… through the landscape and through the mind
“Walk ten thousand miles, read ten thousand books.” This is what Chinese scholar-walker Gu Yanwu (1613-1682) once said summing up his approach to living. As a scholar he crafted an unlikely amalgam out of geography and philology. It is said that he walked the length and breadth of 17th century China indulging his obsession with landscape. At the same time he pored over old books and devised an influential classification of rhymes in ancient Chinese poetry.
Gu seems to have understood that walking and reading have a lot in common. Footsteps imprint themselves on the landscape like words printed across a page. Every long distance walk is a succession of steps that adds up to a vision of the landscape. Every act of reading is a succession of words that adds up to an imagined inner landscape. No doubt the sage also understood that walking and reading are both meditative states. The eye silently traverses landscapes and mindscapes. Each corner turned is a page turned.
The Serat Wedatama, a Javanese-language text probably authored by Prince Mangkunegara IV (1811 – 1880) in the mid 19th century, says it better than Gu Yanwu did. Its best-known line reads Ngelmu iku kelakone kanthi laku, “Knowledge… you get it through laku.” The word laku has many shades of meaning, a few of them reverberating in this line. In some contexts laku can mean “meditative ascetic exercise”, what a mystic does to get intuitive knowledge. But it also means “one’s style of walking or gait, to walk, to go forward”. So Mangkunegara’s famous line might be translated, a bit freely I admit, “Knowledge… you get it through meditative walking.”
In Javanese literature, one of the best-known examples of meditative travel appears in the Dewa Ruci story. The great hero Bima is instructed by his guru Durna to make a laku journey in search of the water of life. The journey takes him into the depths of the ocean where he meets Dewa Ruci, a tiny replica of himself. Dewa Ruci invites Bima – who has a massive body – to squeeze inside him through his ear. The sceptical Bima manages to do this, and inside his mini-self he finds a vast ocean. The zen-like paradoxes of the story are well-known to Javanese today. Within the diminutive confines of every human individual lies the boundlessness of a great ocean, and that great ocean is itself wrapped in a boundless ocean. We traverse the seas within, and the landscapes without, in a life-long laku journey.
Long distance walking, with its challenges and pleasures, leads us – as Bima was led – into the scaled-down world of foot-before-foot where we will find vaster landscapes. So… in the spirit of Gu Yanwu, I hoist a backpack on to my back, press some buttons on my GPS device, take some deep gulps of water, and set one foot in front of the other. I won’t be able to walk ten thousand miles (but then, neither did Gu… he was carried away by a bit of literary exaggeration, and he simply meant “a long way”), but if I can walk just ten miles from time to time I’ll count myself a legitimate disciple of the great walker-philologist. And maybe, if I’m lucky, inside that ten miles I’ll discover vast landscapes within even vaster landscapes. On the other hand, I might simply feel a bit better, and that will be reward enough.