Buddhist Pilgrimage: Purpose and Practice

Buddhist Pilgrimage: Purpose and Practice

Buddhist Pilgrimage: Purpose and Practice

Buddhist Pilgrimage: Purpose and Practice

In October I’ll have the opportunity to accompany my students on our first group pilgrimage to some of India’s sacred Buddhist sites. While preparing for that journey I want to explore the purpose and practice of pilgrimage from a Buddhist point of view.

There are so many reasons for travel these days. Business trips facilitate networking opportunities and face-to-face commercial transactions. A vacation affords much-needed relaxation and the chance to slow down and indulge the senses. Sightseeing offers a convenient means to observe historical or cultural landmarks, educating and maximizing exposure in a short period of time.

Pilgrimage is something different—it’s a unique reason for travel distinct in its motivation and practice. Pilgrimage is a meditation in motion; a means to connect with the ideal of awakening for the benefit of others through the living legacy of the Buddha.

Loosely defined, pilgrimage is as an outward journey of a spiritual nature typically to a shrine, temple, site, rite, or event of significance to those of a particular faith or belief system. There are pilgrimages associated with all the world’s faiths and spiritual traditions, perhaps the most well know is the Hajj, a journey to Mecca, considered one of the five pillars of Islam and a mandatory act for any pious Muslim. Another famous pilgrimage is the Comino de Santiago, a trek made by Christians to the shrine that houses the remains of the apostle Saint James the Great in Galicia, Spain. Jews make pilgrimage to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, while Tibetan Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains circumambulate Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. Every four years Hindus gather and bathe at one of four sites along the Ganges River in what is know as the Kumbh Mela, considered the single largest gathering of human beings on the planet.

Hajj, Mecca

Hajj to Mecca, where pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba

One way of understanding the power of pilgrimage is through the psychological process of association—the way human beings naturally and implicitly attribute meaning and significance to places and things. That power and meaning is maintained in the hearts and minds of the devout, is transferred trans-generationally through narrative, and remains alive through acts of commemoration.

What inspires someone to venture on pilgrimage and how they behave while traveling differs according to their worldview and practice. I’d like to focus exclusively on the Buddhist perspective.


Early References to Buddhist Pilgrimage
The earliest Buddhist reference to pilgrimage comes from the Buddha himself in his final discourse before passing away and is preserved in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. His chief attendant Ananda expressed concern that the community would find it a challenge to maintain their faith and urgency without the Buddha’s presence. Thus the Buddha advised them to visit four specific places associated with him, so to continue to practice as earnestly as if he was still living among them.

The Buddha’s birth, awakening, teachings, and passing each occurred at geographically identifiable places and these sites have come to represent his living legacy and presence. Successive generations of Buddhist pilgrims continue to access inspiration in order to transform their own way of being. At some sites, the Buddha’s actual remains are housed in shrines (stupas) making them living reliquaries that exude an even greater magnetism to the devoted.

Top Left: Lumbini, Right: Bodhgaya, Bottom Left: Lumbini, Right: Sarnath

Top Left: Lumbini, Right: Bodhgaya, Bottom Left: Kushinagar, Right: Sarnath

The four pilgrimages locations the Buddha recommended are:

  1. Lumbini (now in Nepal) where he was born
  2. Bodhgaya the site of his awakening
  3. Isipatana (now called Sarnath) where he turned the wheel of the Dharma in his first sermon on the Four Noble Truths
  4. Kusinara (now Kushinagar) where he passed into final release (parinirvana).

Later four more sacred sites were added as pilgrimage destinations because the Buddha is said to have preformed great miracles there. The modern names of these additional sites are: Sravasti, Vaishali, Sankasia, and Rajgir.

Along the Indo-Gangetic Plain of Northern India where the Buddha lived and taught for nearly forty years, there are a number of other famous sites that continue to serve as destinations for pilgrims. These include:

  • Varanasi (Benares), considered the most sacred Hindu pilgrimage site in all of India and perhaps the longest, continually inhabited city in human history.
  • The first great Buddhist universities and seats of contemplative learning including Nalanda, Vikramashila, and Odantapura, which for centuries attracted scholars and pilgrims of diverse faiths and traditions from as far as the Himalayas, Java, and China, continue to this day to be places of veneration despite laying in ruin.
  • Vulture Peak in Rajgir, where the Buddha revealed the nondual teachings of emptiness is also a popular pilgrimage site, particularly for East Asian Buddhists who regard it as a power spot for the original mind-to-mind transmission of Chan and Zen lineages of Buddhism.
  • The Dungeshwari Cave Temples, also known as Mahakala Caves, on the outskirts of Bodhgaya, where the renunciant and former prince Siddhartha practiced extreme austerities and finally realized the Middle Way prior to his enlightenment, continues to attract pilgrims who meditate in the caves and report it to be a place of tremendous energetic resonance.

