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Buddhadharma : Summer 2007
summer 2007| 58 |buddhadharma age of eighty he passed from this world. There are other important sites as well, such as those where the Buddha performed his great miracles and those where he and the sangha held their rain retreats. But the “Four Great Wonders,” as they are known, remain the primary places of Buddhist pilgrimage.1 Ancient cultures seemed to understand the importance of grounding their spiritual life in the rock and stone of a specific place; they knew that place carries not just its own physicality, but also the energy of human and spiritual unfolding. Place is a container of story and legend. This makes place an authentic book of history and pilgrimage one’s attempt to read that book. This is especially true for Buddhists, because the Buddha’s life story is the map of the Buddhist path. The sight of the holy shrines, say the texts on pilgrimage, should not arouse craving, nor the pleasure and excitement of sightseeing, but rather the awakening of virtuous potential in our mind- stream. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, commenting on Buddhist pilgrimage, or dharma yantra, says: The dharma yantra is very important for Buddhists. When we visit these sacred sites, we are reminded of the Master, Lord Buddha. It develops in us a strong sense of compassion. Ideally, one should be a better person when one returns, otherwise it is not useful, a waste of money and time. Herein lies an interesting proposition: the out- ward act of pilgrimage can, indeed should, lead to an inward change. The pilgrim sets off to a geo- graphic location, yet the pilgrim’s real quest is not for a physical place but rather for an inner destina- tion. The pilgrim can’t just be a tourist. The Early Pilgrims The early Buddhist pilgrims endured tremendous hardship, and some of them changed the course of history. The first historical record of Buddhist pilgrimage belongs to the great Indian emperor Ashoka, who embarked on his pilgrimage in the third century BCE, approximately two hundred years after the Buddha’s passing. Being emperor and possessing tremendous devotion, he did more than merely visit the sacred sites. He also erected the very stupas, temples, and monuments that marked these sacred sites and gave them their grandeur. While there is evidence of pilgrimage before Ashoka, the force of his imperial patronage clearly sanctioned the sacred geography and fostered the practice of Buddhist pilgrimage in India. This tradition was perpetuated by sages such as Fax- ian (Fa-hsien) in the fifth century and Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) in the seventh, who were instru- mental in introducing Buddhism to China, and by the eleventh-century Tibetan master Marpa the Translator, who established the Kagyu lineage in Tibet (also known as the New Translation School of Buddhism). This practice of pilgrimage played an important role in the spread of Buddhism across Asia. Xuanzang remains the most renowned pilgrim of all time and one of the most important figures in the history of Buddhism in China. Traveling on horseback, camelback, by elephant, and on foot, he crossed the tallest mountains and harshest deserts of the world. He covered an astonishing ten thousand miles on a pilgrimage that lasted sixteen years. Even today his name is a household word through much of Asia, and his pilgrimage is one of the great adventure stories of all time. The famous Chinese novel Monkey is based on his journey. We current-day Buddhists owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to these early pilgrims. Ashoka Pilgrims entering the Mahabodhi Temple. 1 Lumbini is in present-day Nepal, while Bodhgaya, Sarnath, and Kushinagar are in India. Bodhgaya and Kushinagar are in the province of Bihar; Sarnath is located in Uttar Pradesh.