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I'm aware that other religions such as Islam have a great emphasis on pilgrimage. Do any Buddhist schools or traditions also have an emphasis on pilgrimage and if so where do they go? I know that there are places with particular significance for Buddhism such as Bodhi Gaya and Buddhists do go there. But is that journey actually a significant part of their practice or tradition or is it just that it's personally inspirational to go.

From my own point of view I would love to go see places of historical and religious significance to Buddhism. If I did though I wouldn't view this as part of my practice as a Buddhist. It would almost be religious sightseeing.

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Several Books have been written about the practice of pilgrimage. See for example Buddhist Pilgrimage, by Chan Khoon San (via buddhanet). Holy Places of the Buddha, Crystal Mirror Vol. 9 is packed with details about the Buddhist pilgrimage places, though it is strongly biased towards traditional Tibetan views of history.

There is a discussion about pilgrimage places in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (Dīghanikāya 16; p.263 in Walshe's translation). It's widely thought that such passages come relatively late, but we do not really know how long after the Buddha. On the other hand there are stories in the Pāḷi suttas of people undertaking long journeys to meet the Buddha when he was alive. The famous Bahiya (Udāna 1.10) for example. The practice of buddhānussati or "recollection of the Buddha" is important in early Buddhist texts and continues to be important in Mahāyāna and Tantric Buddhism.

By the time of Asoka at the very latest (ca 250 BCE) there were stupas in place at many sites associated with the Buddha, e.g. at Sarnath and Buddhist pilgrimage as well as other places that were associated with important people in the Buddhist stories, such as the stupa complex at Sanchi. Asoka enlarged many of these existing stupas and built new ones. Many of these important archaeological sites were lost following the decline and death of Indian Buddhism and only rediscovered in the 19th century by officers of British Government and the East India Company. Many have since been plundered. Charles Allen's book Asoka describes the great king's role in this process.

Some of the most famous Buddhists in history have been Chinese pilgrims to India. They undertook an enormously long journey, usually on foot, crossing deserts and high mountains and returning laden with sutras and travel stories. Perhaps the most famous of all is Xuanzang who is also renowned as a translator.

Pilgrimage is a very important practice in Shingon Buddhism in Japan. One circles Shikoku Island visiting 88 temples associated with Kūkai the founder. There are many accounts of this pilgrimage trail, but Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler is a very good read (now out of print unfortunately).

In modern times, pilgrimage is an important practice in the Triratna Buddhist Order, of which I am a member. I myself went on pilgrimage with a group of Buddhists in 2003/4 and wrote a short book about it. The Indian wing of our Order regularly organise and lead pilgrimages in the Indian winter (when it is much cooler). In addition Triratna Buddhists will often visit cites associated with the lives of Sangharakshita (our founder) and Dr Ambedkar, the leader of the Buddhist conversion movement that began in the 1950s.

When one travels around the pilgrimage sites of Indian they are often packed with Buddhists from all over the world. The variety can be astounding. It is one of the practices that really brings people from different faiths within Buddhism together.

Historically pilgrimage is an important practice. One can see it as an extension of buddhānussati or the "recollection of the Buddha", a key early Buddhist practice. By following in the Buddha's footsteps one brings him strongly to mind, one inhabits (in imagination) the world the Buddha lived in. It also enriches one's experience of reading Buddhist texts - when one can bring to mind the road from Anathapindika's Garden to Sāvatthī, or the view from Vulture's peak, then the stories come to life. Bringing the Buddha to mind is very important practice. As Buddhaghosa says in the Visuddhimagga (Vism VII,6)

"And his body, when the recollection of the Buddha’s special qualities dwells in it, becomes worthy of veneration [pūjārahaṃ] like a shrine room [cetiyaghara]".

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    Great answer thanks. Interesting Triratna is my sangha too and I have never heard of pilgrimage being an important thing. That said I am fairly paraochial in my engagement so it's interesting to hear about aspects of the wider community that I'm not aware of. Thanks again for the answer – Crab Bucket Sep 1 '15 at 10:03
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There are four main places that most Buddhists visit at least once in their lifetime. According to Buddha's words in Mahaparinibbana sutta those are Lumbini, Buddhagaya, Sarnath and Kusinara in Nepal and India.

  1. "These, Ananda, are the four places that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence. And truly there will come to these places, Ananda, pious bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen, reflecting: 'Here the Tathagata was born! Here the Tathagata became fully enlightened in unsurpassed, supreme Enlightenment! Here the Tathagata set rolling the unexcelled Wheel of the Dhamma! Here the Tathagata passed away into the state of Nibbana in which no element of clinging remains!'

  2. "And whoever, Ananda, should die on such a pilgrimage with his heart established in faith, at the breaking up of the body, after death, will be reborn in a realm of heavenly happiness."
    DN 16

Pilgrimages however are not a significant part of the practice, but these visits can inspire us to put more effort into our practice. Some groups of people observe eight precepts and practice meditation as a part of the pilgrimage as well. By showing reverence at these places, the person is able to purify his thoughts, speech and action. So by visiting these places with the correct mental attitude can help us in our practice as well.

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"Original Buddhism" if there is such a thing, did not emphasise pilgrimages or even statues. It was about one's personal practice and not the worship of the Buddha, the individual.

