Part of the full team kit for a henro is the pilgrim staff (kongozue). The staff is supposed to be the embodiment of Kobo Daishi, the Japanese saint who originated the pilgrimage. Often along the pilgrimage, you see signs that say that you do not walk alone — that Kobo Daishi is walking with you. The staff helps remind you of this. In days of yore, if you died along the henro trail, the staff would be interred right there, and the staff would be used as your grave marker. So it’s also a reminder of the impermanence of your existence, too.
I got my staff at Temple 1, and I got a pretty standard model. No fancy sutras running down the side, but with a satin-like handle cover, and a bell.
This staff became wasurimono, a forgotten thing, at Kannoura railway station, when we ran for a train. This is the fate of many staffs, and you’ll see a bin of them at every temple, patiently waiting for their owners to pick them up again. Fat chance.
I then had many miles without the staff. The staff is useful on trails, but just one more thing to carry on paved roads. And the bell did not help me with mindfulness, its supposed task. I guess you could say it helped if I wanted to focus on annoyance, but really, that’s not my first choice. Since we were doing a lot of pavement walking, and the unpaved sections were neither long nor steep, not having the staff was fine.
At some point in Ehime province, we were walking up some steep mountain road, and we made a stop at a rest hut. At this hut, jammed in its garbage bin, was a staff. I pulled it out, like the sword from the stone. This staff was not a forgotten staff. It was clearly a discard. I felt I could claim it. The new staff was just like the old one, except it didn’t have a bell. Perfect.
Truth be told, neither staff was made for a walking pilgrim. On both models, the handle cover’s underlying “padding”, just corrugated cardboard, was useless. The satin cover’s gold Sanskrit lettering was rough enough to cause a blister if one weren’t careful.
Eventually, with the new staff, I took off the satin cover and ripped off the stupid, flattened cardboard, and bought from the ¥100 store a soft striped pastel knit mug insulator. I put this under the satin cover, and secured it with the string. Then, when I was carrying the staff like a pencil (as opposed to the ice pick grip), rather than let the satin cover slide through my hand, I could have the soft stretchy fabric do the sliding.
Maybe I haven’t described this well, but the details don’t matter. The important thing was that the staff was now more functional and comfortable. I put a bicycle store reflector tape on it to provide greater safety in low light conditions, such as walking through tunnels.
Then, for my mindfulness practice, instead of that wretched bell…I did my best to use the staff with my left hand. Oh boy. A book I read recommended switching off hands to avoid stress injuries and keep wear and tear on the body balanced. But it’s also an incredible mindfulness practice. If I tried pretty much to only have it in my left hand, it would wind up there maybe half the time, at best.
A staff in the right hand is like dwelling in everyday ego-mind consciousness. It’s the groove you fall into. It’s where you go when there’s an immediate crisis: staff into right hand to navigate this slippery rock, without consciously deciding that.
It takes effort, remembering, to put the staff in the non-dominant hand. At first, it’s unnatural. Then, the more you do it, the easier it is. You remember to transfer the staff back more often. When it’s in the left hand, it feels less strange, more…normal, even.
So it is with a mindfulness practice. At first it’s hard to remember. You’re always sliding back into monkey-mind and story telling. But the more you practice, the easier it is. If you try to be there 100% of the time, if you’re lucky, you manage 20%, maybe eventually 50% of the time. In a crisis, it’s very easy to grab with the dominant hand, go straight into ego mind. But if you’ve practiced switching out, you are overall stronger, overall less prone to stress injury.