Pilgrimage: Buddhist Pilgrimage in South and Southeast Asia

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Victor and Edith Turner, in their book Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (New York, 1978), have written that "if mysticism is an interior pilgrimage, pilgrimage is exteriorized mysticism." In the Buddhist tradition, one undertakes a pilgrimage in order to find the Buddha in the external world; one undertakes meditation to discover the Buddha nature within oneself. The internal pilgrimage brings one closer to the goal of nirvāa (Pali, nibbāna ) than does the external pilgrimage, but the turning toward the Buddha who is iconically represented in the marks of his presence on earth or in relics constitutes an important preliminary step along the path to enlightenment. That the Buddha actually existed in the world, and continues to exist through traces (Skt., caitya; Pali, cetiya ), must be acknowledged before one begins to follow his teachings (Skt., dharma; Pali, dhamma ).

The question of the persistence of the Buddha in the world arose as he approached his physical death and his parinirvāa (parinibbāna ), or "final cessation." During his lifetime, the Buddha had attracted many followers, among whom were those who came to constitute the sagha, the order of mendicants devoted to his teachings. While the sagha could be entrusted with the responsibility of perpetuating the Dharma through practice and teaching after the Buddha's death, there remained still the problem of how people were to be attracted in the first place to the Buddhist message. This problem was resolved when the Buddha charged his disciple Ananda to arrange for his cremated remains to be enshrined in stupas. In the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta it is recorded how, after the death of the Buddha, his body was cremated, and his remains were divided into eight parts, each enshrined in a separate stupa. Two more stupas were also erected; one, built by the brahman who had divided the relics, enshrined the Master's alms bowl, and another, erected by those who had arrived too late to receive a portion of the remains, enshrined the ashes of the funerary pyre.

According to ancient legend, after the great Mauryan king Aśoka (c. 270232 bce) converted to Buddhism he had all but one (which was protected by nāga s) of the original reliquary shrines opened and the relics divided into eighty-four thousand parts, each destined for a new stupa. Although this number must be interpreted symbolically, there is historical evidence that Aśoka did, in fact, erect a number of new stupas. Moreover, the tradition that relics of the Buddha had been, as it were, placed into circulation by Aśoka served to legitimate claims that true relics of the Buddha were to be found wherever Buddhism became established.

In addition to bodily relics (Pali, sarīradhātu ), Buddhist tradition also recognizes two other forms of relics that are taken as indicative of the Buddha's presence in the world. In Pali these are termed paribhogikadhātu and uddesikadhātu, the former referring to objects that the Buddha used (as, for example, his alms bowl) or marks (such as a footprint or shadow) that he left on earth, and the latter referring to votive reminders, such as images and stupas known not to contain actual relics.

From the edicts of Aśoka is obtained the first historical evidence of Buddhist pilgrimage, even though it is probable that the practice began before Aśokan times. In Rock Edict 8, he says that, while previously he used to go out on vihārayātrā s ("excursions for enjoyment"), ten years after his coronation he undertook a dharmayātrā ("journey for truth") to the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment, that is, to Bodh Gayā. This pilgrimage appears to constitute the beginning of Aśoka's search for the true Dharma and for the significance of the Dharma in his own life as emperor.

From the time of Aśoka to the present, Bodh Gayā has remained the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in India. It is often grouped with three other sitesLumbini in Nepal, where Siddhārtha Gautama, the future Buddha, was born; the Deer Park at Sārnāth near Banaras, where he "turned the Wheel of the Law," that is, preached his first sermon; and Kuśinagara in Uttar Pradesh, where he passed into the state of nirvāa. None of these other sites, nor any other in India where he was reputed to have performed miracles during his life, however, holds the significance for Buddhists that Bodh Gayā does. Bodh Gayā represents the birth of Buddhism, the place where the Tathāgata realized the fundamental truth that lies at the base of Dharma.

The quest for the Dharma appears to have been the primary motivation for perhaps the most famous of Buddhist pilgrims, the Chinese monks who journeyed from their homeland to India in the fifth century and again in the seventh century ce. Faxian, the earliest of these pilgrims to have left a detailed record, departed from his home in Chang'an in 399 and traveled by land through Central Asia and then across northern India. From northern India he then traveled by ship to Sri Lanka and to Java and finally returned to China in 412. While Faxian's pilgrimage, like those of subsequent Chinese monks, was undertaken for the purpose of acquiring the Dharma, it reveals also another model of Buddhist pilgrimage, one much more popular with lay persons, namely a pilgrimage centered on the cult of the relics.

From his first encounter with Buddhist communities in Central Asia, Faxian found not only monks but also stupas and images of the Buddha that were the foci of popular cults. He himself visited a number of places associated with incidents in the life of the Buddha, and his account serves as a brief version of the life of the Buddha. Of particular interest, given the later development of Buddhist pilgrimage in lands outside India, Faxian observed "footprints" of the Buddha in areas as far removed from the region where the Buddha actually lived as the Punjab and Sri Lanka.

