Pilgrimage (cetiyacàrikà) is the act of travelling to a place of religious significance for specifically religious reasons.
In Buddhism, pilgrimage is neither an obligation as in Islam nor a penance as in Christianity, although it has long been and remains even today a popular practice. The Buddha recommended that his disciples visit at least once in their lives the places where the four most important events in his life took place – Lumbini where he was born, Bodh Gaya where he was enlightened, Sarnath where he first proclaimed the Dhamma and Kushinagar where he passed away (D.II,141).
However, while going on pilgrimage is good being virtuous is far more important. The Jàtakamàlà says, ‘More beautiful than any garland, sweeter than any taste, truthfulness generates great good and is less arduous than practicing austerity or pilgrimage to far-off shrines.’ The first person we know of to have gone on pilgrimage was King Ashoka who went to Bodh Gaya in about 260 BCE and to Lumbini some ten years later. The most famous travel book of all time and one that has been continually in print for fourteen centuries was written by the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang. This Buddhist monk spent sixteen years on pilgrimage in India and later wrote an account of his journey which is filled with such detailed and accurate information that it continues to be studied by historians, geographers and travellers in India even today.
The Significance of Buddhist Pilgrimage
(adapted from an article by Dr. David N. Snyder)
The Buddhist Path begins with Faith, then Knowledge, then Experience, and finally Wisdom. Since the Path begins with faith, which can include devotion to the Buddha, in appreciation for the teachings, a good practice to complete some time in your life, is a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya. This is the place in India where the Buddha attained enlightenment.
This should only be done if you have the time and financial resources to do so. But if you do, it is a valuable devotional practice, which can include knowledge, experience, and wisdom too.
The Buddha sat in meditation under the Bodhi tree and attained enlightenment in the year 528 B.C. The Maha Bodhi temple marks this spot. The original Bodhi tree was destroyed and the current one next to the Maha Bodhi temple is a descendant of the original. The original tree was located at the spot of the main Buddha statue in the Maha Bodhi temple, making the temple truly the most sacred spot in Buddhism.
In year 2006 I went on my first Buddhist pilgrimage to India and Nepal and saw all of the important places, the birth (Lumbini), enlightenment (Bodh Gaya), the first teaching (Sarnath), and the death-parinibbana (Kushinigar).
Noticeably the most important site in Buddhism is Bodh Gaya where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The other sites were mostly ruins and did not have too many temples around them. But in Bodh Gaya there were many temples from many nations, many more tourists, and the beautiful Maha Bodhi temple complex where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The Maha Bodhi temple was most likely originally built by King Ashoka in the 3rd century B.C. and rebuilt after warfare destruction in the 2nd century A.D. and subsequently repaired over the centuries up to the present time. It is 52 meters high (171 feet). There are also gardens, lakes, and a 24 meter (80 feet) Buddha statue in Bodh Gaya.
This shows that the holiest place in Buddhism (if there is such a thing) is Bodh Gaya. Pilgrimages are not too important in Buddhism because one can get enlightenment anywhere, but for those who wish to do this devotional and respectful practice, the Maha Bodhi complex in Bodh Gaya is clearly the most important place.
This gets me to reflect on the holy sites of all the different religions:
In Islam, the holiest place is Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed. The religion is centered around the prophet Mohammed as he is considered the final prophet by many Muslims.
In Judaism, the holiest place is Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem is the capitol of the ancient and modern nation of Israel. The religion of Judaism is centered on ideas that the Jewish people are both a faith and a people. Especially in Israel, the people see themselves as both a people and a religion.
In Christianity, a very holy place and pilgrimage site is also Jerusalem, but not for the above political reasons. Christians venerate Jerusalem as the place of Jesus' crucifixion. The Christian faith is centered around the death of Christ, believing that Christ rose from the dead in Jerusalem.
The clear contrast in Buddhism is that it is not the place of his birth, not the place of his death, but rather the place of enlightenment that is so important. Buddhism is a come and see religion with much effort required of each individual. We all must take the time to do study and practice, to attain insights. It is a hard work religion and this is why the enlightenment place is venerated most of all.
This is not to disparage or say that the other religions are bad or in any way lower, but it is just interesting to see the differences in the religions as to what they define as the most important pilgrimage site.
Even though one can achieve enlightenment anywhere, there is a recommendation by the Buddha for pilgrimage for those who can afford it and have the time to do so. From the Maha-parinibbana sutta, Digha Nikaya:
“Ananda, there are four places the sight of which will arouse strong emotion in those with faith. Which four? Here the Tathagata (enlightened one) was born, this is the first place. Here the Tathagata attained Enlightenment, this is the second place. Here the Tathagata set in motion the Wheel of the Dhamma, this is the third place. Here the Tathagata attained final Nibbana without remainder, this is the fourth place. The monk or nun, layman or laywoman, who has faith should visit these places. And anyone who dies while making a pilgrimage to these places with a devout heart will, at the breaking up of the body, be reborn in heaven.”