This post will make a lot more sense if you've read my novel Pilgrimage. This post is not spoiler free. I minimalise the spoilers, but spoilers are still present. I strongly recommend you go and read Pilgrimage and then come back and read this. Failing that, I suggest you read this and then go and read Pilgrimage. Failing that, I suggest you skip this and go and read Pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is good and you should read it.
Pilgrimage is a Buddhist parable. No, seriously, it is. What's that? What does a story about an alcoholic and a apprentice sorcerer walking across rural Australia pursued by a megalomaniac and a disease wizard to find protection from a legendary master of life and death have to do with Buddhism? Well you see...
Pilgrimage is full of allusions to Buddhist ideas. Rebirth, from a perspective of transformation, is seen in action all through the book. Caia is the obvious example. Her magic is focused on transforming herself. She takes a variety of forms through the novel, mostly animal. When she does, her body is renewed and sometimes physically altered in the details. The villain Lloyd also undergoes rebirth, defined by his anger and rage, he becomes inhuman, a walking disease. Less obvious but most important is Roland. By the end of the novel, Roland is reborn physically by Griffith's magic and reborn mentally through his experiences and his friendship with Griffith. All these changes reflect the cycle of reincarnation in Buddhism.
We can also see in these transformations the effect of karma. This is simple. Those who are defined by vice, by their attachment to their lives, or by their earthly desires meet only disaster and destruction. Only Roland, who is able to learn to live in the present and let go of his grief, is reborn into a better life.
Another major obstacle that the characters must face in their journey to enlightenment is the tyrannical sorcerer Pentdragon. Pentdragon is a magical force to be reckoned with and many of the most blatant displays of his powers is the creation of magical illusions. Several times our heroes Griffith, Caia and Roland must face and overcome his illusions to progress. There is much discussion in Buddhism on the illusory nature of reality and our world. What exactly that means and how that illusion forms and how we interact it is a discussion worthy of a thesis in itself and we won't go into it here, but illusion is the word used and it describes the emptiness of this world and the threat of distracting or misleading us on the path to enlightenment. Pentdragon's magical illusions are a very literal representation of this threat of illusion. Not only that, but his influence and political power, even much of his wealth is suggested to be an illusion he has created for himself.
Pentdragon also represents the threat of desire. It's because of his desires for power and wealth that he comes into opposition with the heroes. At Pentdragon's party, Roland speaks with a young boy working the bar and discovers that Pentdragon keeps others loyal to him by playing on their desires. The boy desires a shred of the power Pentdragon holds. The guests desire to share in Pentdragon's apparent high social standing.
Finally we come to that journey to enlightenment. Up until now we've focused on the imagery and the events that act as a kind of figurative nod to ideas in Buddhism. They are symbols of a sort to sign post what Pilgrimage is secretly about. But in looking at the novel's plot and the journey the characters take, we see clearly the parable being told.
Pilgrimage is a journey both physically and mentally for the protagonists. The wise master Yasu who awaits them promises salvation and Yasu is described as a master over life and death. There is, undeniably, something Buddha like about Yasu. This isn't subtle in any way, either. She lives an ascetic life and uses Buddhist language. Griffith is on a journey to meet Yasu and is in the final stages of that journey. He believes he is ready to transcend the life he has been living. But in these final stages he must help Roland, whose journey only begins. In this way, Griffith is like a Bodhisatva, one who is close to enlightenment or has foregone enlightenment to help another on their journey. In some schools of Buddhism, this is an integral part of the journey to nirvana. By the story's end, Griffith's journey ends but Roland is reborn and his journey continues. There is more he must do before he can complete his journey as Griffith did.
So there you go. Pilgrimage. Contemporary fantasy, adventure, drama, Buddhist parable. My secret agenda has been revealed. The truth is at last clear for all to see.
Or is it?
Because as convincing as all this seems, Pilgrimage is actually about something else. Something we'll cover next time.