Journeying or pilgrimage is very important in Buddhism because it is an act of worship and a demonstration of a disciple’s piety. It is not a recent phenomenon; it has been taking place since the time of Buddha. Pilgrimage is not an aimless undertaking because Buddhism provides guidelines according to which it is to be done in order to attain salvation. Worship and salvation are the chief reasons why a pilgrim would set off on the road. However, there are other reasons and benefits that would motivate pilgrimage. The journey involves visiting holy shrines, monasteries, and other holy places associated with the life and ministry of Buddha. This paper discusses the concept of journeying or “wayfaring” in the East Asian Buddhist thought and practice.
The Concept of Journeying in Buddhism
The concept of journeying or “wayfaring” in East Asian Buddhism came from Gautama Buddha. Before he died, he instructed his disciples to make a pilgrimage to four places, namely Lumbini, his place of birth, Bodh Gaya, where he received enlightenment, deer park in Sarnath, where he made his first sermon, and lastly, Kusinara, where he died (San 67-96). The purpose of the pilgrimage is to worship and receive inspiration. Buddha instructs the Buddhists to visit these places with veneration and reflection. They are supposed to meditate on the events attached to each place in Buddha’s life. Nevertheless, these are not the only places that Buddhists have been journeying to. Later, four other places connected with Buddha’s ministry were added. They are Vesali, Sankasia, Rajagaha, and Savatthi. Together with the initial four, they make the eight places that a Buddhist should visit in his/her lifetime (San 103-122).
The Significance of the Pilgrimage
Pilgrimage is not tourism but a spiritual journey that strengthens the Buddhist’s faith and commitment. When one visits these places, he/she should be purified in speech, thought, and actions. Brook ascertains that the appeal was to withdraw from life’s responsibilities and to participate in activities that uplifted the spirit (Brook 108). This purification does not come automatically by merely making the trip, but after meditating with reverence. Ennin records that he practiced ‘wisdom’ at Bamboo Grove Monastery. This practice of wisdom is meditating upon the Amitabha, which involves walking and chanting his name for three months (Reischauer 1-2).
Pilgrimage also helps a Buddhist to get rid of worldly attachments, like anxiety and grief. Santoka, a Japanese Buddhist, was troubled by alcoholism, grief, and hopelessness such that he wanted to commit suicide. However, he records that by meditating while walking and begging for food, he found liberty. This liberty meant that he did not have to be anxious about what he would eat and where he would sleep. The people he visited gave him food and bed for the night (Seo and Addis 5). He was also an alcoholic, just like his father, and he overcame it by pilgrimage. He records in his poems that every time he felt like drinking, he would start walking. Drinking had cost him his job and his role as a husband and a father. He also overcame the grief that he had after his mother’s, grandmother’s, and brother’s deaths through pilgrimage (Seo and Addis 9). A Japanese woman called Tomoko ascertains that her pilgrimage was primarily a memorial service for her deceased father (Reader 80). It is also believed that a pilgrim is not alone but is accompanied by the spirit of the deceased (Reader 80).
Not only does pilgrimage help a Buddhist to get rid of worldly attachments, but it also helps in identification with nature. Santoka records that during his journey, he would experience rain, which gave him a chance to associate himself with the numerous moods of the natural world (Seo and Addis, 4). Pilgrimage also gives a Buddhist an opportunity to learn new things about life, thus enhancing creativity. Santoka states that he was not able to record a poem if he stayed in one place, but after setting off on the road, his creativity resumed (Seo and Addis 5). Tomoko also got new experiences and learned much about her cultural heritage through walking. She observed and commented on how the Shikoku culture raised their children in a traditional way. It was interesting for her to see children greeting pilgrims in a respectful way in contrast to children of the current generation, who have no regard for such traditions (Reader 82). Just like Tomolo, walking provides a pilgrim with an opportunity to exercise and keep fit (Reader 82).
A Buddhist suffering from an illness needs to consider journeying because it brings about a miraculous healing. According to Reader, Nakano-san’s mentor was diagnosed with cancer. When he sought help from doctors, they could not heal him, thus he decided to go on a pilgrimage. He followed the traditional method of pilgrimage that involves sleeping out, begging for food, and keeping a strict diet. When he returned home from the pilgrimage, he was completely healed of cancer and was healthy again (Reader 84). Pilgrimage can help a pilgrim overcome unhappiness associated with hardships, marriage, and also a lack of employment (Reader 86). However, before the pilgrim can enjoy these benefits, he/she must comply with some requirements that should be met before the journey begins.
