There is nothing religious about the practice of meditation or in visiting sacred places. In fact, there is nothing even Buddhist about it!
The idea of pilgrimage here is that when one travels to explore sacred sites, one does so with a unique intention. This intention is different from the usual tourist’s reasons to travel. Actually, there is a parallel between the reasons why one would want to meditate, and why one would go on a pilgrimage.
In short – this intention is to want to know the truth, to be happier, and to suffer less.
The reasoning behind meditating or wanting a different kind of travel experience, such as a pilgrimage, stems from the appreciation that there is a connection between our internal selves (who we think we are) and our external environment. Through our actions this connection creates the experience of either well-being or suffering. To be able to connect with what is, we need to have access to the present moment of whatever is happening inside and outside of us. Luckily, our present situation is always accessible, but our minds aren’t always at our command. Deep-seeded habitual patterns cause our minds to wander, so the practice of ‘calm abiding’ shamata meditation is a necessary practice in order to calm and relax the mind. Creating a more calm and relaxed mind is the first step on the path of meditation and is a result of practice.
With mental stability it is possible to cultivate noble qualities such as compassion and wisdom, and to be of benefit to others. Having a mind that is malleable we could even create the conditions in which we can discover real lasting happiness and to cut the root of suffering once and for all.
Going on a pilgrimage will not take away all our causes of suffering, but by visiting these birth places of ‘mindfulness’, paying homage to sacred sites where great yogis and yoginis have tirelessly practiced and as a result realized the nature of their minds, we can go with the intention that we want the same for ourselves – to realize the truth, to be happy, and to be free from suffering.
We find that an authentic pilgrimage actually combines travel to sacred sites with our very own ‘mind-training’ practice. Exploring caves, monasteries, shrines, and the vast landscapes of the Himalayas while investigating our minds with the ‘tried, tested and true’ contemplative process called meditation, we can make a sincere connection to these places which may deeply inspire our lives and our practice.
The practice of meditation is simply a tool to bring your mind back to a place of naked awareness, to a place of basic space with yourself and the environment. It is simply a technique with which to uncover all the layers of hope, fear, grasping, and judgement that are all such strong habits which cloud the mind. With the practice of meditation we can learn to come back to ourselves, to become familiar with the groundless, unfabricated, and raw quality of who we are and what is real. Perhaps the notion of our ‘self’ isn’t as solid or as permanent as it seems to be, and perhaps this is good news!