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The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker's Guide to Making Travel Sacred Paperback – April 30, 2000

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About the Author

Phil Cousineau is a bestselling author, editor, photographer, award-winning documentary filmmaker, adventure travel leader, and independant scholar who lectures around the world on a wide range of topics from mythology, mentorship, and soul. His books include The Art of Pilgrimage, Soul Moments, Riddle Me This, and The Soul Aflame. A protege of the late Joseph Campbell, Cousineau is also the author of The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work. He lives in San Francisco, California.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Art of Pilgrimage

The Seeker's Guide to Making Travel SacredBy Phil Cousineau

Conari Press

Copyright © 2000Phil Cousineau
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781573245098

Art is here taken to mean knowledge realized in action.

?René Daumal

PILGRIM, n. A traveler that is taken seriously.

?Ambrose Bierce

One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions
that will make happiness;
one only stumbles upon them by chance,
in a lucky hour, at the world's end somewhere,
and holds fast to the days ....

?Willa Cather

Chapter One

The Longing

For in their hearts doth Nature stir them so,
Then people long on pilgrimage to go,
And palmers to be seeking foreign strands,
To distant shrines renowned in sundry lands.

?Geoffrey Chaucer,
The Canterbury Tales

In February 1996, together with my brother Paul, I took the long boat ride upthe Mekong River in Cambodia to see one of the great riddles of the ancientworld, the sacred sprawl of ruined temples and palaces that a twelfth-centurytraveler said "housed numerous marvels."

    On our first morning at the walled city of Angkor Wat, we witnesseda glorious sunrise over its lotus-crowned towers, then beganthe ritual walk up the long bridgeway toward the sanctuary. Our armswere draped across each other's shoulders. Our heads shook at theimpossibly beautiful sight of the "marvelous enigma" that earlyEuropean chroniclers regarded as one of the Wonders of the World,and later colonialists described as rivaling the divinely inspired architectureof Solomon.

    We walked as if in a fever-dream. Halfway down the causeway, wepaused to take in the beauty of the shifting light. We snapped a fewphotographs of the nagas, the five-headed stone serpents, that undulatedalong the moat and of the chiseled lacework in the colossal gatewaylooming before us, then grinned at each other and took a deepbreath of the morning air. At that moment, we noticed a gray-robedBuddhist nun limping by us on her way to the temple. Her head wasshaved and bronzed. When she drew even with us, I held out an offering,which she calmly accepted with stumps where once had beenhands. Stunned, I then realized why she had been walking as if onstilts. Her feet had been severed at the ankle and she was hobbling onthe knobs of her ankles. I was stricken with images of her mutilationby the demonic Khmer Rouge, then wondered if she'd been a victim ofone of the 11 million landmines forgotten in the forests, fields,and roads of Cambodia.

    Her eyes met mine with a gaze of almost surreal serenity.Utterly moved, we offered a few dollars for the shrine in the temple.She calmly accepted the donation in a small woven bag,bowed, and limped away, like a thin-legged crane moving stifflythrough the mud of one of the nearby ponds.

    The encounter with the Cambodian nun was an ominousway to begin our visit, a gift briefly disguised as a disturbance. Herenigmatic smile eerily anticipated the expression on the sculpturedfaces of the fifty-four giant bodhisattvas that loomed in the Holyof Holies above the nearby pyramid temples of the Bayon. Eachtime I met their timeless gaze, my heart leapt. As the lotus ponds andpools throughout the complex were created to reflect each workof religious art, the faces of the bodhisattvas and the nun mirroredeach other. I began to think of the nun as the embodiment ofthe Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the god of inexhaustible compassion,who has come to symbolize the miracle of Angkor for millions of pilgrims.

    How far does your forgiveness reach? the sculpted faces ask from athousand statues.

    As far as prayers allow, the nun's eyes seemed to respond.

    I rambled through the ruins with my brother for the next severalhours, stunned by our sheer good fortune of being there. The Angkorcomplex was destroyed in the fifteenth century, then forgotten for 400years and overrun with the stone-strangling vines of the jungle.Marveling at the beauty laced with terror in the stories of our youngCambodian guide (who told us the local villagers believed that Angkorwas built by angels and giants), time seemed poised on the still-pointof the world. This was more than an architectural curiosity, a piousparable of fleeting glory; it was a microcosm of the universe itself.According to scholars, the walls, moats, and soaring terraces representedthe different levels of existence itself. The five towers of Angkorsymbolized the five peaks of Mount Meru, the center of the world inHindu cosmology. This was the world mountain in stone, a monumentalmandala encompassed by moats that evoked the oceans. A visitwas an accomplishment demanding the rigorous climbing of precipitouslysteep staircases, built that way not without reason.

    "It is clear," wrote Vice Admiral Bonard, an early colonialist, "thatthe worshiper penetrating the temple was intended to have a tangiblesense of moving to higher and higher levels of initiation." Our threedays stretched on. The hours seemed to contain days, the days heldweeks, as in all dreamtime adventures. We were graced with onestrangely moving encounter after another. Silently, we mingled withsaffron-robed monks who had walked hundreds of miles in the footstepsof their ancestors from Cambodia, Thailand, India, and Japan topray in the sanctuary of a place believed for a thousand years to be thecenter of the world. Gratefully, we traded road stories with travelerswho'd been through Burma, Vietnam, and China. After dark, we readthe accounts of fellow pilgrims who had been making the arduous trekhere by foot for centuries, from China and Japan in ancient times, thenby car from France and England, and by boat from America.

