The Buddha’s Travels

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To travel (cārikā or saṭcaraṇa) is to go from one place to another, usually over a long distance. The Buddha is thought of as being primarily a teacher and this impression is correct. But he was not a teacher like Plato who taught in an academy or like Aquinas who lectured in a university. All his teaching was done at roadside stops, in mango groves on the outskirts of villages, at wayside shrines and in city parks.

The Buddha was concerned that as many people as possible should have the opportunity to hear his Dhamma and to accomplish this he spent much of his life travelling. The Tipitaka records some of the Buddha’s itineraries. For example, in the 12 months after his enlightenment he went from Uruvela to Sarnath, back to Uruvelā and from there to Rājagaha via Bodh Gaya, a distance of about 315 kilometres. One of the longest journeys mentioned in the Tipitaka has him going from Rajagaha to Savatthi via Vesali and then back to Rājagaha on the alternative route by way of Kīṭāgiri and Āḷavī, about 920 kilometres altogether. His final journey took him from Rājagaha to Pātaḷigāma, Vesāli and eventually to Kusinara, a 275 kilometre trek which must have been strenuous and trying for an 80 year old man (D.II,72-137).

The Buddha is often described as travelling with 500 monks, a conventional number meaning ‘many,’ or simply with ‘a large group of monks.’ At other times, without informing his attendant and companions, he would go off and wander by himself for a while (S.III,95). It seems that he went everywhere by foot except for when he had to cross wide rivers as at Payāga, modern Allahabad (Vin.III,5) and Pāṭaligāma, modern Patna (M.I,225), when he would have taken a ferry. In only one place is he described as wearing sandals, so he probably went barefooted most of the time (Vin.I,187). When on the road he might sleep in a roadside rest house, an old potter’s shed (M.III,238) or, if nothing else was available, out in the open ‘on the leaf strewn ground’ (A.I136). Once when he was in the Kuru country he stayed in a small hut, ‘its floor carpeted with grass’ (M.I,501).

The Buddha once said to his monks, ‘Go forth for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the good and the happiness of gods and humans. Teach the Dhamma which is beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle and beautiful in the end. Explain both the letter and the spirit of the holy life, completely fulfilled and perfectly pure’ (Vin.I,20). In saying this the Buddha was expressing his own reason for undertaking the many long and arduous journeys he did, out of compassion for the world.