Student – during these last two years I have lost a few close family members, and this has affected my mood and I often feel low. Some friends recommended that I go on pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya. I’m interested to follow their suggestion, but have a few questions: What is the actual purpose of pilgrimages and how do we benefit from such experiences. If our minds are calm, then isn’t everywhere the same, and so why do we actually need to visit sacred places?
Master – It’s not easy to accept the loss of loved ones, but, in reality, sickness and death are unavoidable aspects of human existence, and everything we possess and everyone we love will finally be taken from us – either because the things fall apart or the people pass away. Otherwise, they will disappear due to our own demise. Nothing stays the same or lasts forever. Sadly, the modern-day world tries to convince us otherwise, and we hide old age behind Botox and fillers and consume and plan as though we will live forever. Then, when old age, sickness, and death befalls us, we are in disbelief. So, it is advisable to contemplate this reality. Not only will it prepare us for these eventualities, but also empower us to value every moment of our lives. Still, I know it is tough to lose loved ones, and so I empathize with your situation.
With regard pilgrimages, well excursions to sacred sites are common to all major faiths, but a Buddhist pilgrimage is different from those in theistic religions. For one thing, a Buddhist pilgrimage is not a way to connect with a god or to bring us closer to a heaven. Instead, it is an expedient means to nudge us towards realization of the truth. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche phrases it in this way, “The aim of all Buddhist practice is to catch a glimpse of the awakened state. Going on pilgrimage, soaking up the sacred atmosphere of holy places, and mingling with other pilgrims are simply different ways of trying to achieve that glimpse.”
Ultimately, yes, everywhere is the same, and an accomplished yogi like, say, Milarepa will see no difference between a five-star resort and a broken-down hut. But, are we at that level? Put in another way, would we be as happy on a dry river bed in Jaigaon as on a beach in Bali?
Given the choice between sitting in a hut alone or travelling to an exotic location with a group of like-minded people, most people would choose the latter. Yes, it is a prejudice, but until we fully awaken to the truth and abandon a dualistic mindset, such biases will exist. We cannot deny them, and so why not channel this energy into positive activities? Pilgrimages fulfil this goal, and we combine the excitement of travel with practice.
To repeat, we could try and catch a glimpse of the awakened state in our own homes, and many great masters became enlightened without ever setting foot in a sacred site. However, beset by prejudices, we are strongly influenced by our surroundings, and rather than ignore this reality, we work with it.
As an example of how environments affect us, think of New York and Guangzhou. Both cities have developed primarily as trading hubs, and this influences the attitude and directs the activities of people who visit these cities. In contrast, a sacred site like Bodh Gaya has been built on the aspirations of pilgrims, and so unlike people who visit NYC or Guangzhou, the motive of those who journey to the site of the Buddha’s awakening is not to acquire and expand, but to unburden and dismantle.
In such an environment, working with our minds is not only normal, but actively encouraged. So, to answer your question, yes, we can practice anywhere, but due to engrained biases, most people will find it easier to do so in a place that radiates an atmosphere of the sacred, such as Bodh Gaya, rather than in one that promote materialism. In addition, we cannot deny the enormous effect of centuries of accumulated blessings that are imbued in sacred sites.
With regard to gaining benefit from a pilgrimage, this rests on right motivation, which is similar to a first step taken on a journey. If that step is taken in the right direction, we can reach our destination. In contrast, a first step that heads in the wrong way will never lead us to our goal, no matter how long we walk.
What actually is right motivation in the context of a pilgrimage? In his book ‘Best Foot Forward’, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche describes it in this way: “At best, it is to develop wisdom, love, compassion, devotion, and a genuine sense of renunciation (renunciation mind). So, as you set out, you should make the wish that your journey, one way or another, will continuously remind you of all of the great noble enlightened qualities of the Buddha, and that as a result you will accumulate merit and purify defilements.”
In addition to this general aspiration, it is also important to arouse bodhichitta, the desire to be instrumental in leading all sentient beings to the truth, before dedicating an offering to the Buddha or other representations of the truth. Then, while performing the act, we remind ourselves that we (the giver), the offering, and the receiver are no more real than scenes in a movie or images in a dream. Finally, we seal the deed by dedicating the merit to the awakening of all sentient beings.
It is easier for people to engage in contemplation in such environments than in mundane locations, and so a pilgrimage is still a valuable practice-resource.
To sum up, a pilgrimage offers us an opportunity to channel our desire for fun and travel into activities that nudge us towards awakening to the truth. This does not, however, imply that practice is restricted to sacred sites, and even a café, a bar, a disco, or an airport lounge can be considered a temple if they help remind us that all compounded things are impermanent, all emotions are painful, and that all phenomena are without inherent existence. Still, as the atmosphere at a sacred site naturally inspires practice, it is generally easier for people to engage in contemplation in such environments than in mundane locations, and so a pilgrimage is still a valuable practice-resource.
In addition to Dori Dhen, there are numerous other pilgrimage sites in the region. In India, there is Sarnath, Kushinagara, and Rajgir. In Nepal, there is the Buddha’s place of birth, Lumbini, and two major sites associated with Guru Rinpoche, Boudhanath Chorten, and Pharping. Of course, our own county is not lacking in pilgrimage options. Singye Dzong in Kurtoe is a sacred valley, and there are numerous holy places in and around Jakar and in the Paro valley.
Enjoy your pilgrimage!