Just like other organized religions, Buddhism places a high value on sacred pilgrimages to holy sites. Pilgrimages are not just tourist vacations however, they are deeply committed acts of faith; often physically demanding spiritual practices. The Buddha himself is said to have recommended the practice of making pilgrimages and it has been an important part of the lives of many Buddhist saints and teachers.
Instructions from the Buddha
In the Pali Tipitaka, the oldest surviving body of Buddhist literature, the Buddha speaks specifically about the importance of pilgrimages. According to the Buddha, practitioners should try to make a pilgrimage to one of the four holy sites in their lifetime. The journey must be made with a devout heart and will bring various benefits to one's spiritual growth. After the Buddha's death, four more sites were added to the list of holy pilgrimage destinations.
The Growth of Pilgrimages
As Buddhism spread into China, it became popular for Chinese pilgrims to make the overland trek to India to visit the holy sites there. The famous Chinese saint Fa Hsien took five years and walked across the Mongolian desert on his pilgrimage. As Buddhism spread however, pilgrimage sites appeared in other parts of the world, usually at places where Buddhist saints had founded monasteries or temples.
The Purpose of the Pilgrimage
The pilgrimage is about much more then just the destination however, the journey itself is actually the most important part of the practice. Buddhists use the pilgrimage, which is traditionally done on foot and often takes weeks or months to complete, as a vehicle for grounding their faith. The pilgrimage, like the practice of meditation, is an opportunity to spend a significant amount of time concentrating on self purification. Pilgrims are supposed to practice the Buddhist values of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Thought as they journey.
The Pilgrimage as a Path
The true importance of the pilgrimage is in the devotion that each individual pilgrim puts into it. Some Buddhist pilgrims stop and prostrate themselves at every step of the path, thereby extending the length of time needed to reach the destination considerably. This is because the true pilgrimage is an interior journey, meant to train the mind and elevate the spirit, as the true path and destination in Buddhism are one and the same; inner peace.
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