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Pilgrim of the Void

Edinburgh and London, Mainstream Publishing, 1992.

Publisher’s presentation

     This book begins in the floating world of Hong Kong, between West and East, moves from there into the South China Sea, to Macao and Taiwan, and thereafter Thailand, before going still further, to Japan, with a journey from Tokyo up through the northern provinces to Hokkaido.
     It is, then, a book of travels. But if White has all his senses open as he moves from place to place, from territory to territory, travelling with him does not stop at the geographical level. It is, in a very strong sense, autobiographical, that is, it concerns a life process, involving mind as well as body. So that this “pilgrimage of the void” becomes, but with no heaviness, a kind of initiation into a way of life. Which is why White prefers to speak of “way-book” rather than of simple “travel-book”. And White’s way is written in the prose of a poet who is out to unite intensity with clarity.

     Walking in Wanchai, under the rain, a soft warm rain that is easy on the skin. Seen against the bursts, the sheets, the floods of electricity in the main thorougfare here, the moon, way up in the sky, looks poor – definitely non-commercial. It’s an old beat-up moon, came out of a ballad or a love-song a long time ago, now unemployed, at most an object of study. Old beat-up moon, you’re like that remnant of Genghis Khan’s horde, the black ragged beggar I keep seeing here and there.
     I’ve talked of being nothing, and of a density that means you can do without identity – your being’s an ideogram. What that signifies maybe is that I’ve pushed my identity so far back that most of what’s called reality – reality being here defined as that in which we feel ourselves implicated – is quite simply unreal to me, mere spectacle.
     What fascinates me is some body-mind breaking into the light, or the light breaking into the body-mind.
     The moon behind the rain is like the face of a woman in pleasure.
     Dance of ideogram, orgasmic moon, ah, Wanchai, Wanchai.
     My reality is cosmo-demoniac. I can walk myself into ecstasy. Just give me a little rain – or a little wind, or a little sunlight.
     And tonight it’s rain.
     Rain over Wanchai, rain over Tsimshatsui – I like to let these words turn over on my tongue.
     I don’t feel like going back home yet, to the Hotel Confucius I mean. I think I’ll take a tram out to Shau ki wan and see what the night still has to offer.
     In the rainy night, a green tram full of yellow faces making for Shau ki wan…

Chapter “Rain on Wanchai”

     Confucius was trying to set he world right, make it give forth a goodly sound (like a stone chime), instead of the usual cacophony ; the Laughing Buddha just laughs outright. For Confucius, or the Confucian pedagogue, life was like a pensum, something to be worked at and composed ; for the Laughing Buddha, it’s an absurdum, and it’s best to laugh at it, because if you take it too seriously, it’s all going to end up in sweat, blood and tears. When things get fouled up, and, Christ knows, they do, everybody thinks now and then of suicide as a solution. Even Confucius must have thought of suicide now and then (a quiet little ceremonious suicide, I mean, let’s do things right). But Buddhism, as I see it, is a technique of suiciding yourself while remaining alive. Confucius stands on ceremony – the Buddha stands on nothing, he not only stands on nothing, he is nothing, and being nothing, he is – hah ! – something else. Buddha is those leaves swirling in the wind.

Extract from the chapter “The Laughing Buddha”

     There weren’t many gulls on the Sumida that October morning when I went to visit Basho’s hermitage, but there was one, which was he occasion for me to write this little haiku :

     That Autumn morning
     on the waters of the Sumida
     one lone gull

     After what I said about the essential, in Japan, being in the mind, it will come as no surprise if I say that I had a hard time finding Basho’s hermitage.
     No indications on the road, no monument on the spot.
     You could walk past it without being aware of it.
     For the site of Basho’s little house is now a shrine to Inari, the rice god, who likes bean curd – which is why there’s a piece of tofu on the stone ledge there.  It’s only when you look closer that you see a rock on which are inscribed four characters : Ba shô an ato (“This is the site of Basho’s house”).
     Basho’s house isn’t there.
     Where is it ?
     In the mind, in the mind.
     He himself talked about his “unreal dwelling”…
     Ever since Basho wrote that book Oku no hisomichi (“The narrow road to the deep North”), this quiet little site on the banks of the Sumida has been inseparable from the idea of roads and travelling, specifically in the direction of the North.
     A haiku of Basho’s goes like this :

