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 A÷oka who went to Bodh Gayà 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.
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.”
- Middle Land Middle Way, A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Buddha’s India, Ven. S.Dhammika, 1999.