Going for a Pilgrimage

Some years ago I experienced many inspiring days and weeks together with my wife at Buddhist and Hindu pilgrimage sites in India, Nepal, Burma and Thailand. I clearly remember how overhelming it was walking, sitting and chanting at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya. We were touched by the energy of the place spent many hours each day at the temple compound in a state full of peace, bliss and good feelings.But why and how does visiting particular Buddhist places help us? India, China, Korea, Thailand and Japan are full of temples and holy places. Do those locations indeed have special powers that benefit us as pilgrims? Here is a story dealing with this. Once a successful businessman from China was about to leave for a business trip to a place in another part of his country. When his old mother heard about this, she immediately was reminded of a holy shrine near his destination, where bones from Buddha Shakyamuni were stored—at least this is what Buddhist people believed. So the mother asked her son to bring some relics from this place. The man went there, had a successful business trip, and only when he arrived back at his hometown he remembered his mother’s wish. But alas, he had completely forgotten about the relics. By chance he saw some bones from a dead dog at the side of the road near the railway station and picked them up, wrapped them in a nice cloth and went home. When he entered the house his mother immediately asked him whether he had been able to bring some relics with him. He handed the beautifully wrapped bones to her; the old lady was overhelmed with joy and tears were flowing down her cheeks. The same day she went to a Buddhist shop and bought a small golden pagoda in which she placed the holy bones from Buddha and placed it prominently on her altar. Soon the neighbors and the whole village heard about the relics. They all came to the house, did many bows and practiced there together in front of the altar. When the house became too small, they built a temple there with all the donations that appeared. Finally this place became a famous pilgrimage site in the area. The old lady was very happy and attained great enlightenment due to her persistent and intense practice in front of her altar with the holy relics. She also helped and served all the pilgrims and spent time together with them like a great bodhisattva. There is no doubt about one thing: what we usually find at pilgrimage sites are old stones and bricks, maybe old bones or teeth connected with old stories. Is a pilgrimage just a sentimental deceit, brainwashing and self-deception? As the Avatamsaka Sutra says: Our mind makes everything. If we believe in holiness, we see holiness. If we open ourselves to something we believe is special, it becomes special. Then it is possible that this “special” affects us, nourishes us, inspires us and generates a special experience. Zen Master Seung Sahn once said that Un Mun’s shit stick has already broken all temples. The message is clear: don’t hold on to “special,” don’t attach to holiness, don’t even keep any ideas. Then everything is Buddha—even dog bones are Buddha. Our practice means to become clear, attain freedom and help all beings. In this respect a pilgrimage tour may become a wonderful part of our practice. Everyone who has been to Bodh Gaya or to famous temples in China or Korea knows how much inspiration such a visit can induce. We meet new comrades on the path, practice with full endeavor and experience supportive energy. We get free from our situation, condition and opinions, and we attain “Sky is blue over the old pagoda.”