The practice itself was the worship of the Buddha (awakening) within.

I can't recall the text (I'd be grateful if someone can help me locate it) but there's a verse where the Buddha praises a single moment of true mindfulness in action as greater veneration of the ideal than chanting several times 'namo tasso bhagavato arahato samma sambuddasa' without feeling mindful.

The suttas talk of Arhats in the Buddha's time who had never met the Buddha though they had heard the teachings by word of mouth and become enlightened. In a sense they had met the Buddha within already through the practice. This did not stop them however from feeling joyful upon actually meeting the tatagatha in person; if they ever did, which is quite natural.

Similarly pilgrimages are joyful things but when they are mandatory or made the central component of practice, they distance the practitioner from the practice.

For a long time the bodhi tree, the dharma wheel or the foot print of the Buddha were the only sanctioned symbols of Buddhism. The grander elements of tradition came later as a sense of history and distance from the actual events developed. The signs and reminders needed to get super-sized it seems, as the physical, calendar and mental distance made the heart fonder. The Buddha statues even seem to grow in size and stature in direct correlation to the distance from India.

Some historians and theologians I've read on Christianity say the idea of Jesus, son of God, developed in later times as a pleasant intermediary, a personal deity, a friend almost to intervene between the devotee and the rather harsh and imposing Abrahamic God of smiting fire of the Old testament. It was a much needed correction since God had gotten too distant.

Some people worship personal bodhisattvas similarly, because the Buddha ideal is too vast. Their personal Bodhisattva is their friend who they can reveal their failings to, since the Buddha is too awesome (in the original sense of the term). Even in the Buddha's later years junior disciples sought out senior disciples like Ven. Ananda or Ven. Sariputta to intervene on their behalf with the Buddha since they didn't feel worthy of walking up to him directly.

Though Buddhist practice began as a very personal route to access the Buddha within, for some people this was too much. They couldn't imagine they were worthy of inhabiting such godlike perfection. They couldn't help but think their Buddha nature was somehow inferior, so they found peace in worshipping the Buddha outside. Nothing wrong in this, different strokes for different folks.

For a religion that started out with no statues, it is interesting to see that many of the tallest statues in the world today are Buddhist.

However, like early Christianity of a distant God, the enlightenment ideal did become far removed from daily life, with many insisting even stream entry is impossible in this day and age.

The devout often use statues and pilgrimages quite like soldiers on the battle front walking around with pictures of hearth and home; to remind them of a better place. It allows us to think nirvana is found outside of samsara. A safe place from the harsh winter of reality, when the winter is too real and imposing.

Many of these same soldiers have trouble adjusting to the real people back home after the war, because the photograph that brought them comfort during the war was perfect, it accepted all mental projections: not so with reality.

Similarly, by projecting a perfect Buddha ideal, or enlightenment ideal outside of human fragility and venerating it through pilgrimages and such, we can rejoice in surrendering to the absolute but we also run the risk of never making it personal.

Samsara will always appear dull to us, yet we will never be good enough to escape it. As the Zen teaching goes, after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. Enlightenment does not allow us to get on a celestial vehicle and zoom off from samsara into the heavens.

Samsara is the mud in which the lotus of enlightenment grows. If we think the mud isn't good enough for the lotus, and always paint the lotus as growing on pristine marble, we will only have a beautiful painting but we will never be able to grow the lotus on marble.

I'm not saying pilgrimages aren't a good thing to do, but let's not mistake it for the practice.

Lest this sounds far-fetched, I'm not saying anything new.

Many Zen monks have made the point I am making by burning sutras, and by reciting koans like - "if you meet the Buddha on the journey to enlightenment, kill him".

Wisdom and love are two facets of enlightenment when viewed dualistically. Wisdom is to see the Buddha within, and love is to see the Buddha without, they are like the in breath and the out breath. One is not better than the other. Seen deeply, one can see love in wisdom, and wisdom in love.

When the Zen ancestor burned all the commentaries on texts, the texts were soon replaced by koan sayings of new Zen masters, recreating the hole he had filled. It wasn't a failing of the Zen ancestor to fail to anticipate this, it was his wisdom to see that the rise and fall of the tide is the nature of the ocean.

To be trapped by neither extreme is sublime freedom.

  • Most of this answer is off topic. Please consider editing it so that it answers the question more directly. – Jayarava Aug 30 '15 at 13:04
  • Also could you cite an authority for this statement ""Original Buddhism" if there is such a thing, did not emphasise pilgrimages or even statues." If there was no such thing, as I suspect, then what follows is meaningless. If there was a such a thing, how do we know it did not emphasise pilgrimage? – Jayarava Aug 30 '15 at 13:11
  • Please read the question and the answer again, it seems apropos. Please tell me how it is off topic if you still find it so. – Buddho Aug 30 '15 at 14:05
  • Re: Original Buddhism, in the sense of the lineage of Buddhas, it is hard to find a beginning to call it original, hence my comment. This present Buddha began a tradition without statues - whose primacy came later. Certainly there was no emphasis on pilgrimage, it wasn't forbidden for sure, even encouraged (see other answer quoting parinibbana sutta), but not emphasized. Nowhere is it a criteria to set on a pilgrimage to attain nibbana. – Buddho Aug 30 '15 at 14:10

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