Purpose and Practice of Pilgrimage
So what is the purpose of pilgrimage and how is it practiced? The journey to sacred sites is a living act of taking refuge in the Three Jewels—a way of directly accessing and deepening one’s connection, devotion, and commitment to the Buddha, his teachings (Dharma) and the community aspiring to awakening (Sangha). At least four psychological benefits can be attributed to the practice of pilgrimage:

  1. Connecting with the legacy of the Buddha and one’s possibility of awakening,
  2. Purifying karmic imprints,
  3. Cultivating merit or virtues through various practices and vows,
  4. Establishing living networks with others pilgrims.


I.  Connecting with the Buddha
We can say that one purpose for pilgrimage in the Buddhist context is to directly connect with the living legacy of the Buddha in order to deepen one’s own insight into the nature of reality. Since the Buddha is not a god and has no special power to offer salvation, a pilgrimage is not considered a religious duty, moral act of penance, or even a special offering in exchange for atonement, as might be understood in monotheistic traditions. Rather, pilgrimage is a meditative practice (sadhana) unto itself, one among many in the Buddhist toolkit to achieve one’s spiritual goal of purifying the mind and awakening for the benefit of others.

MB stupa

Mahabodhi stupa complex, aerial view


During Buddhist pilgrimage specific power places act like portals to allow us to connect, activate, and embody altered states of consciousness and gain existential insights. This vortex-effect is palpable by most upon arrival at the Mahabodhi Stupa in Bodhgaya, a three dimensional scared architecture (mandala), comprised of protective periphery, temple, inner sanctum, the Bodhi Tree and the Diamond Thrown (vajrasana), within which pilgrims enter to perform the psycho-drama of their transformational activities. When we sit near the Diamond Throne under the Bodhi Tree where the first human to gain enlightenment reportedly sat, we connect to the possibility that we all possess to achieve complete awakening. Those who venture to this site share that vision of possibility and so pilgrims of all Buddhist cultures and traditions psychically invest and collectively tap a psycho-energetic field that forms a social resonance circuitry which elevates the collective consciousness.

Pilgrims face the Diamond Thrown beneath the Bodhi Tree to pray and meditate


II. Purifying Karmic Imprints

Dharma practice can be reduced to purifying negative karmic propensities that obscure the mind’s natural clarity while cultivating merits and innate positive qualities that allow the mind to flourish and inspire others. “Pilgrimage as practice” is a perspective I hope my students and I adopt to help us reframe the hardship we may encounter, to help us manage our expectations, to help us reprioritize our time and energies and to help us focus our activities into meaningful gestures of devotion, contemplation, and transformation.

Ancient Accounts of Pilgrimage
For over two thousand years, pilgrims have volunteered to endure a great deal of hardship to reach the holy sites of the Buddha. The time, energy, cost and resources required to make such a journey have always been enormous. Written accounts of Chinese pilgrims such as Fa Hsien and Hsuan Tsang from as early as the fourth century CE of their travels to Bodhgaya reveal that it took several years to get to India by foot, where they encountered illnesses, bandits, and near starvation, and witnessed many others die along the way. They report that this immense struggle was endured with great devotion, because they viewed pilgrimage as a part of their spiritual practice for cultivating their minds and not just a means of travel to a destination point.

Should it be any different in modern times? Although we now have commercial airlines, travel agents and advanced technology to ease the trip, pilgrimage by nature requires a massive investment of material and psychic resources and forces the pilgrim to confront all their self-imposed limitations, attachment to comforts, unrealistic expectations, and naive fantasies about a spiritual journey.

From the outset a pilgrimage is not a vacation nor a sightseeing tour, thus the transportation, accommodation, destinations and way one comports oneself along the rout are all selected and carried out with specific altruistic intention, and as much as possible free of automaticity, greed, hatred and delusion. For example, one’s accommodation should be safe and comfortable enough, but not so luxurious that it becomes the source of further craving, preoccupation or distraction. In other words, a modest guest houses allows pilgrims to focus on why they are there, connecting always with their spiritual motivation and practice rather then getting side tracked with the pleasantries offered by more sumptuous living arrangements.

