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Pilgrimages in Buddhism: journeys towards enlightenment

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In most Buddhist traditions, pilgrimages aim mainly at two things: enlightenment and liberation from suffering. The most important pilgrimage sites in main Buddhist traditions are located in the Indo-Gangetic Plain (southern Nepal and northern India), the region where Siddharta Gautama was born, lived and taught.

The main sites associated with his life are all in this area and are considered major pilgrimage sites for (some) Buddhists and Hindus. However, many countries that are or were predominantly Buddhist, from Bhutan to Vietnam, have shrines and sites of their own that can be visited on a pilgrimage.

Through these special journeys, Buddhists seek to:

1.- Follow in the footsteps of the Buddha: Many Buddhist pilgrims walk the four main sacred sites associated with the life of Siddhartha Gautama: Lumbini (his birthplace), Bodh Gaya (where he attained enlightenment), Sarnath (where he gave his first sermon), and Kusinagara (where he died and attained Parinirvana). By visiting these places, pilgrims seek a deeper understanding of core Buddhist teachings.

2.- Detach: Pilgrimage almost always implies a physically, psychically, and emotionally challenging journey that requires pilgrims to step out of their comfort zone. This includes renouncing different sorts of attachments while facing the challenges of the road ahead. This process of detachment is considered an essential step on the path to liberation from suffering.

3.- Cultivate virtue: During the pilgrimage, Buddhists work on developing core virtues such as compassion, kindness, and patience. While interacting with people from different backgrounds, they intentionally meditate on the ultimate meaning of existence, the nature of suffering, and the path leading to the end of suffering.

4.- Achieve enlightenment: The ultimate goal of any Buddhist pilgrimage is to attain enlightenment –a state in which the practitioner is free from suffering and perfectly understands reality. Although enlightenment is not achieved through pilgrimage alone, these journeys can be powerful catalysts for spiritual awakening.

Types of Buddhist Pilgrimage:

  • Parikrama: Circumambulating a site deemed sacred, a monastery, a mountain, or a Buddhist stupa, always in a clockwise direction. This is done while reciting mantras and prayers.
  • Yatra: Traveling to sacred places associated with the life of the Buddha or other main Buddhist figures.
  • Kora: Circumambulating sacred mountains or other spiritually meaningful places.
  • Dharma Yatra: Missionary trips meant to spread Buddhist teachings, or to connect with Buddhist communities around the world.

As is the case with most religious traditions, Buddhist pilgrimages are mainly personal transformative journeys. As such, they necessarily vary according to each individual’s interests, needs, and experiences. But at the core of this wandering practice, however, we find a shared spiritual drive: the search for liberation from suffering, growing in compassion, and attaining enlightenment.

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