Shrines marking traces left by the Buddha in his supernatural visits to lands that were to become Buddhist as well as shrines enclosing relics that had been transportednaturally or supernaturallyfrom India to such lands often became pilgrimage centers in their own right. Indeed, for the long period between the decline of Buddhism in India in the latter part of the first millennium ce and the late nineteenth century, when cheap travel and Buddhist revival together stimulated renewed interest in the sacred Buddhist sites in India, Buddhist pilgrimage was confined mainly to Buddhist lands outside India. The emerging importance of certain sitesthe so-called sixteen great places in Sri Lanka and the twelve shrines associated with the twelve-year cycle in northern Thailandwas associated primarily with the linking of political and moral communities in the world to a sacred Buddhist cosmos.

Buddhist pilgrims have long traveled to such important shrines as those housing the Buddha's footprints on Siripada (Adam's Peak) in Sri Lanka and at Saraburi in Thailand and those housing famous Buddhist relics, such as the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka; the Shwe Dagon in Rangoon, Myanmar; the That Luang temple in Vientiane, Laos; and Doi Suthep near Chiang Mai, Thailand. Pilgrims visited these and other holy sites in order to acquire merit or to gain access to the presumed magical power associated with them. While some have made pilgrimages to shrines associated with traces of the Buddha as an end in itself, most have continued, as did Aśoka and Faxian, to see pilgrimage as a means for orienting themselves toward the Buddha as a preliminary step along the path to enlightenment. The pilgrimage that begins by turning toward the Buddha in this world finds its culmination in an inner pilgrimage that leads to a true understanding of the Dharma.

See Also

Aśoka; Faxian; Stupa Worship; Xuanzang; Yijing.


The scriptural source for Buddhist pilgrimage is to be found in the Mahāparinibbāna Suttānta, a text that has been translated by T. W. Rhys Davids in "Sacred Books of the East," vol. 11 (Oxford, 1881), pp. 1136. A discussion of Aśokan pilgrimage, together with translations of the edicts in Aśoka, appears in Aśoka (London, 1928) by Radhakumud Mookerji. The travels of Faxian have been translated by James Legge in A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms (1886; reprint, New York, 1965). The locus classicus for an understanding of the cosmological significance of Buddhist stupas is Paul Mus's Barabadur (1935; reprint, New York, 1978). Marilyn Stablein has provided an overview of Buddhist pilgrimage among Tibetans in her "Textual and Contextual Patterns of Tibetan Buddhist Pilgrimage in India," Tibet Society Bulletin 12 (1978): 738. For discussions of Buddhist pilgrimage in Sri Lanka, see Gananath Obeyesekere's "The Buddhist Pantheon in Ceylon and Its Extensions," in Anthropological Studies in Theravada Buddhism, edited by Manning Nash et al. (New Haven, Conn., 1966), pp. 126; Bryan Pfaffenberger's "The Kataragama Pilgrimage: Hindu-Buddhist Interaction and Its Significance in Sri Lanka's Polyethnic Social System," Journal of Asian Studies 38 (1979): 253270; and H. L. Seneviratne's Rituals of the Kandyan State (Cambridge, 1978). Buddhist pilgrimage in Thailand has been examined in my article "Buddhist Pilgrimage Centers and the Twelve Year Cycle: Northern Thai Moral Orders in Space and Time," History of Religions 15 (1975): 7189, and in James B. Pruess's "Merit-Seeking in Public: Buddhist Pilgrimage in Northeastern Thailand," Journal of the Siam Society 64 (1976): 169206.

New Sources

Cohen, Paul T. "Lue across Borders: Pilgrimage and the Muang Sing Reliquary in Northern Laos." In Where China Meets Southeast Asia: Social & Cultural Change in the Border Regions, edited by Grant Evans, Chris Hutton, and Kuah Khun Eng, pp. 145161. Singapore, 2000.

Doyle, Tara Nancy. "Bodh Gaya: Journeys to the Diamond Throne and the Feet of Gayasur." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1997.

Leoshko, Janice. "On the Construction of a Buddhist Pilgrimage Site." Art History 19 (1996): 573597.

Pruess, James B. "Sanctification Overland: The Creation of a Thai Buddhist Pilgrimage Center." In Sacred Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage, edited by Alan Morinis, pp. 211231. Westport, Conn., 1992.

Walters, Jonathan S. "Pushing Poson: The Politics of a Buddhist Pilgrimage in Postcolonial Sri Lanka." In Sri Lanka: Collective Identities Revisited, edited by Michael Roberts, pp. 133162. Colombo, 1998.

Charles F. Keyes (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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