Pilgrimage: Buddhist Pilgrimage in East Asia

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Pilgrimage, especially to sacred mountain sites, has long been a popular religious practice in both China and Japan. Since the entry of Buddhism into China in the first centuries of the common era, and since its entry into Japan through China several centuries later, pilgrimage in East Asia has become associated with Buddhist religious beliefs.

Pilgrimages in China

In mainland China there have been various pilgrimage sites, related to both Buddhism and Daoism. As for the former, there existed the following four major sites: Mount Wutai, sacred to Mañjuśrī (Skt.; known in Chinese as Wenshu); Mount Emei, sacred to Samantabhadra (Chin., Puxian); Mount Putuo, sacred to Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin); and Mount Jiu Hua, sacred to Kitigarbha (Dizang). In the case of Daoist pilgrimages, one of the most famous sites is Mount Dai. This article shall deal with Mount Wutai and Mount Dai.

Mount Wutai

Located in northeastern China, Mount Wutai consists of five peaks. This sacred mountain has attracted a great number of pilgrims over the centuries, not only from every part of China but also from Manchuria, Mongolia, Central Asia, India, and Japan. It has, therefore, been referred to as the most eminent pilgrimage site in Asia. Although it was famous as the sacred site of Mañjuśrī, it is said to have been originally a sacred place related to the spiritual tradition of Daoism. It was not until the Northern Wei dynasty (386535) that Buddhist influence became widespread in China, predominating over the indigenous Daoist tradition, and from this time Mount Wutai became a site holy to Mañjuśrī. In the Tang dynasty (618907), it was so popular as a pilgrimage site that many pilgrims even came to visit the mountain from foreign countries, including Tibet and India. During the same period, many books were published, collecting stories of the miracles and wonders performed by Mañjuśrī. Drawings sketching Mount Wutai were also widely distributed. These drawings were usually put up on the walls of either Buddhist temples or individual houses all over China.

It is said to have been during the Yuan dynasty (12711366), when China was invaded and ruled by the Mongols, that Tibetan Buddhism, which the Mongols preferred to Chinese Buddhism, started to spread its influence at Mount Wutai. Soon Chinese Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism came to coexist on this sacred mountain. In other words, the mountain became an important pilgrimage site for two different religious traditions simultaneously. During the Qing dynasty (16441912), Tibetan Buddhism gradually came to predominate at Mount Wutai, partly because the Manzhu Qing rulers, who were not ethnically Chinese, began to take a conciliatory policy toward other non-Chinese groups such as the Mongols, who believed in Tibetan Buddhism. As a result, Mount Wutai became the most holy religious site of the Mongols. According to the reports of Japanese scholars who visited Mount Wutai in the 1930s, many fervent Mongolian pilgrims were to be witnessed there. In the case of Chinese Buddhist pilgrimage sites, it is quite common for other religious traditions, including indigenous ones like Daoism, to have been closely related to the history of the sites.

Mount Dai

Long famous as a Daoist pilgrimage site, Daishan has been continually associated with Buddhism in various ways. In Chinese history, this sacred moutain has been well known as one of the so-called Five Peaks, designated as indispensable for the protection of the whole country. The history of Mount Dai can be separated into three phases.

In ancient times, Chinese emperors were supposed to visit Daishan when they ascended the throne and were supposed to perform a special ritual for declaring their ascension, worshiping all the divinities in the sky and on the earth as well. At the same time, the emperors were said to pray for their own individual wishes, such as longevity.

It was probably toward the end of the Latter Han dynasty (25220 ce) that Daishan came to be regarded as having some connection with the world of the dead, although this was diametrically opposed to the previous belief in longevity. As time went on, therefore, Mount Dai was thought to be related to Hell. It was believed, then, that the dead received judgment at Mount Daishan as to whether they should go to Hell or not. This idea of Hell was introduced by Buddhism.

From the Song dynasty (9601279) up until the modern period, another new belief was associated with Mount Dai: that of a goddess. This goddess was worshiped as one who presided over the birth and rearing of children. This special characteristic of the goddess attracted a great number of pilgrims because of its familiarity and closeness with the common people. Accordingly, miniature statues of this particular goddess were enshrined all over China in modern times.