     First winter shower
     from now on my name will be

Extract from the chapter “North Road Travelling”

     Autumn was going in winter, redyellow into white, leaf into flake, as I went higher up into Daisetsuzan…
     At one point, with the snow falling thick, I could hardly see the road and began to get worried I might just walk off into the snowy void and bury myself for good in some drift. Thats fine sometimes when you think of it, as a way out of all the noise and shit, but when you’re on the spot, the body rebels, wants to keep in touch with the rummy, red, rolling earth. So I was worried, while still putting one foot in front of the other. But the sky cleared for a while, long enough for me to come to this little winter resort village where I found an old hostel and in it a room for the night.
     What had struck me first was the lump of obsidian that lay in the entrance hall : a huge black lump of solid, gleaming stone. I’d seen a lot obsidian (paleolithic trade object) down in the Tokyo museum, in the Ainu room, and I’d seen it again in the little Ainu display hut beside the café, but its’ only now I really realise my path is going to be marked by that jet-black rock.
     Rock paths, salmon lines and swan routes…
     Snow was clustering thick on the window of my room, with stars shining among the flakes and a moon, a big wild yellow moon, scudding its way across the flurried sky. I liked that wildness outside, and inside the clean neatness : the bare walls, the stove, the green-bordered tatami.
     A place of meditation on the top of stormy mountain…

Extract from the chapter “Big Snow Mountain”

     The sun was setting red, very red, and a big, round, cold moon was beginning to crawl over the town.
     I was in no hurry, though. Later, I’d find myself a place to sleep somewhere. But for the moment I was quite content to sit there all alone on the pier, even though it was a little chilly – winter coming on, when so much of Hokkaido freezes up, including Nemuro Bay.
     I was thinking of the swans, imagining them on the plains of Siberia, now that extreme cold had seized the air up there, gathering for the great migration, flying into the sun, crossing over the regions of the Ienissei, Lake Baikal, Manchuria…
     And under the big moon of Nemuro, in the cold loneliness of the North Pacific night, I renewed my allegiance, in light and in darkness, to the still, despite everything, so beautiful terraqueous globe.

Extract from the chapter “At Nemuro

Pilgrim of the Void is full of bright early morning freshness whether it’s in Macao after a typhoon, walking along the South Lantao Road, or waking up in a Karen hill-tribe village. His travels take us out from the teeming life and city sensation of Hong kong, Tapei and Bangkok, up country and along coastlines rich in experiences of all kinds. […] His prose is fast-moving, lively. Short sentences rhythmically beat out meaning. He paints in vivid colours with the short, sharp brush strokes of a Hokusai or Hiroshige. […] There are moments of pure poetry in the prose, as outside a Buddhist temple where he stayed a night : “It was green darkness out there, the wind whooming through the pine trees, and a moon shining fitfully through the cloud. The little cat came tinkling up, its yellow eyes gleaming.” […] For those setting out or continuing to the East, and beyond the East, what better companion than this Pilgrim of the Void ?
     Norman Bissell, The Glasgow Herald

Pilgrim of the Void has an utterly engaging guilelessness. There is the air of the laughing Buddha about it, a jolly Taoist jape, where a freedom from guilt and from what White calls the brute of Hegelan history brings sudden refreshment. He is passionate in his love of the haiku, and clear and revealing in his dislike of Confucianism. Above all, he is a wonderful teacher and, in particular, manages to convery all the rice-paper beauty of the Japanese vision as clearly as English will allow. He quotes a 17th-century poem written by a companion of Basho on his journey to the far north of Japan. It is about Matsushima, some islands covered in pines which were – literally – unspeakably beautiful. All he wrote was :
              Matsushima, ah
              Ah, Matsushima
              Matsushima, ah
Perhaps that’s the condition which travel-writing should aim for.
     Adam Nicolson, The Sunday Times.