An interview with writer Paul Barach, author of Fighting Monks and Burning Moutains: Misadventures on a Buddhist Pilgrimage
Interview by Jeremy Lux, article written by Eric Z. Gasa
Paul Barach is a man with enough travel experiences to fill a book; in fact, he did exactly that. It’s a 359-page account about his travels to Japan and its title is a doozy. It’s called Fighting Monks and Burning Mountains: Misadventures on a Buddhist Pilgrimage, and its summary sounds a bit like a movie. Barach, a burned out office worker, fulfills his lifelong dream of walking the 750-mile Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan with nothing more than this wits, a backpack, and a spirit of adventure. What happens next—well you’ll have to read the book to find out—is nothing short of life-changing and inspiring.
From staving off grievous injury in the field to sparring with a priest atop a Buddhist temple, Barach accomplishes feats that not only pushes his physical limits but reinvents himself as a person. He emerges out of the Shikoku woods with a newfound approach to life that he wishes to share with everybody.
For the Life in Motion podcast, Jeremy Lux chats with Barach to discuss his book, ninjas, why corporate America wasn’t for him, and how to roll with life’s endless punches.
Long before Barach ventured to Japan, he was just a kid from Seattle who watched a lot of Saturday morning cartoons. He was a self-admitted couch potato for years as a kid he admits, but Barach had one thing that he absolutely loved: ninjas.
“It was the late 80s to early 90s so ninjas were everywhere,” he explains, “So that was kind of my introduction to Japanese culture. Ninjas can disappear, cut peoples’ heads off, and they eat pizza in a sewer. They can pretty much do anything!”
Barach’s interest in Japanese culture would follow him into adulthood. In school, he took classes in Japanese studies in hopes his professors would teach him more about ninjas (they didn’t) but instead he picked up on the Japanese culture’s reflective and observant nature. This is where Barach first learned of the Shikoku pilgrimage.
For the unfamiliar, the Shikoku pilgrimage is a circular 750-mile, 88 temple hike trail the Buddhist priest Kūkai is believed to have trained.
“I’m going to do that,” Barach thought, before shelving the dream for a few years.
His senior year in college, Barach studied abroad in Spain, an experience that changed his life forever. Travel had bitten him like a bug.
“It was so exciting to see this newness and realize, ‘Oh my god, the world is so big!’” he says. “It’s freeing once you are somewhere else. You’re unmoored from the normal stuff you used to do and suddenly there just all of these new avenues you can explore and see.”
After studying abroad, Barach backpacked across Europe, went to Burning Man, and had a few more adventures before finally setting his nose to the grindstone at a 9 to 5.
His first job out of college was at an elementary school working with children with autism and schizophrenia. Barach found the work gratifying, but he couldn’t help but feel burnt out after one year. He then switched gigs for an office job with Microsoft where at least he wasn’t “being punched by a small child” but it left him unhappy all the same. In search of more satisfying yet stable work, Barach traveled to South Korea to teach English where he lasted a few years until hitting another wall.
“I just hated it,” Barach explains, “I just didn’t like sitting behind a desk, didn’t like how pointless it all seemed…I know I needed one more thing. One more big trip before I accept that I'm going to wake up sighing every day. That's when I had a flashback and realized I need to hike the Shikoku pilgrimage.”
Barach had run marathons before, but this journey was going to be a different animal, not to mention the language barrier; Barach could read some Japanese phrases, but he couldn’t speak it. Maybe it was the spirit of his adventurousness, but Barach did little to no preparation for the trip. Armed with a voice recorder, camera, iPod, and flip phone, he jumped headfirst into the journey eager to take on anything in his way.
It would take him 42 days to make the 750-mile trek.
His first day, Barach was charged by a boar. Day three, he spent six hours collapsing from dehydration. Another two weeks in he spent a night in a bathroom hiding out from security guards, while a month in he had accidentally broken part of an ancient temple, got a leg infection, and unwittingly had a karate match with a priest on top of a mountain.
“That last part is definitely going on my tombstone, unless I turn out to be a really beloved husband and father,” Barach quips.
But after so many toils and snares, Barach finally experienced clarity and calm towards the end of his journey. He had discovered a new level of elation through this solo struggle. If life were like a trail, Barach was now viewing it from a different vantage point. This new life lesson? Just be open and ready for the ride.
“Everything I’ve learned on Shikoku has given me the insight to just be open to what I am experiencing and not to say, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t be feeling this’ or ‘I shouldn’t be feeling that.’ You just need to be open and accept what you’re experiencing because that is the lesson, whether good or bad,” Barach elaborates.
He explains how sometimes life will put you in a worse place or it may put you in a better one. But even if you’re in a bad spot, there is usually something to be learned or experienced. Somewhere along those 750 miles Barach, had learned a lesson that some folks take their whole lives to understand.
Barach’s mantra is certainly reminiscent of the great French writer Marcel Proust. On suffering Proust once said, “We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.” From great suffering comes an even greater appreciation for life.
***If you enjoyed this piece on Paul Barach’s experiences, then definitely check out his book Fighting Monks and Burning Mountains which is available on Amazon. And as always his full interview is available on the Life in Motion podcast with Jeremy Lux Apple Podcasts and Spotify.