Pilgrimage in modern China

Pilgrimages in China seemed to have disappeared after Communist China was established in 1949. Moreover, many temples and shrines belonging to various pilgrimage sites all over China were seriously damaged during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. However, in recent years, pilgrimage sites have been rapidly restored and have reopened their doors to pilgrims both from China and from overseas. The majority of the foreign pilgrims are Chinese merchants living abroad. As a result of a rapid growth in the living standards of the Chinese people, there seems to be a tendency for famous pilgrimage sites to become targets of tourism.

Pilgrimages in Japan

In Japanese religious tradition, both Shintō and Buddhism have various pilgrimage sites. In Japan, pilgrimages can be divided into two general types. The first is the type exemplified by the Pilgrimage to the Thirty-three Holy Places of Kannon (Avalokiteśvara) in the Western Provinces and by the Pilgrimage to the Eighty-Eight Temples of Shikoku, in which one makes a circuit of a series of temples or holy places in a set order. The individual holy places that the pilgrim visits may be separated by great distances, as in the case of the Shikoku pilgrimage, in which eighty-eight temples are scattered along a route of about 1,200 kilometers (746 miles). The order of visitation is an important feature of this type of pilgrimage. The second type is a journey to one particular holy place. Pilgrimage to the Kumano Shrines and Ise Shintō Shrine, as well as to certain holy mountains, belong to this type. In common usage, the term junrei, the Japanese word for "pilgrimage," usually refers to the first type only.

It is thought that pilgrimages were first undertaken in the Nara period (710794), although the custom did not become popular until the Heian period (7941185). With the increasing popularity of religions involving mountain worship, members of the imperial family, the nobility, and Buddhist monks made pilgrimages to remote holy mountains. Among them, Kumano in the southern part of Wakayama prefecture is the most famous, having at that early time already developed into a large center for the adherents of mountain worship. Besides Kumano, Hasedera Temple, Shitennoji, Mount Koya, and Mount Kinpu were also popular pilgrimage sites. Early forms of the pilgrimage circuits for the western provinces and Shikoku were also established by the late Heian period. It can be surmised that many of these places were centers where Buddhist monks and ascetics engaged in austerities. Such pilgrimages continued throughout the Kamakura period (11851333) and the Muromachi period (13331568).

In the Edo period (16001868) an unprecedented number of people began to visit pilgrimage centers. While the vast majority of pilgrims had previously been member of the upper classes, such as monks, aristocrats, and warriors, in the Edo period the number of pilgrims from the general populace greatly increased. This change was largely owing to the peace established by the Tokugawa feudal regime and to the improvement in the economic condition of both the farming and the merchant classes. Transportation improved, and although government policy restricted travel between provinces, an exception was made for pilgrimages. The number of pilgrims who made journeys to the western provinces, Shikoku, Kotohira Shrine, Zenkoji, Ise, and Mount Fuji increased rapidly, and many new pilgrimage centers developed in various parts of the country. During this period, pilgrims tended to travel in groups, and as more and more people participated for recreational as well as for religious purposes, temple and shrine towns sprang up with facilities for accommodating these people. One should also note an increase in the number of so-called beggar-pilgrims who wandered from one center to another. The Shikoku circuit was particularly frequented by criminals, lepers, and beggars.

Travel since the Meiji period (18681912) has basically preserved the Edo period pattern of pilgrimage. Even today, many travelers include visits to famous temples and shrines in their itineraries. Even pilgrimage circuits that lack any other attraction, such as the Shikoku pilgrimage, have once again become popular. Behind this phenomenon perhaps lies a nostalgia for the past, a resurging interest in religion, and a desire for temporary escape from urban life.

See Also

Avalokiteśvara; Kitigarbha; Mañjuśrī; Mountains; Shugendō; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Buddhist Devotional Life in East Asia.


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New Sources

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Huber, Toni. The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain: Popular Pilgrimage and Visionary Landscape in Southeast Tibet. New York, 1999.

McKay, Alex, ed. Pilgrimage in Tibet. Richmond, Va., 1998.

Naquin, Susan, and Chün-fang Yü, eds. Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China. Berkeley, 1992.

Swanson, Paul, and Ian Reader. "Editor's Introduction: Pilgrimage in the Japanese Religious Tradition." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 24 (1997): 225270.

Hoshino Eiki (1987)

Revised Bibliography