What exactly is a pilgrimage?
Within Buddhism, a pilgrimage is a spiritual journey, usually to a spiritually significant destination. Here, the travel itself is seen as most significant, rather than the arrival at one’s destination. During a pilgrimage, practitioners, while focusing on the Buddha’s teachings and tenets, travel mindfully with the aim of reducing worldly attachment. The goal of the practice is to gain insight and understanding into oneself and one’s life while at the same time generating and accumulating virtuous merit. Pilgrimages can be used to mark a significant point or change in one’s life, e.g., the loss of a loved one, the birth of the “new you”, or to find clarity and answers against uncertainty in one’s life. A common practice when undertaking a pilgrimage is to choose something to renounce. This could be any unwholesome or problematic habit, behavior, view, attitude, or intention. Conversely, one may also set out to attain something on their pilgrimage, possibly the adoption of wholesome or beneficial habits and behaviors; or to habituate new views, attitudes, or intentions.
The way a pilgrimage works
While on pilgrimage, one’s daily concerns and responsibilities are suspended, while at the same time, the travel and changing environment wards off boredom and complacency. Here, one gets the space and time to view their life from a different vantage point, away from the constraining walls of one’s home and the criticism and influence of one’s community. However, the true validity of a pilgrimage (including any benefits gained) lies in the fervor and fidelity that the practitioner brings to it. For a true pilgrimage is not an external journey but an internal one. With that said, my pilgrimage, because of the unique situation I’m in, is different. For the first time in ten years, I’m leaving the safety of my monastery without plans of returning or a clear destination or fixed end in mind. In Buddhist traditions, this type of practice is referred to as being a wandering monk.
Pilgrimage vs. wandering monastic
Where pilgrimages are usually focused more on oneself, one’s practice, and one’s accumulation of insight and merit; a wandering monastic’s intentions are directed outward towards others, focused on how best they can benefit those they meet. Usually, this takes the form of teaching, or performing requested ceremonies, but can also include volunteering with charities and working with local communities. On a deeper level, the practice of a wandering monastic is aimed at uprooting one’s self-cherishing by losing oneself in the benefiting and cherishing of others, through which one may awaken from ignorance and self-delusion.