As of late I have been reflecting on the pilgrimage I undertook earlier this year around India and Nepal, which I extended somewhat into China and finally Japan. I documented the trip on this blog complete with photographs, but also compiled all of the entries into a single page available here.
It was without a doubt the most significant trip I have ever taken in my life and probably more valuable than my MA degree in terms of what I learned along the way. It was not only intellectually intriguing, what with coming face to face with the holy sites of Buddhism in India and Nepal, but also quite an emotionally powerful experience for me.
In the Maha-parinibbana Sutta (Digha Nikaya 16) the Buddha outlines the significance of undertaking a pilgrimage.
"Ananda, there are four places the sight of which will arouse strong emotion in those with faith. Which four? 'Here the Tathagata was born', this is the first place. 'Here the Tathagata attained Enlightenment', this is the second place. 'Here the Tathagata set in motion the Wheel of the Dhamma', this is the third place. 'Here the Tathagata attained final Nirvana without remainder', this is the fourth place. The monk or nun, layman or laywoman, who has faith should visit these places. "I visited all four of these sites. The first one was Bodh Gaya, the place where the Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi Tree. As I stepped into the precincts of Mahābodhi Temple where the Bodhi Tree is enclosed my mind became calm and quiet. I found myself speechless. I wandered around slowly feeling both great awe and another emotion I cannot describe. I finally sat down on a cold stone bench under a grey sky, which had only just stopped drizzling, and tears uncontrollably streamed down my face as I gazed toward the center of the complex where the Bodhi Tree stands. I felt something akin to relief coupled with immense joy. I sensed that many lives ago I had sought to come to this place, yet was never able. I reflected on the great merit and good fortune I must have to be able to come to such a sacred place.
I had similar emotionally moving experiences at the other sites.
Venerable Dhammika has a good site detailing the history of Bodh Gaya. He explains the emotional value taking a pilgrimage might have on a person.
Going to a place made sacred by the Buddha's presence, or even the process of getting there, can have a similar effect. On the open road, away from mundane preoccupations and familiar surroundings, the pilgrim has time to think about his or her life and practice of the Dhamma. The arduous but steady progress towards the goal may become analogous to the pilgrim's journey on the Eightfold Path and stimulate the determination to walk that Path with more commitment. On finally reaching the goal, the pilgrim will see places and sights associated with the Buddha which can arouse intense faith and provide the opportunity for deep contemplation.I have to agree with his remarks here. The journey leaves one with a lot of time to contemplate while on the onward path. One must also maintain a steady mind in the face of obstacles which inevitably arise along the way. In my case having to deal with dodgy auto-rickshaw drivers, professional touts and dodgy merchants were all opportunities for practising patience. I remind myself though that in the past it was armed bandits who harassed travellers, not irritating touts.
Now, it was not just visiting the sacred sites that proved edifying, but the people I met along the way.
In Bodh Gaya it was just by sheer chance that I ran into a Tibetan Buddhist nun whom I knew from back in Canada at the old temple I was a member of. I was in an internet cafe and turned my head to see a familiar face and sure enough it was somebody I knew. I had no knowledge that she was going to be in Bodh Gaya and the sheer chance of encountering her was certainly astronomically unlikely. What good fortune and auspicious that meeting was. We enjoyed several cups of coffee and caught up.
In Lumbini I also happened by chance to meet a certain somewhat famous monk by the name of Bhikkhu Buddhadhatu, who was leading a number of pilgrims from Laos to the birthplace of the Buddha. With a warm smile and kind words he invited me to join him in his prayers for world peace. What good fortune I had to be able to meet such a good natured and benevolent monk, especially at Lumbini.
I also had another chance encounter with a certain internet acquaintance in front of the stūpa at Boudhanath in Kathmandu, Nepal. While I had told him I might be going to Kathmandu, we had not been in contact and he was unaware I was in the city. Just by chance I turned the corner towards the stūpa and saw him much to our mutual surprise. If I had decided to spend a few more moments in the shop I had been in earlier or had simply decided not to return to Boudhanath that day I certainly would not have encountered him in such an auspicious manner in front of the stūpa.
I am of the mind that all these events were not mere chance, but karma ripening at very opportune moments. One chance encounter with a Buddhist friend is one thing, but having two in the space of a few weeks is something else. Moreover the emotions I felt sitting under the Bodhi Tree or at the site of the Buddha's death were not at all mere fascination. They gushed up from some deep part of my existence beyond this life. I have always felt affectionate towards Buddhism. As a youth I did not understand why, but I had positive sentiments and attraction towards images of the Buddha, monastics and all the complementary Buddhist cultural accessories from various countries. As a scholar I never get bored of studying the subject. I always find it refreshing and appealing.
As for the future I will probably be returning to Bodh Gaya again first thing next year to receive the Kālacakra initiation from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Sometime in the future I would also like to travel more around China, especially Mount Wutai, which is said to be the earthly abode of Mañjuśrī. If possible doing the trek around Mount Kailash, which is within the borders of China neighbouring India, would also be desirable. There are even many sites around Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia worth visiting, too. I hope in this lifetime to visit them all. Travel is something I quite relish if only for the edifying efficacy it possesses when done right.