The Act of Pilgrimage
3 May 2010
Since antiquity, the act of making pilgrimage has been seen as an important spiritual journey for people of all religions across the world. Pilgrimage in Tibet, however, may be one of the last places left where the journey takes precedence over the destination.
Part One: For Muslims, a pilgrimage to Mecca during the month of Hajj is seen as one of the Five Pillars of Islam and where possible, all Muslims are expected to make this pilgrimage in a lifetime. Catholics head to the Vatican, and Christians, Muslims and Jews alike make pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem. Hindus have a large number of sites considered holy across the sub-continent to which pilgrimage is made. Buddhists, likewise, travel to various sites associated with the Buddha across South and East Asia.
The act of making pilgrimage - traveling to a place that has spiritual or holy significance to the pilgrim - is more than simply arriving at the destination, however. While today's focus is the destination, reached by the most expedient and efficient means possible, pilgrimage has traditionally been as much, if not more, about the journey itself. Looking at various definitions, one finds, "A long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance." The journey is about suffering and overcoming physical and mental difficulties and therefore testing one's resolve and faith, as well as focusing the mind on the sacred object or place sought. It is a form of meditation. In such a light, one can't help but wonder about the insignificance of a pilgrimage made by plane.
Part Two: I had never given much thought to the matter until a recent trip across Tibet prompted me to consider the true nature of pilgrimage. In Tibet, despite - or perhaps because of - strict religious restrictions, pilgrimage continues to be a fundamental and regular practice for Buddhists and Bon followers alike (Bon being the indigenous religion of Tibet before the arrival of Buddhism around 600 AD). There are a number of destinations for pilgrims to journey to in this, the highest of nations. Among the most revered are the Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa and Mt. Kailash in central Tibet.
A Tibetan seeking the most merit possible from their pilgrimage will follow a grueling ritual, one that can be witnessed from Lhasa across the entire Tibetan plateau. While traveling by foot is already an achievement in such a harsh and unforgiving climate in a land averaging over 5km above sea level, many Tibetans will in fact prostrate the entire way. This means bending down and laying on their stomach with their forehead touching the ground and their hands held in prayer before them, getting up, taking 3 steps and laying down again - across the entire journey. I heard of one complete family who made a pilgrimage this way from their home village to Lhasa; a journey which took them 2 years, 2 months and 10 days. It boggles the mind in our age of fast food, rapid transport and lighting-speed communication. As if prostrating themselves was not adequately meritorious, it is well-considered to make a pilgrimage 108 times (108 being an important number to Buddhists). To aid their progress, pilgrims wear aprons of thick fabric and wooden clogs on their hands which allow them to slide forward on their hands and knees. Calluses can even be seen on some foreheads.
Part Three: For the adventure, rather than (unfortunately) from a heightened spiritual awareness, I made the decision to follow in the footsteps of one of the most important pilgrimages while in Western Tibet. Sacred not only to Buddhists, but to Bon followers, Hindus and Jains, Mt. Kailash is also source to four of the great Asian rivers. This kora - a pilgrimage made by a clock-wise circumambulation of the sacred place - is a 52km trek around the mountain and over a pass of over 5600m. Without adequate preparation, I set off with a few other like-minded adventurers for the planned 3 day trek at the very end of the pilgrimage season. A journey of one day is possible to complete the kora for the supremely disciplined in the height of summer, but we were forced to struggle against lashing wind, knee-depth snow and a constantly disappearing path. Despite abysmal weather, a fall into the icy source of the Indus River, no guide and second degree sunburn, we managed to complete the pilgrimage without frost bite or losing a member of the team, our merit increased and good karma restored.
Part Four: The arduous pilgrimage around Mt. Kailash took me a small step closer to appreciating the depth of faith required by genuine pilgrims. It also emphasised the significance of the journey, as opposed to the destination. While Mt. Kailash was with us every step of the way, whether looming directly to our right, or hiding behind another mountain or snowstorm, my thoughts kept returning to the moment; the crunch of my steps on the icy ground, the gurgling of the ice-melt, and above all the solitary joy of the pilgrimage.