The tradition of going on pilgrimage is a practice that's been encouraged by all the great religions of the world for millennia.
Generally, the purpose of a spiritual pilgrimage is to visit somewhere 'holy'. Where and what 'holy' is, though, changes depending on the spiritual tradition and approach being followed. For some religions, a place is considered holy because a Messiah was born or murdered there, or a nail or piece of wood is holy because a saint blessed it. From a Buddhist point of view, a person, an object or even a moment in time is described as being 'holy' when it's not stained or defiled by human greed and aggression, or more importantly, by a judgemental and dualistic mind. Therefore, strictly speaking, there's no need for any of us to seek out external holy places or holy people because, as Lord Buddha himself promised, "Whoever thinks of me, I am in front of them". Therefore, the moment we think of or feel devotion for the Buddha or his teachings, where we are he will be right there with us, and that place will become holy.
Two and a half thousand years after Lord Buddha passed into parinirvana, present-day Buddhist practitioners are able to visit places like Bodhgaya where our teacher became enlightened, and Varanasi where he taught, as well as all the other Buddhist holy sites that even two hundred years ago were virtually unknown. We encourage each other and ourselves by retelling the stories about what happened there, and most of them are comforting, inspiring and often picturesque. But not all holy places have such uplifting histories.
Buddhist holy sites are not only those places associated with the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, for example, where he was born, became enlightened, taught, and passed into parinirvana. There are many others related to all the other buddhas, disciples, arhats and bodhisattvas of our time. Tantric Buddhism offers us amazing descriptions of holy sites and shrines in as many as fifty-six places throughout the world, as well as various hidden holy sites, like the Shambhala Kingdom, that aren't limited to a single geographical location. These hidden lands were discovered by the great tantric masters of the past and they have subsequently become places where people dedicate their entire lives to practise.
The Buddha's teachings offer a variety of methods to help us remember these four statements, from simply chanting mantras to extremely elaborate meditation practices. In fact, remembering these teachings and putting them into practise is the backbone of the Buddhist path, and one of the many traditional methods that helps us do this is the practice of pilgrimage.
While many spiritual traditions encourage their followers to go on pilgrimage, as Shakyamuni Buddha is the supreme teacher in whom all Buddhists take refuge and whose teachings we do our best to follow, for us the most significant holy places are those where Buddha taught and acted for the benefit of sentient beings. While we should aspire to visit all these places, traditionally four sites are considered to be the most important:
- Lumbini, where Siddhartha was born in this world as an ordinary person,
- Bodhgaya, where Siddhartha became enlightened,
- Varanasi (Sarnath) where he taught the path to enlightenment,
- Kushinagar where he passed into parinirvana.
It's important to remember, though, that the main point of pilgrimage isn't just to visit a saint's birthplace, or to gaze on the site of an extraordinary happening. We undertake a pilgrimage to help us remember all the Buddha's teachings, the quintessence of which is to be found in the four statements he made before he passed away. As Buddhist practitioners, remembering the Buddha isn't like having a daydream about our teacher - what we're doing is remembering each and every one of his teachings, because the Buddha IS the teaching, not just the teacher. And this is why many traditional Buddhist countries, like Thailand, Tibet and Burma have named monasteries after Indian Buddhist holy sites, and have even built their own replicas of the Bodhgaya temple, as well as many other famous shrines and representations.
– From the Introduction