Pilgrimage in India


Almsround in Bodh Gaya

In February I had the opportunity to go on pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy sights in India. It is always an inspirational journey to visit Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha realized Nibbana, Lumbini, where he was born, Sarnath, where he gave his first teaching and Kusinara, where he passed away by entering parinibbana. To think that we were walking on the same ground that the Buddha walked on and sitting under the Bodhi Tree just a few metres from where the Buddha was enlightened was powerful. Many people had tears of gratitude welling up. We also climbed up to the Buddha’s kuti on Vulture’s Peak before dawn and chanted and meditated as the sun rose. We visited Nalanda University, the Bamboo Grove, the cave where the first council was held, the Jetavana, Anathapindika’s park and monastery where the Buddha lived for 19 years, and the Buddha’s bone relics in the museums of Patna and New Delhi.

In the old days pilgrims from foreign countries had to face a long, difficult and life threatening journey to reach the places that we can so conveniently visit today. The faith and persistence that those early pilgrims needed gave them a great inner strength that supported their spiritual aspirations. Buddhism thrived in India until about 800 years ago. At that point many of the monasteries and their inhabitants came to a sudden and violent end with the Muslim invasions in the 12th and13th centuries. The Buddhist holy sights were then left in ruins to be gradually engulfed by nature and mostly forgotten. By the 19th century knowledge of the location of these special places had been nearly entirely lost. Fortunately a group of dedicated British archeologists in India cared enough to search for these ancient sights. Using detailed information from the travel memoirs of ancient Chinese pilgrims, they were able to rediscover the exact whereabouts of the major events of the Buddha’s life. Uncovering pillars with inscriptions erected by the great king Asoka to mark the spots in the 3rd century BCE left no doubt as to the validity of the locations.

A true pilgrimage is an inner journey that mirrors the outer path. The same obstacles, patient-endurance and rapture that are part of traveling to the holy sights are reflected internally as one traverses the heart’s landscape. A true pilgrimage is as much a journey towards the center of our mind’s purity as it is an exercise of moving the body through time and space. In this way, even while in New Zealand, every one of us can experience the deepest meaning of pilgrimage.

With metta, Ajahn Chandako