Places of Buddhist Pilgrimage
by Jeremy Russell
A buddha appears but rarely in this world and after his passing away leaves behind
three kinds of relics: the remains of his body, the utensils he used, such as his alms
bowl, and the edifices and places commemorating events in his life. Of the relics of
Shakyamuni, the remains of his body, although widely distributed across Asia, are becoming
increasingly inaccessible owing to political circumstances. As for the second type of
relic, although the various objects used by the Buddha were preserved for long and were
seen by both Fa Hien and Hsuan Chwang, many have since disappeared. Thus the fact that the
eight places of pilgrimage and the four great places in particular can still be visited
with moderate ease assumes a special importance.
In this account we have described some of the events of the Buddha's life associated
with these places. We have also mentioned some of the subsequent developments--the
building of stupas, temples and monasteries, and the flourishing practice of the Dharma
amongst the resident monks up to the twelfth century. In doing so an attempt has been made
to draw attention to the religious significance rather than the mere historical interest
of these places.
Now that in recent years new temples and monasteries have been built and there is at
least one monk residing in seven of the eight places, it can be said that the practice of
the Dharma has been re-established there. The work of the late Prime Minister Nehru in
encouraging and assisting this movement should not be overlooked. Nor should the
activities of the buddhist orders from the many contributing countries be underestimated.
Had these orders not maintained pure lineages over the seven centuries since Buddhism left
India, there would be nothing to bring back to these sacred places. Thus the renewal of
these sites may be regarded as an indication of the strength and purity of the Order
After much discussion of the places themselves, it may be appropriate to say a little
about the practice and efficacy of pilgrimage. The Buddha advised those of his followers
who could make pilgrimage to holy places to do so with mindfulness of the actions of the
enlightened ones associated with them. He further advised them to engage in religious
practices in the places of pilgrimage. Buddha himself had shown such respect. For example,
at Vajrasana and Sarnath he circumambulated before sitting where previous buddhas had sat.
There are many such practices particularly relevant to the pilgrimage places. In the
Tibetan tradition, for example, as well as making circumambulation, prostrations and
offerings of flowers, incense and light, a pilgrim is encouraged to offer the "seven
branch prayer" and the "mandala of the purified universe," and to recite
the mantra of Shakyamuni Buddha and numerous sutras. At Vulture's Peak in particular,
where the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, the epitome of the Buddha's doctrine, were
expounded, the Heart Sutra is often recited. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
has also compiled an anthology of buddhist meditational prayers to be read in all places
or times associated with Buddha Shakyamuni. Entitled The Sublime Path of the Victorious
Ones, this is available in English translation (Library of Tibetan Works and Archives,
Dharamsala, H.P., India).
The merit acquired through these practices of circumambulation and so forth is greatly
increased in the places of pilgrimage through what is referred to as "the power of
the object." Illustrating this is the story of the monk who prostrated himself to the
Buddha at Nalanda, wishing for birth as a universal monarch. Fulfillment of his prayer was
assured because of the power of the object to whom he had made prostration. In a similar
but contrary manner, Devadatta and others fell directly to hell because of the power of
the object whom they knowingly attempted to harm.
However, in this context it is important to have a proper motivation and to be mindful
of both one's actions and the object. His Holiness the Dalai Lama recently admonished
pilgrims to Bodhgaya, saying that although circumambulation of the Mahabodhi Temple at
Vajrasana could be immensely beneficial, to do it without respect or while continuing to
chatter to one's friends and so forth would be as valuable as circumambulating Gaya
The Buddha many times referred to the value of pilgrimage. To give a quotation found in
a commentary to the Vinaya Sutra by the First Dalai Lama (1392-1474), which is
known in Tibetan as Lung-Treng-Tik:
Bhikshus, after my passing away, if all the sons and daughters of good family and the
faithful, so long as they live, go to the four holy places, they should go and remember:
here at Lumbini the enlightened one was born; here at Bodhgaya he attained enlightennent;
here at Sarnath he turned twelve wheels of Dharma; and here at Kushinagar he entered
Bhikshus, after my passing away there will be activities such as circumambulation of
these places and prostration to them.
Thus it should be told, for they who have faith in my deeds and awareness of their own
will travel to higher states.
After my passing away, the new bhikshus who come and ask of the doctrine should be told
of these four places and advised that a pilgrimage to them will help purify their
previously accumulated negative karmas, even the five heinous actions.
With grateful thanks to Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey for his advice, and to the many by whose
efforts the eight places of pilgrimage have been restored. May this brief account, despite
any mistakes it might contain, contribute to their flourishing further.
Tibetan Tradition of Mental Development; Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey
The Life of the Buddha; A. Foucher
A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms; Fa Hien, tr. James Legge
On Hsuan Chwang's Travels in India; Thomas Waiters
Crystal Mirror V; ed. Tarthang Tulku
Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India; Sukumar Dutt
Buddha Gaya Temple. Its History (Prajna vols. 1, 2); Deepak Kumar Barna
Encyclopedia of Buddhism; ed. G.P. Malalasekara
History of Buddhism in India; Lama Taranatha, tr. Lama Chimpa and Alaka
The Door of Liberation; Geshe Wangyal