In all major world religions, pilgrimage is an important act of devotion. But what does it mean for Buddhists, and is it for you?
You may travel for work, for learning, or for leisure, but as a practitioner you may also be looking to travel in a way that deepens your spirituality. Although the word “pilgrimage” is not one that’s often used by modern travellers, it may be exactly the type of journey you seek.
To go on pilgrimage means to make a journey to a sacred place as an act of devotion or respect. This could be a place where an important event happened, a site of great spiritual energy, or a natural landmark that is held in high esteem. Sightseeing along the way is common, but ultimately pilgrimage is a journey with a purpose.
In Buddhism, pilgrimages serve an important function – journeying to these holy places can erase the negative karmic residue of a lifetime (or multiple lifetimes, depending on the place). In Tibetan Buddhism, popular pilgrimage routes also include “testing stones” along the way, where pilgrims can check the weight of their negative karma and find out how much work they have to do. Sometimes pilgrimage is even prescribed by Tibetan doctors to help their patients, in the belief that faith and fresh air can aid recovery.
In historical and modern times, Buddhist pilgrims in the Himalayas walk, hike, climb, and prostrate themselves across many miles to reach their goals, some taking months or even years to complete a single pilgrimage. Their pilgrimage is not just about the destination though; it is also about the journey. Every challenge they meet on the road can be used as a chance to practice, every step a chance to recite mantra and purify their thoughts. Although many pilgrims choose to travel by bus or car these days, some still choose slower methods as part of their practice.
Depending on what the focus of the pilgrimage is, the journey may involve either walking directly to a site or walking around it, known as “kora” in Tibetan, or circumambulation. Holy mountains, lakes, and some large monasteries have kora trails around them, which Buddhist pilgrims walk in a clockwise direction to show their respect and devotion. Mount Kailash in western Tibet or Lake Namtso near Lhasa are examples of this. Sites that are visited as the end-point of a journey include Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan, or Lumbini in Nepal.
These types of religious journeys may seem superstitious to modern Buddhists – the thought of travelling somewhere in the belief that it will clear away negative karma – but ultimately they are journeys of faith and every visitor’s experience will be unique to them. The spiritual energy of places such as Mount Kailash, Lumbini, or Tiger’s Nest are undeniable, and enjoyed by all regardless of their beliefs. While devout travellers may seize their opportunity to meditate in the caves once inhabited by Padmasambhava, others can appreciate the serene atmosphere for a moment of peaceful reflection.
Pilgrimage can be a beautiful opportunity to connect with Buddhist culture, faith, and history. Although you may walk in the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims who came before you, the journey and what you find within will be yours alone.
For more inspiration, see our spiritual journeys here, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to see how we can help you plan your Buddhist-themed journey in the Himalaya.