#108: ANOTHER PILGRIMAGE. Considering one of the Buddha’s last instructions to his monks—“Be you lamps unto yourselves.”—and his emphasis on study of the teachings over worship of the teacher, it has always seemed paradoxical to me that he himself should have recommended pilgrimage to his followers as an aid to practice, but so he did: pilgrimages to his birthplace (Lumbini, a village just over the edge of the Nepali border with India), and the sites of his enlightenment (Bodh Gaya), first teaching (Sarnath, near Varanasi) and the great passing into nirvana (Kushinagar). These became the four principle sites of Buddhist pilgrimage, but over the years other minor sites were added and now, mostly in Bihar in northeast India but as far down as the cave temples at Ajanta, in Maharashtra, a whole traditional route is in place. At Bodh Gaya particularly, there is a whole community of temples and study centers (as well as food stands and souvenir stalls) and monks and laypeople arrive in busloads to meditate and do prostrations and practice and to take vows; on my first visit I saw two Japanese women who were becoming nuns having their heads shaved, the Buddhist equivalent of taking the tonsure. Even in one’s hotel room one is far more likely to be roused out by early chanting at a neighboring Burmese or Thai temple than by one’s alarm clock. Chaucer and Wu Ch’eng-en have both taught us that pilgrimage can provide us with our best views of the rollick of the human comedy and still leave us to be shaken at the high moments down to our souls; nothing in my travels has ever moved me more, on my first visit to the shocks and glories of India, than the sight of the Vajra Throne at Bodh Gaya, or moved me more than the noble sculpture of the Great Passing at Kushinagar, the little nowhere village that the Buddha’s disciples so deplored.
Perhaps the best book for preparatory reading on the subject is Nirvana: Buddhist Pilgrimages in India, by Subhadra Sen Gupta (New Delhi, Rupa & Co, 2005). The best and most practical guide book is Where the Buddha Walked: A Companion to the Buddhist Places of India, by Rana P. B. Singh (Varanasi, Indica Books, 2009), which will tell you how to get there and what you’re looking at. The other book to take with you is Best Foot Forward: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Sacred Sites of the Buddha, by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse (Shambhala, 2018), an excellent guide to assist in the spiritual practice during the pilgrimage.
A few more titles: Meeting the Buddha: On Pilgrimage in Buddhist India, edited by Molly Emma Aitken (Riverhead Books, 1995) is a good compendium of writers’ accounts of their visits to the Buddhist sites. Frederick M. Archer’s Bodh Gaya (New Delhi, Oxford, 2010) is a good brief history. Walking with the Buddha (New Delhi, Good Earth, 2009) is more pictures than text, but the pictures are very pretty. Buddhist Pilgrimage, a guide book by Chan Khoon San, can be read in its entirety on urbandharma.org. The most comprehensive volume I’ve seen is Holy Places of the Buddha, by Elizabeth Cook (Dharma Publishing, 1994), a narrative reference book which covers not only the pilgrimage route but the main historical Buddhist sites on the Indian subcontinent. Walk with the Master is a documentary directed by Ram Kumar, available on disc from Kultur DVD. The text for the Buddha’s words on pilgrimage are a passage in the Mahaparanibbana Sutta, translated by Maurice Walshe in The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya (Wisdom Publications, 1995).