All true pilgrimages without
are truly pilgrimages within too,
towards the immediate holy ‘site’
of our Buddha-nature.
In the last sermon (Mahaparinibbana Sutta) by the Buddha, Ananda, his attendant disciple, remarked that the monastics used to gather after the seasonal rains retreat to meet and wait upon the Buddha, thereby also benefiting from the company of revered monastics, that after the Buddha’s physical passing, these benefits would cease to be available (as there would be no more cause to gather). To that, the Buddha replied that there are four places that the pious should visit with feelings of reverence – where he was born (Lumbini), where he attained supreme enlightenment (Bodhgaya), where he set rolling the unexcelled wheel of the Dharma (Sarnath), and where he passed into parinirvana (Kushinagara). He added that, as attested today, there will indeed be pious monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen, who visit these places.
The Buddha also taught that anyone who dies on such a pilgrimage undertaken with strong faith will be reborn in a happy heavenly realm (or another realm that one aspires, such as a Pure Land). This is possible as a pilgrimage made for reverencing the Buddha is very meritorious. The Buddha did not insist that every Buddhist has to go on such a pilgrimage, but suggested so as a means for both monastics and laity, similar to those in his time, to gather to benefit one another with the Dharma via the practice of reverencing him, as they retrace the significant places he went and recall the teachings given there. The benefits that Ananda was fearful of totally ceasing will perpetuate, though in subtler ways, via the practice of going on pilgrimage itself. Many centres have been established near these sites to facilitate Buddhist gatherings too.
For more than 25 centuries since the Buddha’s parinirvana, millions of Buddhists have made (repeated) pilgrimage(s) to the four holy sites – not simply because the Buddha suggested so, but because they truly experience the myriad blessings of making such a trip, which further inspires their faith in the Buddha and his teachings, urging them to walk the path of practising, realising and sharing the Dharma like he did. Because the Buddha mentioned that even dying faithfully on a pilgrimage leads to a good rebirth, such a pilgrimage is literally ‘worth dying for’, even though this is not compulsory! That said, it should not be mistaken that such trips are very hazardous nowadays, though it was especially the case in ancient days, when pilgrims venture from afar without the convenience of planes, trains and automobiles!
A physical place is experienced as sacred
only when it is spiritually charged up,
and/or when its visitors are likewise so.