But despite finding the balance between external comfort and internal discipline, and once all the flights, guesthouses, and itinerary have been mindfully determined; much psychological tumult and karmic reactivity is bound to be activated prior to, during, and after pilgrimage.

Modern India and Karmic Reactivity
Travel in India is notoriously challenging and provoking for foreigners. The distance from Western countries where our group will be setting out, and the extreme poverty, sensory overload, civic disorganization, and sheer volume of people that India maintains, can push even the most well-prepared individual to their edge and beyond. And then there is the group dynamic itself to consider. Spending time in tight quarters, on long travel routes, in third-world conditions, exhausted by time differences and exposure to diseases, and where all the members of the group are well outside of their comforts zone, can seem like a recipe for disaster. So when the proverbial “shit hits the fan” the perspective and practice of the pilgrim is key to insuring that adversity may be transformed to advantage.

Chaos of Modern India

Chaos of Modern India

In a spiritual context—whether in a static community center or on pilgrimage—it’s not that conflict among members should be avoided, it is that there should be enough safety, trust, and understanding to express, process, and negotiate real human feelings and needs. In other words, interactions don’t have to be perfect; there is room for humanness, flaws, and conflict to become training opportunities for empathy, clear communication, and mutual understanding.

Long flights, poor food, illness, missing one’s family, being accosted by locals, and getting lost, are all conditions for karmic ripening and purification. Before we leave for India, group members will be prepped to endure such difficulties as acts of purification, burning up the residue of self-preoccupation, envy, pride, and hostility in the crucible of unpleasant experience. More specifically, it is the convergence of attentional presence, loving acceptance, and intuitive understanding that allow unpleasant ripenings to become activated and exhausted in consciousness without further aggravation or causal reactivity. To say that part of pilgrimage is to “extend beyond one’s comfort level”, “feel the burn” and “purge past toxicity” would be a hard sell to prospective pilgrims, but that’s closer to the truth and a necessary perspective to adopt.


III. Cultivating Virtue
While we purify negativities, by allowing ourselves to experience hardship with mindful acceptance, we are also committed to cultivating positive qualities by planting new seeds for our future spiritual unfolding through intentional acts of generosity, compassion, patience, and understanding. There are many ways to cultivate virtue, both informal and formal. Obviously, informal acts are spontaneous gestures of human goodwill with fellow group members, the local community, those who help to facilitate the tour, and pilgrims from other groups or countries. Even when language, nationality, economic status, and religious differences exist, there is always a shared humanity and common interest that can be prioritized, honored, and used as a catalyst for human kindness.

As for the formal practices and procedures of cultivating virtues and merits, the list is as plentiful as pilgrims. One thing to consider and respect about India is its unparalleled open-mindedness and tolerance of religious diversity. The Indian philosophical notion of ishvara pranidhana meaning “deity of one’s choice,” offers the spiritual practitioner a wide range of divine forms to supplicate along with complete liberty in the mode and manner in which one expresses their devotion. One need not look further than Hindus praying in the morning on the steps leading to the Ganges River in Varanasi. Each person prays to their individual notion of God, in their own unique way, yet together, side-by-side, and without conflict or contradistinction. Likewise, on Buddhist pilgrimage the way one wishes to expresses their devotion, gratitude, and inspiration is a personal one with wide margins of possibility. However, some examples of cultural-specific caveats do exist and include avoiding public displays of affection, pointing one’s feet toward a religious icon, and wearing revealing clothes (mid-drift, shoulders, and legs should be covered—particularly for women) at a sacred site or temple.

Banks of the Ganges, Varanasi

Banks of the Ganges, Varanasi

Practicing Generosity
Acts of generosity, which cultivate the future subjective experience of abundance include offerings of light (candles), incense, flowers, fruits, sweets, and money. These can be made at the holy sites, toward statues, shrines, and monks, and even throughout the communities surrounding sites.

When offerings are made in holy places it is believed the karmic effect is multiplied. This may sound like superstition, unless it is viewed through the lens of the neuroscience of association. The magnitude and significance attributed to a sacred space naturally heightens consciousness, concentrates awareness, and produces positive emotions all of which add an extra neural charge of association to the act of generosity when memory is consolidated. Think about how easily it is to remember a wedding or graduation decades after the event, because the memory was stored under the influence of focal attention and positive emotions like love and joy. Performing acts of kindness and generosity at holy sites leaves an indelible mark on memory and consciousness and allows positive neural networks to displace stores of scarcity and alienation.

