Friday, May 30, 2014

Walking Monk pauses in Pincher Creek

Bhaktimarga Swami (Highway 3 near Lundbreck Falls)
C. Davis photos
Chris Davis

Bhaktimarga Swami (nee John Peter Vis), known as the Walking Monk, visited Pincher Creek on May 29 before walking westward to the Crowsnest Pass.  Swami joined the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in 1973 at the age of 21, and has been living a celibate monastic lifestyle ever since.

ISKCON was founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1966 and now includes more than 550 centres, including 60 farm communities, 50 schools and 90 restaurants*.  Bhaktimarga Swami is the Governing Body Commissioner for ISKCON Canada.

This is his fourth pilgrimage across Canada, and he has also walked across Ireland, Israel, Fiji Islands, Mauritius, Trinidad and Guyana, "And I'm going to do the US next time," said Swami in his address to Pincher Creek's Rotary Club during their weekly luncheon on May 29. "My plan next year is to walk from Boston to Butler, Pennsylvania, then to New York City."  In 2016 he plans to walk from New York to San Francisco. In 1996 he was featured in the National Film Board of Canada documentary 'The Longest Road' (which details the history of the people who shaped or were shaped by the Trans Canada Highway) after walking across Canada from the west coast to the east coast.

Bhaktimarga Swami speaks to Pincher Creek Rotary Club
According to Swami that first walk took 7.5 months.  In 2003 he walked across Canada again, this time from east to west.  His spiritual companion for that walk was a woman who was raising awareness for Multiple Sclerosis. "It was nice to talk to her and meet her over the phone, we never actually got together," he explained. "We kept in touch with each other."

This time, fulfilling the pattern, Swami is walking Canada east to west. He began this walk May 1 in Halifax and intends to end up in Vancouver August 10.

The following combines his speech to Pincher Creek's Rotary Club and a conversation we had afterward.  Later in the day I met him on the road, Highway 3 between Lundbreck and the Highway 22 turnoff, to get a photo of him "in the wild" and to get a brief taste of his unusual adventure.

According to Swami he usually starts walking at about 4:00 am. The first few hours are quiet and "a more meditative time," he explained.  "Then the world starts opening up.  The sun comes up, and traffic starts whizzing by, and people pull over and say, 'Would you like a ride?'." He said he tells them that he is on a walk across Canada, his fourth, and the common response is "No way!"

He said he goes through about four pairs of Crocs per trek across Canada.

In a recent article in the new Delhi Times Swami was asked if there was opposition from his family when he took to the Hare Krishna way of life? “I am still Roman Catholic, and I still believe in God. I have only added to something I was already practising. So while my family was taken aback at first, later they were proud of me. I keep in touch with my siblings and all of them walk with me when I come to their neighbourhood - in dhoti, kurta, chadar, japa mala, tilak, and my Crocs!”

Why does he do it?  "To promote spiritual healing, encourage walking, to get the walking culture going again, like our ancestors used to do," he explained.  "All of our ancestors did a lot of walking."  He is "Promoting a simple life, without technology."

Bhaktimarga Swami with Pincher Creek Rotary's Dan Crawford
"I'm not on a fund-raiser, it is really more of a friend-raiser.  In our tradition that has its roots in India, that is what monks do, they travel around, meet people, get inspired, and try to inspire."

"It's a mutual experience, and that's what I'm getting, walking across Canada."

Swami talked about being young in the '60s and '70s.  "There was a lot of Canadian pride, 'keep it Canadian'," he said.  "I like to walk, and I like to see the country, and I'm actually kind of spoiling myself."

Swami told me he hitchhiked across Canada "Before I became a monk, that was in '72".

"I have had some personal difficulties, I guess.  Whatever community you belong to there is politics, gossip.  We all have them, it's human nature.  I wanted to get out and do something different.  I was living in an Ashram in Toronto (in 1995) and I decided that I wanted to see the country and take a long, long contemplative walk."

"It's been great."

"Initially, I was a little shy, because when you stay in a monastery, you are in a box, and you forget what the world is like.  One discovery is that Canada has really opened up, even from '96, on my first walk, to now.  People have opened up their hearts and their minds."

"There is so much going on, so much colour in the world."

"Canada is known to be one of those places where we're very accepting.  And I have found that in the attitudes of people."

"It's all a lot of fun.  I have learned a lot historically, it is a way to increase my awareness, and get educated in a way that books won't do.  There's nothing like meeting somebody, shaking their hand, talking to them, looking at them face to face."

"Because of our technology we are so stuck in our boxes these days," he said, including buildings, gadgets, and vehicles in his list of what separates people from each other. He talked about being in Cuba where "It is simpler," explaining the absence of earphones makes for a faster connection. "The reciprocation is incredible."

He spoke of lessons he's learned along the way.  "As a monk you learn some discipline, you learn to take on some physical inconvenience.  If you have that, and peace of mind, it's a better situation than to live a very pampered life and have a very agitated mind.  So you impose on yourself some inconvenience, and walking certainly does that."

West of Lundbreck on Highway 3
He walks about 35 km at a stretch, 8 to 10 hours of walking a day.  He said he walked about 42 kilometres at a stretch back in the '90s.  "My biggest day of walking was 99, that was along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec.  It is like an amigo, a friend.  Especially if you go with its currents.  "That was 99 kilometres, and of course I didn't walk the next day, I took a break.  Once you build up momentum, you are a little bit harder to stop."

"You take time to yourself to process things in your mind.  Of course, having your feet on the ground, you must take time for the here, and the now.  You develop this greater appreciation for the world around you.  Black flies, mosquitoes, wind, "Heat, rain, and snowstorms, you learn to go through it all."

"It's to journey through life so we can in the end get clean and naked, and a clean exit."

"It's a vast country, Canada.  It's very humbling.  I always appreciate it when people give a honk, or a wave or something.

Daruka Kretchmer and Billy
Swami has three regular companions on this trip. Organizer/journalist  Daruka Kretchmer, Daruka's pet parrot Billy, and videographer Michael Oesch, who is producing a documentary about the adventure.

 " I do like to divert, and Michael's the same," explained Swami.  "We want to see what's out there, and what was there in the past.  It brings richness into your life."

Daruka Kretchmer, Bhaktimarga Swami, Michael Oesch
"We'll stay in campsites, normally,"  he said, but sometimes accepts motel deals and other charitable offers.

"One of the real joys of being out there is 'where can I go to take a nap?'."

His first two cross Canada walks were along the Trans-Canada Highway  "Then I said I have to try the Yellowhead.  Then I must do a southerly route.  We are trying to find different routes, and we've succeed in that.  You want to be interactive, you want to go where the people are.

When prompted by a question he spoke of his first impressions of Pincher Creek. "It's homey, it's charmy, farmy, and laid out, spread out.  I was really impressed with your roundabout. That's progressive, man..."

"We are followers of Vishnu," he said of his order.  "We have a concept of creationism, that there is a source behind the creation, and we call it the creator. That the creatures that live within it are not that creator.  At the same time we accept that there is divinity in all that is out there.  We believe that the human form of life is for cultivating the spiritual side."

"Therefore, cultivate the spiritual life, but if you fail, you will have to come down into the existence again, until you get it right.  We believe in the soul's transmigration."

"Please wish me luck, I need your blessings."

Related links/sources:
International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Wikipedia)*

"May the Source be with you!"

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