Requirements for the Pilgrimage
In order for a disciple to be successful in this journey, he/she needs to have a ‘strong desire’ to obey Buddha’s instruction. This will enable one to overcome the obstacles of the journey. The disciple should also possess the required ‘energy’ to undertake the journey which initially involved walking (San 11). Nowadays, people have the advantage of using vehicles, trains, and planes. Using modern means of transport helps pilgrims travel at their own pace, reducing the exposure to dangerous situations and exhaustion (Reader 83). However, there are others who still prefer to walk, just like in Buddha’s times.
Reader mentions a man whom he met in a pilgrimage back in 1984 called Nakano-san. He traveled on foot, wearing white pilgrimage clothes, and begged for food in the traditional way. At night, he used to pitch a tent that he carried in his rucksack. He would sleep until morning, then continue with his journey (Reader 83). Preparation of a disciple before undertaking the journey also involves effort. He/she needs to have knowledge of the spiritual significance attached to each place to be visited (San 12). These ingredients are very important for any Buddhist making the pilgrimage. They are the ones that made Early Chinese pilgrims like I-Ching, HSuan Tsang, and Fah Hsien successful.
Famous Pilgrims from History
Fah Hsien was the pioneer in pilgrimage, and he spent five years journeying from China to India. His journey involved crossing the Takla Makan desert and passing over the Hindu Kush range of mountains. He stayed in India for six years, and in Sri-Lanka for two years (San 17). He used the sea to travel back home and stopped in Java for five months. His trip back home lasted a whole year. The most popular pilgrim was Hsuan Tsang, who began his journey at the age of seventeen. On his return to China, he received honor from the T’ang Emperor known as T’ai Tsung. He inspired other Buddhists, like I-Ching, who later traveled to India and back to China by sea. His journey covered the years 671-695 AD (San 17). He studied in Nalanda for ten years and translated scriptures in Srivijaya, Sumatra for other ten years.
These pilgrimages were not easy but exhausting and dangerous because the means of transport and infrastructure were inferior to what we have today. Many of Buddha’s disciples lost their lives as a result of diseases and hunger during these pilgrimages. For a pilgrim to find peace, he/she had to walk and beg for food. It is not an easy exercise as it involves self-denial and giving up of worldly possessions (Larkin 81). These famous pilgrims visited shrines, monasteries, and eight holy places closely linked to Buddha.
The Eight Places of Pilgrimage
There are four places that Buddha advised his disciples to visit at least once in their lifetime. The first one is the place of his birth called Lumbini. The second one is Bodh Gaya, where he received supreme enlightenment. The fourth place is the Sarnath, where Buddha set the unexcelled wheel of ‘law rolling’. Then, the fourth place is the Kusinara, where he passed away into Nibbarna. When a pilgrim visits these places, he/she should view them with a feeling of reverence (San 104-122).
The other four are considered as holy places because they were sights of Buddha’s miracles. The first place is Savatthi, where he did a miracle so as to silence unbelievers. It is believed that he later went to Tavatimsa to minister to his mother and came down from heaven to Sankasia in the company of Brahma and Sakka. Brahma, also known as Bonten, sees and hears everything. He has an unimaginable power, and for one to receive his salvation, he/she needs to make a prayer. He gives peace and freedom from worldly passions to the pious Buddhist (Tetsuro 35). The third place that a Buddhist should visit is the Rajagaha, where Buddha is believed to have tamed an elephant that was drunk. The last place is called Vesali, where monkeys dug a pond for Buddha and also gave him food (San 121). Miracles remind the pilgrim that nothing is impossible.
From the paper, it is evident that pilgrimage plays a central role in the beliefs and practice of Buddhism. The purpose of pilgrimage to the Buddhist is not tourism, but it enables a pilgrim to get rid of any worldly attachment through meditation and self-denial. Not only does pilgrimage strengthen a Buddhist’s spirituality, but it provides solutions to some of life’s worries and problems, e.g. sickness and death. Journeying was initially done on foot, but today many people use modern means of transport for convenience purposes. Nevertheless, some still prefer to travel in the traditional way for the chief purpose of upholding ascetism.