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Conclusion and Books Consulted

First published in 1981 by Mahayana Publications, Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre. This article first appeared in Teachings from Tushita, Journal of Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre.

Born and educated in England, Jeremy Russell’s interest in Buddhism was initially sparked during his first visit to Dharamsala in the early 1970s. He subsequently studied at the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives for several years. He has lived in Dharamsala with his family since 1981, dividing his time between working as an editor for several offices of the Tibetan government-in-exile and leading trekking groups into the nearby mountains. He is editor of Chö-Yang, the Journal of Tibetan Culture.

This publication has been translated into Spanish by Ediciones Mahayana, and is now available for download as a pdf file


Conclusion and Books Consulted

A buddha appears but rarely in this world and after his passing away leaves behind three kinds of relics: the remains of his body, the utensils he used, such as his alms bowl, and the edifices and places commemorating events in his life. Of the relics of Shakyamuni, the remains of his body, although widely distributed across Asia, are becoming increasingly inaccessible owing to political circumstances. As for the second type of relic, although the various objects used by the Buddha were preserved for long and were seen by both Fa Hien and Hsuan Chwang, many have since disappeared. Thus the fact that the eight places of pilgrimage and the four great places in particular can still be visited with moderate ease assumes a special importance.

In this account we have described some of the events of the Buddha's life associated with these places. We have also mentioned some of the subsequent developments—the building of stupas, temples and monasteries, and the flourishing practice of the Dharma amongst the resident monks up to the twelfth century. In doing so an attempt has been made to draw attention to the religious significance rather than the mere historical interest of these places.

Now that in recent years new temples and monasteries have been built and there is at least one monk residing in seven of the eight places, it can be said that the practice of the Dharma has been re-established there. The work of the late Prime Minister Nehru in encouraging and assisting this movement should not be overlooked. Nor should the activities of the buddhist orders from the many contributing countries be underestimated. Had these orders not maintained pure lineages over the seven centuries since Buddhism left India, there would be nothing to bring back to these sacred places. Thus the renewal of these sites may be regarded as an indication of the strength and purity of the Order today.

After much discussion of the places themselves, it may be appropriate to say a little about the practice and efficacy of pilgrimage. The Buddha advised those of his followers who could make pilgrimage to holy places to do so with mindfulness of the actions of the enlightened ones associated with them. He further advised them to engage in religious practices in the places of pilgrimage. Buddha himself had shown such respect. For example, at Vajrasana and Sarnath he circumambulated before sitting where previous buddhas had sat.

There are many such practices particularly relevant to the pilgrimage places. In the Tibetan tradition, for example, as well as making circumambulation, prostrations and offerings of flowers, incense and light, a pilgrim is encouraged to offer the "seven branch prayer" and the "mandala of the purified universe," and to recite the mantra of Shakyamuni Buddha and numerous sutras. At Vulture's Peak in particular, where the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, the epitome of the Buddha's doctrine, were expounded, the Heart Sutra is often recited. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has also compiled an anthology of buddhist meditational prayers to be read in all places or times associated with Buddha Shakyamuni. Entitled The Sublime Path of the Victorious Ones, this is available in English translation (Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala, H.P., India).

The merit acquired through these practices of circumambulation and so forth is greatly increased in the places of pilgrimage through what is referred to as "the power of the object." Illustrating this is the story of the monk who prostrated himself to the Buddha at Nalanda, wishing for birth as a universal monarch. Fulfillment of his prayer was assured because of the power of the object to whom he had made prostration. In a similar but contrary manner, Devadatta and others fell directly to hell because of the power of the object whom they knowingly attempted to harm.

However, in this context it is important to have a proper motivation and to be mindful of both one's actions and the object. His Holiness the Dalai Lama recently admonished pilgrims to Bodhgaya, saying that although circumambulation of the Mahabodhi Temple at Vajrasana could be immensely beneficial, to do it without respect or while continuing to chatter to one's friends and so forth would be as valuable as circumambulating Gaya Railway Station.

The Buddha many times referred to the value of pilgrimage. To give a quotation found in a commentary to the Vinaya Sutra by the First Dalai Lama (1392-1474), which is known in Tibetan as Lung-Treng-Tik:

Bhikshus, after my passing away, if all the sons and daughters of good family and the faithful, so long as they live, go to the four holy places, they should go and remember: here at Lumbini the enlightened one was born; here at Bodhgaya he attained enlightennent; here at Sarnath he turned twelve wheels of Dharma; and here at Kushinagar he entered parinirvana.

Bhikshus, after my passing away there will be activities such as circumambulation of these places and prostration to them.

Thus it should be told, for they who have faith in my deeds and awareness of their own will travel to higher states.

After my passing away, the new bhikshus who come and ask of the doctrine should be told of these four places and advised that a pilgrimage to them will help purify their previously accumulated negative karmas, even the five heinous actions.

With grateful thanks to Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey for his advice, and to the many by whose efforts the eight places of pilgrimage have been restored. May this brief account, despite any mistakes it might contain, contribute to their flourishing further.

Books consulted

  • Tibetan Tradition of Mental Development; Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey
  • The Life of the Buddha; A. Foucher
  • A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms; Fa Hien, tr. James Legge
  • On Hsuan Chwang's Travels in India; Thomas Waiters
  • Crystal Mirror V; ed. Tarthang Tulku
  • Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India; Sukumar Dutt
  • Buddha Gaya Temple. Its History (Prajna vols. 1, 2); Deepak Kumar Barna
  • Encyclopedia of Buddhism; ed. G.P. Malalasekara
  • History of Buddhism in India; Lama Taranatha, tr. Lama Chimpa and Alaka Chattopadhyaya
  • The Door of Liberation; Geshe Wangyal