, the rhythm of the Way.

Criss-crossing streams, arcing around boulders layered in a velvet green that cushioned my palm as I leaned on them for support as I descended the rough path, occupied much of the day’s walk interspersed with minutes of rest to glug on water, snack, and luxuriate in the ringing peace of the forest’s golden bell. Two ravens, wing on wing tacked and swerved around the trees, their calls reverberated down the sloping mountain-side. The ravens circled on down as the path skirted around the mountain, zig-zagging endlessly up to the tallest trees.

I thought it was the sky I could see through the trees but it was the Pacific Ocean glimmering in the sun, huge and wild and without horizon. The Pacific stayed on my right as I stomped the path down the last of the steps into the environs of Nachi-San and its holy waterfall, Nachi-Taki, that bellowed and seethed even though it wasn’t yet visible. The falls sounded like storm-waves crashing upon a shingle shore in the dead of night, filling the silence with thunder.

I couldn’t take my eyes away for the falls when I reached them. The grace and power of the water  paused at the straight lip of the granite edge hundreds of meters up, then after a pause briefer than a heart-beat, fell breathlessly, attached to nothing but itself, utterly itself, falling through the hoop of time into the bright ring of eternity that splayed out scattering, spraying wide before the pool, fanning the brave trees that reached out to sup the water, clashing and striking the rocks and rolling onward through the deep pool towards the Pacific, below Nachi-San village.
How could I leave this sight behind? Stirred and moved by the release of thousands of tonnes of falling water from the mountain forests, I sat upon a stone beneath a cedar until dusk as the stars flickered and the waning moon shone upon the white-gold, plat­inum silver of the falls. That is what bliss sounds and looks like, I thought, that is what enlightenment is, the breath of the breathing Way.


• • •

Sea-eagles hovered over the harbour waters of Kii-Satsurra, casting their great shadows on the surface. I watched them for half an hour or so in the dim, sea-fog light of noon, glide over the water then lift and take perch on a wire, then shriek across the town, gobbling their fish-prey caught neatly in their scissoring, spiked clench of talon. Save for the wailing eagles as they hunted over the harbour, the town was eerily quiet. A few people on bikes cycled down empty streets that were lined with closed shops and messy houses coloured only by lines and lines of laundry. Fishing boats bobbed and clacked, an old man sold octopus from a stall where they dried, flat and spread in rows in the muggy air.

I walked out to the farthest point of the concrete jetty, looking back now and again at the distant profile of the Kumano Mountains, and looking forward between the cliff-stacks garlanded with windswept trees to the Pacific Ocean.

The tap of my footsteps and staff echo
in the mountains long after leaving Kumano.
A raven is building her nest
Out of cherry blossom and light.


William Henry Searle, Ph.D., born 1987, in Dorset, UK, is a spiritual ecologist whose work draws on the world’s diverse spiritual traditions, philosophy, ecology, and personal lived experience in the outdoors to revive the sense of the natural world as inherently wild and sacred. He holds a doctorate in creative writing and environmental philosophy for which he was awarded a three year studentship to study at the Royal Holloway University of London. Lungs of My Earth is his first book.