The origins of Buddhist pilgrimages are associated with the places that the teacher visited, and the places associated with his teachings. The four main places are Kusinara, Lumbini, Bodh Gaya and Sarnath. Lumbini holds special significance as it was where Gautama Buddha was born. Other significant places are in India, and Bodh Gaya was the place under the tree that Buddha achieved enlightenment.
Lumbini has long been a pilgrimage site as it is the place that Lord Buddha was born. It is situated in the southern area of Nepal, and Lord Buddha himself specifies Lumbini as one of the four holy sites. Most of his childhood was spent here in splendid comfort, and at the time he had no knowledge of the world and none about suffering.
After departing Lumbini, Lord Buddha attained “Enlightenment” under the famous Bodhi tree. This tree was the first of all the Buddhist pilgrimage sites and it was actually where Buddhism began. Bodh Gaya is located in the Indian state of Bihar, and each year thousands of people make the pilgrimage to this sacred place.
Another of the holy four sites for pilgrimage, Sarnath is where Buddha gave his first teaching, to five holy monks. There Buddha preached about Dharma, and the “Wheel of Dharma”. He also preached about the “Four Noble Truths”, which are suffering, the causes of suffering, the ending of suffering and the “Eightfold Path”. Sarnath is to be found in the northeast of Varanasi.
Located in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Kushalnagara is the place that Lord Buddha chose to end his days, attaining “Parinirvana”. It is said the Lord Buddha selected this particular place for three reasons. The first was that it was the correct place to teach “Maha-Sudassana”, the second because it is related to following the path left by Lord Buddha. The final reason was that Lord Buddha wished to leave relics with Brahman Doha.
These four most holy sites are the most popular with pilgrims even today. But there are actually eight “holy sites” in total that Buddhist pilgrims pay homage. All eight are collectively known as “Astamahapratiharya”. The other four lesser sites but still very important are: Vaisala, Rajbir, Srivatsa and Sankey. Throughout history many great teachers of Buddhism encouraged the practice of pilgrimage and for disciples to pay their respects to the sacred sites.
Great Buddhist monks led the way by their own actions, and went on pilgrimage regularly to encourage others. Nagarjuna the father of “Mahayana”, actually restored the temple at Bodhgaya and preserved the sacred Bodhi tree. Another great Indian luminary often visited Bodhgaya on pilgrimage, and his name was Taisha.
There is no dispute that the practice of pilgrimage is just as important to those of the Buddhist faith as other great religions. The very act of putting oneself through a long and arduous journey signifies that the pilgrim is devout in his beliefs. He is prepared not only to devote time, comfort and hardship during his pilgrimage but also prepared to clear his mind and to think of his purpose, to reflect upon his faith.