Offerings, Mahabodhi Stupa, Bodhgaya

Offerings, Mahabodhi Stupa, Bodhgaya

Taking Refuge and Maintaining Vows

Taking refuge and maintaining vows while at sacred sites is also said to magnify the karmic results due to the power of association. One often stays at a guest house (vihara) where pilgrims are expected to maintain five lay vows—avoiding killing, stealing, lying, sexual inappropriateness, and intoxication. Keeping these vows intact deepens their meritoriuos result, while breaking them creates an adverse impression on memory.

One can assume additional vows of chastity and moderation known as the Mahayana precepts by avoiding luxurious accommodations, eating only one meal a day before noon, avoiding dance or music that imbalance the senses, as well as perfumes, jewelry, makeup, and ornamentation that can also lead to distraction, pride, envy, and jealousy. There is nothing more significant at a holy site than the opportunity to take and keep formal refuge vows—a commitment to becoming a Buddhist on the path to liberation—and the Bodhisattva vows of the altruist perusing liberation for others—in a ceremony with an reliable Mahayana guide. A reminder of karmic consequences of the ten positive actions are:

  1. Non-violence leads to peace
  2. Generosity leads to abundance
  3. Sexual sublimation leads to satisfaction
  4. Honesty engenders trust
  5. Tactful speech engenders respect
  6. Caring speech engenders leadership
  7. Meaningful speech engenders authority
  8. Philanthropic intent results in contentment
  9. Benevolent intent results in confidence
  10. Realistic views result in clarity

Sadhana: practice
Practicing one’s personal prayers, liturgy, and meditation commitments at the holy sites is said to hasten accomplishment of one’s awakening. The reciting of texts and prayers specifically associated with sites is considered highly meritorious. This includes the Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma recited at Sarnath, the Heart Sutra recited at Vulture Peak, and more. Many of the Tibetans who visit Bodhgaya attempt to complete their ngondro—a set of preliminary practices that are comprised of 100,000 repetitions each of prostrations to purify pride, altruistic intentions to purify jealousy, mandala offerings to purify greed, Vajrasattva mantras to purify aggression, and mentor-supplications to purify misperceptions. Even doing a set of 108 or 1000 Vajrasattva purification mantras, or the Buddhas’ Confession practice at a holy site is of incredible significance when done under the influence of realistic view of emptiness and the proper motivation of compassion.

Prostrations at the Mahabodhi Stupa

IV. Networking with Pilgrims
Aerial images of a sea of millions of devout Muslims at the Hajj, all dressed in white, conveys the sense of commonality that pilgrimage can inspire. When differences that normally define and separate us during ordinary life affairs are cast off, then a harmonious bond with others can be forged that reminds of us of our true nature: interconnected. People on pilgrimage come to the Buddhist sites of India from around the world, speaking numerous languages, and represent a multiplicity of lineages and traditions within Buddhism, but all with sincerity in their hearts and the wish to be free for the benefit of all. This is a fruitful time of mutually enriching exchange between individuals and groups from a host of countries. Beyond learning from differences, commonality and shared humanity can be accessed. Pilgrims relate to one another as Dharma brothers and sisters, “reborn” in a new spiritual family, taking the Buddha as the prototype of a new way of being and encouraging one another to live up to that ideal. When so much hatred, violence, greed and prejudice exists in the world, a pilgrimage is not only a great unifier but a direct antidote to fundamental instincts that assail us and creates so much destruction.

Antioch Buddhist Studies Program, Mahabodhi Stupa

Antioch Buddhist Studies Program, Mahabodhi Stupa

For many of us, a pilgrimage to the sacred sites of Buddhist India happens but once in a lifetime. The difference between the trip being transformative and memorable versus a disaster is determined by the purity of the motivation, the level of preparation, and implementation of one’s tools along the way. Foremost, pilgrimage is a meditation in motion, designed for us to connect with the ideal of awakening for the benefit of others through the living legacy of the Buddha himself. We will naturally encounter hardship that can be used to purify past negativities while we consciously accrue vast amount of merits though our benevolent practices at potent sites. Pilgrimage affords the precious opportunity to dissolve boundaries and distinctions, tap our shared humanity and reveal our place in the jeweled network of interconnectivity that is our fundamental reality.

A pilgrimage, like life itself, is as much about the quality of the journey as it is about the sacredness of the destination. Done correctly, no one returns home the same.

Additional Reading

Meeting the Buddha: On Pilgrimage in Buddhist India edited by Molly Emma Aitken

Buddhist Pilgrimage by Chan Khoon San




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