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Buddhist Places of Pilgrimage

Buddhists travel to India and Nepal to visit the places where events in Buddha Shakyamuni's life occurred.  Some do it to enhance their understanding of the dharma and to draw themselves closer to him.  Many others perform these journeys in the belief that they will accrue merit in this life and ensure an auspicious rebirth in the next. 

At holy sites, people circumambulate the shrine doing what in Tibetan is called kora.  This is an observance in the ancient tradition called in Sanskrit, pradakshina

In very remote lands, where there was no possibility of visiting holy sites, the sacred landscape was re-created symbolically.  This could result in the  "secondary" place's achieving an importance almost as great as that of the original.  

The 8 Locations


From Lumbini where he was born (near the Indian border; 350 km [218 miles] SW of Kathmandu and one of several UNESCO world heritage sites in Nepal) and Kapilavastu where he lived until age 29, it is generally thought that the Buddha did not venture any farther south than the place today called Varanasi.  (Then it was called Kashi.)

At Lumbini, people today are shown the pond (Pushkarini) where Siddhartha's mother bathed when she began experiencing labor. There is a pillar that Emperor Ashoka erected in 249 BCE to certify the birthplace near an old tree by the pond. The base of the tree is smeared with vermilion by those who consider it a shrine; the branches are bedecked with prayer flag offerings.

  • Restored Mayadevi Temple (2003) panorama.  Inside the white-washed brick compound the archaeological finds are on view, including the marker stone at the birth place of the 4th Buddha, the "historical" Shakyamuni.

Bodh Gaya

Mahabodhi Shrine in Bodhgaya is believed by some to mark the spot where the Buddha sat under the tree, but others say that the tree of Great Meditation is outside the city.


The Mahabodhi Temple 

When, in the late 19th century, the King of Burma requested the Government of India undertake restoration of the Temple since it had fallen into a serious state of ruin, a group of colonial administrators and Indian scholars had it restored according to detailed records.  Some of the oldest parts are now to be found in museums.


At Sarnath [>Sagarnath Lord of Deer; Pali: Isipattana] in the Deer Park which is outside the holy city of  Varanasi [ancient Kashi ("Shining") formerly known as Benares,] the Buddha gave his first public teaching known as the First Turning of the Wheel.  It is said that the ascetics with whom he had spent the early years away from home were among those present.  (Some believe that these few were the only ones there.)  They now accepted him as their teacher.

In that sermon, Buddha Shakyamuni taught about The Middle Way:  moderation in all things, including philosophy.  He expressed The Four Noble Truths which culminate in the Eightfold Path to the end of suffering.


He went next to Rajgriha [Rajgiri], the site of a famous hot springs.  In ancient times, it was in the kingdom of Maghada ruled by Bimbisara.  The king was so taken with the Buddha and his teachings, that he gave him and his disciples around 100 acres of land on which to build a retreat house for the yearly 3-month rainy season.  This first monastery was in a golden bamboo grove after which it was named.

Here, one of his own monks, a cousin called Devadatta was moved, it is said, to violent action by envy.  He arranged that Nalagiri, a ferocious war elephant, be directed to charge at the Buddha.  Accounts say that when the Buddha spoke gently to the beast, it was pacified and knelt down in homage.


The First Council was held in the Saptaparni (Pali: Sattapanni) Caves, where the hot spring originates.  The conference was to determine what became the canon [official collection] of scripture of the Theravada school of Buddhism, the Tripitaka.  These were three baskets of palm leaf books on which were inscribed the words and ideas of Buddha.  They include the  Dhammapada [doctrine], the Vinaya [ethics and monastic code] and the Abhidharma [elaboration].

Vulture Peak

Outside that town, at Vulture Peak [Gridhrakuta], well-named for the rock at its summit, Buddha Shakyamuni gave the Second Turning of the Wheel of the Law.    Mahayana tradition has it that this discourse included The Perfection of Wisdom  teachings. 

  ~ photo courtesy R. Graffis 



Shravasti was the capital of Kosala.  Today called Sahet-Mahet, it is the site of Jetavana [Jeta's Grove]Monastery where Buddha and his followers spent many rainy seasons.  The place was said to have been purchased very dearly for the Sangha by a layman.  The price was determined by the number of gold coins required to cover the entire area.  It had been the property of a prince named Jeta, who donated the remainder of the land when the merchant's funds ran out. 

The Display of  Wonders

King Bimbisara of Rajagriha had asked the Buddha if he would take part in a contest of magical skills to be judged by Prasenajit, king of Kosala, to determine which of six philosophers was worthiest of teaching in his land.  
The six philosophers, when they were informed that the Buddha would defeat them in the shade of a mango tree, arranged for all the local mango trees be cut down.

When it came time for the Buddha to take his turn, he dropped a mango seed on the ground.  Instantly, a great tree arose.  Then a series of 24 miraculous events occurred, one after the other.  For example, flames issued from his shoulders and water from his feet; he walked across the sky north to south and then east to west; he multiplied his image many times over filling the cosmos with light.

That is why Shravasti in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh became one of the eight Holy Places. 