    Though neither Buddhist nor Hindu, wandering through the site Iwas more than smitten by the romancing of old stones. In the uncannyway of spiritually magnetized centers of pilgrimage, I felt a wonderfulcalm exploring the derelict pavilions, abandoned libraries, and lootedmonasteries. My imagination was animated by the strange and wonderfulchallenge to fill in what time had destroyed, thrilling to the knowledgethat tigers, panthers, and elephants still roamed over the flagstonesof these shrines when Angkor was rediscovered in the 1860s.

    But through our visit the dark thread ran.

    With every step through the ghostly glory of the ancient templegrounds, it was impossible not to be reminded of the scourge of Pol Pot,the ever-present threat of landmines, and the fragility of a site that hadendured a thousand years of historical chaos. The maimed children andfierce soldiers we encountered everywhere were grim evidence of anever-ending war. Once upon a time, foreigners were spared the horrorsof remote revolutions, but no more. In a local English-language newspaper,we read that Pol Pot had ordered the executions of three Australiantourists, saying only, "Crush them."

    Overshadowing even this were the twinges of guilt I felt for havingundertaken the journey?Jo, my partner back in San Francisco, wasseven months pregnant with our baby. Though she was selflessly supportive,I was uneasy. So why make such a risky journey?

    To fulfill a vow.

    Twice in the previous fifteen years, my plans to make the long trekto the ruins of Angkor had been thwarted at the Thai-Cambodia border.Dreading that war might break out again and the borders clampshut for another twenty years, I believed that the research trip mybrother and I were on in the Philippines serendipitously offered a lastchance to fulfill a promise to my father.

    On my eleventh birthday, he had presented me with a book, not aZane Grey Western or the biography of my hometown baseball hero,Al Kaline, that I had asked for, but a book with a bronze-tinted coverdepicting sculptures of fabulous creatures from a distant world. Thesecreatures were not from a phantasmagorical planet out of science fiction,but the long-forgotten world of the Khmers, the ancient civilizationthat had built Angkor.

    From that moment on, the book came to symbolize for me the hiddenbeauty of the world. With the transportive magic that only bookspossess, it offered a vision of the vast world outside of my small hometownin Michigan; it set a fire in my heart and through the yearsinspired in me the pilgrim's desire to see this wondrous place formyself.

    When my father became ill in the fall of 1984, I drove cross-countryfrom San Francisco to Detroit to see him and, in an effort to lift hisspirits, promised him that when he recovered we would travel together.I tried to convince him that after years of unfulfilled plans to seeEurope, we would travel together to Amsterdam and visit Van Gogh'snephew, whom he had once guided on a personal tour through Ford'sRiver Rouge complex in Dearborn. After Holland, I suggested, wecould take the train to P?rigueux in southern France and track downthe story of our ancestors who had left there in 1678. Then, I said haltingly,we could take a direct flight from Paris to Phnom Penh and visitAngkor Wat. He seemed pleased by the former, puzzled by the latter.

    "Don't you remember the book you gave me as a boy?" I asked him,disappointed in his response to my cue. "The one on the excavationsat Angkor?" He riffled through the memory of a lifetime of books hehad bestowed on friends and family. Then his face lit up, and he harrumphed,"Oh, yes. Angkor, the Malcolm MacDonald book, the onewith the sculptures of the Temple of the Leper King on the cover." Hepaused to consider the possibilities of our traveling together, thenpainfully readjusted himself in his old leather reading chair.

    "I just wish I were as confident as you that I was going to recover,"he said with the first note of despair I'd ever heard from him. "Ofcourse, I'd like to see these places with you. It would be wonderful."Then his voice broke. "But I don't know, son, if I'm going to make it."

    No one I've ever met has pronounced the word "wonderful" likemy father. He stressed the first syllable, "won," as if the adjective didindeed have its roots in victory and triumph. He so rarely used upbeatwords, so when he did I knew he meant it. Hearing it there and then,watching this once-ferocious and formidable man sit in a chair, unableto move his hands and feet because of a crippling nerve disease, I wasshaken. Still, I feigned confidence and courage and promised we wouldhit the road together as soon as he recovered.

    He didn't. Four months later, on the very Ides of March which hehad announced every year in our house as though it were the strangestday on the calendar, my father died in his sleep.

    Shortly after the funeral, while packing up the books in his stilledapartment, I made one of the few vows in my life. I promised myself Iwould take the journey for both of us, make the pilgrimage to a placemade holy by the play of light on stone and the devotion of pilgrimswho had walked astonishing distances so that they might touch thesacred sculpture and offer their prayers on the wings of incense.

    And, in so doing, perhaps restore my faith in life itself.


We journey across the days as over a stone the waves.

