The light bulb idea
I caught up with Bhaktimarga Swami, commonly known as "The Walking Monk", by phone shortly after he completed his fourth “Can Walk” across Canada. Our conversation transcended religious doctrine, dogma and belief systems.
Swami, born in Ontario as John Peter Vis, adopted the Eastern monastic lifestyle of the Hare Krishna movement some forty years ago. In 1996, he completed his first pilgrimage across Canada, journeying from west to east. Since that time, he has completed three more cross country treks, each time travelling in the opposite direction, and along different routes.
He conceived the idea to walk across Canada one day while walking in a ravine in Toronto, an activity he undertook initially to rehabilitate low back problems. “It was almost like a light bulb lit up,” he told me of the moment that led him to walk across the country, “as a monk might do it; (to) travel kind of lightly, and meet people along the way, spend enough time in a place, as long as it takes to milk a cow, as we say in our tradition”, before continuing the journey.
More than a metaphor
In many religious traditions, the journey is a metaphor for the growth of the soul as it enters more profoundly into an encounter with the Divine. Since Swami has crossed the country on foot multiple times, I asked him if walking is more than a metaphor for him.
Not surprisingly, it is. “It’s a natural position of the spirit or soul to wander in this world and to walk it in wonder and in appreciation. So (wandering) puts you in that spot where you need to be, that place of humility which is the basis of success in life.”
Swami explained that walking along busy highways with vehicles barreling past or trekking through remote and beautiful landscapes is a lesson in detachment. “You learn to take it all in, the heat, the wind, the rain, the cold, the black flies, the mosquitoes, attention by the public, no attention, traffic – with all of that, you learn detachment.” These external factors, along with the physical discomfort that comes from walking thirty to forty-five kilometers per day, and the spiritual challenges of facing your own deficiencies, help a person learn disentanglement from this world.
We discussed the idea of detachment in light of today’s culture, with its emphasis on self and acquisition. At the core of the self “there is this passion to move about and pick up on all the little nuances the world has to offer”. We shared the belief that our passions may become misdirected, and we may find ourselves walking in a direction that leads us away from our deepest yearnings.
The role of the mantra
Chanting the mantra is an essential part of Swami’s journey, helping him to keep the spiritual in his midst. “God is present in sound,” said Swami. “Hallowed be thy name. So, the name, the sound is sacred. We,” by which Swami meant the Krishna and Christian religious traditions, “have the same understanding…The Absolute or the Divine is there with you in their sound.”
The word “mantra” comes from two Sanskrit words, “mana” which means the mind, and “tara” which means to free. Chanting the mantra frees the mind “so that your mind is not on the acquisitions you’re trying to achieve.” The mantra “pulls you out of that mode“, illuminating the beauty all around, and providing spiritual strength; “it keeps you a bit on your toes, otherwise the forces of temptation could get to you.”
Humility from standing under
Our hour-long conversation ended with Swami providing an exegesis of the verb “to understand” that he picked up from a Catholic priest. In order to understand, it is important to go under, to stand humbly and look up, then “you understand your real position.”
Walking “brings about a lot of revelation and epiphany about our smallness, our insignificance and about how much bigger the universal machinery is than our self. Getting to the point of taking the humble stance is the end product” of the long and arduous spiritual journey, which, I am sure Swami would agree, is always a walk in progress.