There is a tradition that right after his Enlightenment, Shakyamuni returned to Kapila- vastu to teach the Dharma to his family. 

He did not neglect to offer the Dharma to repay the kindness of his mother for having carried him in her body and cared for him as a child though she died just after his birth.  It is recounted that he spent three months teaching in the Tushita (satisfaction) heaven, one of the 33 celestial abodes of gods, where she had been reborn -- some say in a male form.  This event is celebrated as Lhabab Duchen, as it is called in Tibetan.

Then as the gods bowed to him on all sides, he descended to earth at Sankasya or Sankisa, as it is called in India today [Pali:  Sankassa] by means of a heavenly ladder.  Tradition holds that Shankashya is the spot where all  buddhas descend to earth.  Today it is in Basantpur village, near the ruins of a fort.  Emperor Ashoka erected a pillar with an elephant capital to mark the holy spot. About 500 yards away is a temple to Bisari Devi, and near it another with a statue of the Buddha. 

There followed years of teaching and philosophical debate during which the Master converted many thousands of people.  Frequently, brilliant teachers of other doctrines would come to challenge him.  So, it happened, that despite the general interdiction to his disciples against the performance of miracles, the Buddha manifested  the power of the Doctrine in miraculous ways.

Once, when six highly-respected  proponents of various non-Buddhist philosophies, [certainly Hindu and Jain, but possibly also Persian, Greek and even Middle-Eastern] having heard of Shakyamuni's teaching, came to contend with him in public debate.  It is said that he demonstrated the superiority of his knowledge by emitting and transmuting fire and water.

A thousand years later, Padmasambhava, known as Guru Rinpoche, is said to have performed the same feat.


Vaishali town (its name means Prosperity) was the capital of the Vrijian confederacy, one of the world's earliest.  It was also the birthplace of Mahavira, founder of the Jain religion. Here, a monkey is said to have offered the Buddha some wild honey on a leaf, but after this act of generosity, was killed falling from his tree.  

Many of the women from Kapilavastu's palace had decided to follow the one who had once been, according to the custom of royal households of that time, a husband to them.  At the request of his step-mother, Mahaprajapati, also known as Gotami [Gautami], the first Buddhist monastery for women was established here.  A courtesan, Ambapali, donated the land which came with a mango grove. 

Tradition tells how the Buddha did not think that the time was right for the establishment of a women's order of bhikshunis, but he agreed on condition that they take 8 special vows that would maintain their subordinance to the bhikshus [Pali: bhikkus].  


Buddha Shakyamuni passed away aged eighty or eighty-one after having eaten a meal which did not agree with him.  Some say it was pork, meat that had gone bad, or a dish of truffles or poison mushrooms (which seems more likely.)  He had retarded his demise so that a distant, beloved disciple could be present.  This event which is not regarded as a death in the ordinary sense is referred to as the parinirvana.  

It is also said that his favourite, Ananda, could have caused Buddha Shakyamuni to remain alive on earth for much longer had he thought to ask his friend and teacher to do so. 

After his cremation at Kushinagar, the remains were divided among different communities.  One-eighth was enshrined in a stupa at Vaisali, even though he had asked that memorials not be made of him.  A casket was discovered in 1958 which may have been the one interred by King Ashoka after he had re-apportioned the relics so that hundreds of communities could share them. [Scroll down to see the container and the link to the story in Tribune India.]

The relics went to Vaishali, Kapilavastu, Lumbini, Sarnath, Rajgir, Nandangarh (now Rampurwa), Patiliputra and Piprawha.

The Buddha's immediate followers heeded the request not to make images of him, but after a few generations, they became a widespread expression of devotion. 

One hundred ten years after his death, the Second Buddhist Council was held at Vaishali.  This was the origin of the distinction between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists.


Pilgrimage in Other Religions

Jews have been going to Jerusalem for the purposes of visiting the remaining western wall (itself a restoration) of the Temple that was built to house the Ark of the Covenant containing the two stone tablets of the Law of Moses.   And it is well known that it is incumbent upon Muslims to travel at least once a lifetime to Mecca in Arabia, where the founder of Islam experienced his revelation.  At the time (the 7th century CE) that city had already long been an important centre of pilgrimage.   Nowadays, two million a year perform a Hajj that includes circumambulating the Ka'aba.  A lesser pilgrimage, Umra, is also practiced.

However, it is Catholics whose pilgrimage practices most nearly resemble those of Himalayan Buddhists.  "St. Patrick's Purgatory," is the name given to a ritual retreat famous at least since the sixth century.  First practiced at the original site in Lough Derg (Donegal, Ireland) known as Saints' Island, it was moved in the 16th century to Station Island, where every year barefoot pilgrims by the tens of thousands perform a 3-day fast and vigil that includes prayer, rosary recitation, circumambulation and prostrations.  

Read about the pilgrim's state of mind, and famous sites as Varanasi, Lourdes, Campostella and others as experienced by Rosemary Mahoney in The Singular Pilgrim: Travels on Sacred Ground. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Small image is from ArtToday.Com

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