?Paul Valéry

All our journeys are rhapsodies on the theme of discovery. Wetravel as seekers after answers we cannot find at home, and soonfind that a change of climate is easier than a change of heart. The bittersweettruth about travel is embedded in the word, which derivesfrom the older word travail, itself rooted in the Latintripalium, a medieval torture rack. As many a far-ranging roamer hassuspected, there are moments in travel that are like being "on the rack." Forthe wandering Bedouins, "Travel is travail." The ancient Greeks taughtthat obstacles were the tests of the gods, and the medieval Japanesebelieved that the sorrows of travel were challenges to overcome andtransform into poetry and song. Whether we are on vacation, a businesstrip, or a far-flung adventure tour, we can look at the trying timesalong the road as either torment or chances to "stretch" ourselves.

    But what do we do if we feel a need for something more out of ourjourneys than the perennial challenges and pleasures of travel? Whathappens if the search for the new is no longer enough? What if ourheart aches for a kind of journey that defies explanation?

    Centuries of travel lore suggest that when we no longer knowwhere to turn, our real journey has just begun. At that crossroadsmoment, a voice calls to our pilgrim soul. The time has come to set outfor the sacred ground?the mountain, the temple, the ancestralhome?that will stir our heart and restore our sense of wonder. It isdown the path to the deeply real where time stops and we are seizedby the mysteries. This is the journey we cannot not take.

    On that long and winding road, it is easy to lose the way. Listen.The old hermit along the side of the road whispers, Stranger, pass bythat which you do not love.

Excerpted from The Art of Pilgrimageby Phil Cousineau Copyright © 2000 by Phil Cousineau. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Conari Press; 1st edition (April 30, 2000)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 258 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1573245097
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1573245098
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 0.035 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 5.75 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.5 out of 5 stars 47 ratings

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PHIL COUSINEAU is an award-winning writer and filmmaker, teacher and editor, lecturer, storyteller and TV host. His fascination with the art, literature, and history of culture has taken him from Michigan to Marrakesh, Iceland to the Amazon, in a worldwide search for what the ancients called the "soul of the world." With more than 35 books and 15 scriptwriting credits to his name, the "omnipresent influence of myth in modern life" is a thread that runs through all of his work.

TALKS & TRAVELS: Phil Cousineau lectures frequently on a wide spectrum of topics that reflect his mythic and scholarly journeys, including mythology, movies, writing, beauty, language, travel, sports, and creativity. He has appeared with some of the great thinkers and philosophers of our time, such as mentors Joseph Campbell and Huston Smith. An expert on pilgrimage and meaningful travel, Cousineau also leads small group journeys and writing retreats to sacred and culturally rich places. To learn more, visit:

BOOKS: Phil Cousineau's books include STOKING THE CREATIVE FIRES, ONCE AND FUTURE MYTHS, THE ART OF PILGRIMAGE: THE SEEKER'S GUIDE TO MAKING TRAVEL SACRED, THE HERO'S JOURNEY: JOSEPH CAMPBELL ON HIS LIFE AND WORK, SOUL: AN ARCHAEOLOGY, and WORDCATCHER. Other books include BEYOND FORGIVENESS, THE PAINTED WORD, and BURNING THE MIDNIGHT OIL. An expanded edition of Phil Cousineau's travel stories inspired by his decades on the road, THE BOOK OF ROADS, and a collection of Cousineau's own aphorisms and sayings, THE ACCIDENTAL APHORIST, are his most recent books. Cousineau's books have been translated into more than ten languages, and he is a contributor to more than 50 other books.

FILMS: Phil Cousineau's screenwriting credits in documentary films have won more than 25 international awards, and include: A SEAT AT THE TABLE, ECOLOGICAL DESIGN, WAYFINDERS, THE PEYOTE ROAD, WIPING THE TEARS OF SEVEN GENERATIONS, THE HERO'S JOURNEY; and the Academy Award-nominated FOREVER ACTIVISTS.

TV & APPEARANCES: Phil Cousineau is co-writer and host of GLOBAL SPIRIT, Link TV's "internal travel" television series broadcasting on World and Local PBS stations. He has also appeared on CNN, The Discovery Channel, and NFL Films, and more. He has been featured on Voice of America, PRI's The World, CBC's Tapestry, Deepak Chopra's Wellness Radio, and NPR's Weekend Edition. He has been interviewed for stories in TIME and NEWSWEEK as well as the NEW YORK TIMES. He has been a judge for the Emmys, the San Francisco Film Festival, and the PEN-WEST literary awards. Look for his expert commentary and mythic take on film among the special features on several Warner Brothers DVDs. In 2016 he provided on-camera commentary for MAJOR LEAGUE LEGENDS, the Smithsonian Channel and MLB-produced series on baseball's most iconic ballplayers.

CONSULTING: An expert on mythology and film and the "hero journey" structure of screenplays, Cousineau has consulted on film projects for Warner Bros., LucasFilm, and Pixar. He also consults on all types of writing projects, and leads annual writing retreats.

Phil Cousineau lives with his family in North Beach in San Francisco, California. He is currently finishing one book on beauty, a book about Sisyphus, and another on baseball. Learn more about his work at

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