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Buddhadharma : Summer 2009
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 20 0 9 78 Reviews beguiling charlatans, guiding deities, and competitive fellow pilgrims. It is during this period that India came to be known as Phagyul, or the “land of the noble ones,” shortened by Huber to “holy land.” India and Tibet were par- ent and child, guru and disciple. In the history of Buddhist pilgrimage, a variety of considerations shaped which Indian sites were important and why. The famous “eight great places” (ashta- mahasthana) gradually emerged over the centuries through a series of influences, from early textual references, to eighth- century sculpted stone stelae marking the spots, to contemporary scholastic spec- ulation and invention about their loca- tions. Huber points out that the current popular list of eight—Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Kushinagara, Shravasti, Rajagriha, Vaishali, and Samkashya—is an invention of Western scholars and practitioners, supported neither by evi- dence from Tibetan cultural history nor by the ethnography of actual Tibetan pilgrimage practice. While Tibetans refer to the “eight great places,” they feel no particular allegiance to any particular list, for the “eight great” serves merely as a general appellation for India. Huber demonstrates that there is no single static tradition of pilgrimage in Tibetan Bud- dhism, and that factors Tibetan and non- Tibetan, ancient and modern, continue to shape the understanding of Indian sacred places. One of the most intriguing glimpses Huber gives us of Tibetan India comes from Vajrayana perspectives, which pro- vide an outlook on pilgrimage that’s quite different than the “eight great” view. The Chakrasamvara Tantra, for example, speaks of pithas that are abodes of dei- ties, especially dakinis, who are mani- festations of enlightened activity. These pithas carry great blessings from their Vajrayana mandalas, enabling the practi- tioner to advance quickly in practice and realization of the siddhis, or powers of awakening. The pithas are located within the human body of the practitioner, such as in the knees, anklebones, ears, throat, heart-center, and navel. While engaging in tantric meditation, the practitioner is blessed by the deities in these centers and experiences the bliss of embodiment, which aids the realization of the nature of mind. This practice serves as a kind of inner pilgrimage. Simultaneously, the pithas are located in an outer physical world, especially in Indian sacred places. The internal and external pithas are said to be inter- changeable. Even today, tantric teachers may advise students who have developed stability in the practice of Vajrayana to engage in pilgrimage, in order to test their sacred outlook and to deepen the experience of the pithas of their own bodies. Pilgrimage can be undertaken through the pithas of one’s own body in a single session of practice, or can be traversed through the sacred body of the holy land of India. The cult of the pitha blossomed in Tibet in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and fueled the fer- vor for pilgrimage in the centuries to fol- low, up to the present day. Tibetans have often substituted interest in the eight great sites of the historical Buddha with a Vajrayana encounter with pithas. There are twenty-four pithas in the outer world, according to tantric tradi- tion, but the lineages do not agree on their locations, and systematic pilgrimage to these sites was rare in early centuries. Huber chooses one of the most impor- tant of the pithas, Devikota, in order to demonstrate the range of interpretations of its location. Devikota was the site of potent dakini visions of renowned sid- dhas such as Virupa and Udhilipa, and is equated with the all-important eyes of the deity. Between the fourteenth and sev- enteenth centuries, at least four separate sites in India were identified as Devikota, all part of a scholastic attempt to under- stand Buddhist India from a distance. Huber notes the remarkable fact that these conflicting locations of Devikota seemed never to be debated in Tibet. Eventually, parallel pithas were dis- covered in Tibet, and were described as direct portals to those pitha sites in India. it was India that provided the dharma that shaped them spiritually and cultur- ally. From India came the sacred texts and transmissions that turned Tibetan life from warfare and conquest to spiri- tual awakening, and Indian origins authenticated Buddhist lineages, teach- ers, and practices. Yet Huber finds that the India held in the minds of Tibetans before the twelfth century was primar- ily an idealized version, drawn from the scanty accounts of occasional pilgrims, and from translated Sanskrit texts, both sacred and secular. Still, Tibetans turned to India for inspi- ration, legitimation, and training from the imperial period (eighth century) onward. At first, the pilgrimages were more com- monly visualizations in which the sites of Buddhist India were called to mind devo- tionally. Travel to India in this period was deemed treacherous, life-threatening, and unnecessary, given the number of Indian teachers in Tibet. Beginning in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a greater number of Tibetans journeyed to India, most nota- bly the lama-translators (lotsawa), such as Marpa of Lhodrak (1012–1097). This was the era in which pilgrimage became a practice, known as nekor, or “circumam- bulating the ne,” which is still followed in contemporary Tibetan culture. Ne are locations or residences of a Buddha (such as Shakyamuni) or an adept such as a sid- dha (holder of power) or dakini (tantric female deity), and these holy places are said to be imbued with the power of those great beings. The pilgrims’ presence at such a place could vitalize and empower meditation practice and realization. The accounts of pilgrims like Marpa are rich in detail, recalling the hardships and adventures of the journey, and these accounts became epic in Tibet. Tibetans typically brought huge quantities of gold to fund their travels, which invited the threat of robbery or assault. The hagi- ographies (namthar) of these travelers recounted the challenges they faced— both visionary and actual—in their encounters with surly border guards, elusive and unconventional teachers,