To understand East Asian nationalism, climb a mountain

Dec 14, 2017

SHIKOKU, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, is famous for its Buddhist pilgrimage route: a two-month circumambulation if all 88 temples are visited. The route takes you through cities and along a rugged coast. But it lingers mainly in the mountains that run inland along forested ridges, like a scene from a Chinese scroll painting.

Many of Japan’s Buddhist temples are built high up. The sensation as you approach is of climbing almost vertically into the sky. It is as if the point is to arrive out of puff, with your senses awry. In the still of the wooded dell, before you swing the huge log against the bell to announce yourself to the gods, the not-unpleasant sensation is of feeling small, in the lap of greater powers.

For Buddhists, the mythical mountain kingdom of Shambhala, described in the earliest Sanskrit texts, has the allure of a pure, visionary land of bliss. For Mongolian new year in February, a low table in every herder’s ger (yurt)...

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