About 10 years ago, my boyfriend and I set off for adventure, on a trip through the Himalayan region of South Asia. We didn’t know exactly where we were going—we just had that feeling that there was “something more meaningful out there” and we wanted to find it. We were also new Buddhists, and like many backpackers on the path, we headed straight for Dharamsala, India, to attend teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
In Dharamsala, we met spiritual seekers from all over the world, including a pair of newlyweds: a talented yoga practitioner named Samantha and her husband, Robert, a newly ordained Zen priest. Having spent years living and practicing zazen (zen meditation) at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, they too were out traveling the world. They’d just gotten married, and their idea of the perfect honeymoon was to explore the Buddhist pilgrimage sites of India, Nepal and Thailand.
If you’ve done a lot of traveling then you know the kind of magic that can happen when you’re far from home meeting kindred spirits. Friendships form fast, and the conversation is never boring. Our new friends shared their experiences of living at a Zen Buddhist monastery, and my boyfriend and I shared what we’d learned practicing within the Tibetan tradition. For days we attended the teachings, we talked and lingered in Dharamsala cafes, and we took long walks in the Himalayan foothills together.
Eventually Samantha and Robert moved on, continuing their journey through the Buddhist pilgrimage places of Asia. My boyfriend and I set off as well, heading for the Tibetan plateau. Along the way we encountered amazement, frustration, transcendence, suffering and joy and met many like-minded journeyers. But we never forgot the special connection we made in Dharamsala. Then, ten years later, a funny thing happened—Facebook.
It’s hard to say exactly how pilgrimage changes a person, but after a decade there were a few signs.
Robert had begun teaching Buddhist philosophy and meditation and was now the President of the San Francisco Zen Center. Samantha was teaching yoga with a therapeutic focus in the Bay Area, infusing it with her many years of Zen training. My boyfriend, James, had quit his job as an investment broker and started working for a Tibetan monastery in Nepal. (Yes, that really happened.) As for me, well, after studying Buddhism in Nepal for a couple of years, I was so taken by the power of the place that I eventually began organizing yoga tours of Kathmandu’s many sacred sites. Reconnected, we discovered that each of us was still trying to live mindfully and make those teachings and practices that had such a profound effect on our own lives available to others.
And now, through the ‘magic’ of the internet, all four of us—Robert, Samantha, James and I—have made plans to meet up again. This time we’re meeting in Kathmandu. It’s a reunion of old friends and a chance to continue our journey together.
Recently I had the chance to talk with Samantha, Robert and James about why pilgrimage is still so relevant for those of us living a fast-paced, 21st century kind of life. I asked them, “Do you think pilgrimage still matters?” Here’s what they had to say:
Robert: It is naturally very difficult within the normal daily momentum of our lives for us to do anything different than what we always do. When we step out of the conditions that support the habit patterns of our lives, we open ourselves to new conditions, to new ways of seeing the world. It encourages us to reconnect with parts of ourselves that we had forgotten about or had neglected.
Pilgrimage and retreat also help us find other people who are looking to find peace and happiness in their lives and to connect with something larger and more important, something that can have a profoundly beneficial impact on their own lives and the lives of those around them. Finding others on this path and connecting with them by practicing together is a very powerful and life-changing experience.
Samantha: We came to Asia 10 years ago on a pilgrimage because we wanted to see how people practiced and lived Buddhism in Asia. We were stunned by the effect that visiting sacred sites that had been places of intense spiritual practice for many generations had on us. We were on hallowed ground, and we really felt it! These sacred spaces have a lot of power to alter us in profound ways that we don’t understand at first.
What I loved to see was the physicality of the practice—to watch an elderly Tibetan lady sitting there, turning her prayer wheel and saying a mantra for hours on end; to walk with the people around the enormous stupa (spiritual monument) in Boudhanath every morning and evening. Something gets enacted there that is very deep and powerful.
You get to experience spiritual practice as an all-day thing—you get to see how, first thing in the morning, a woman walks up to a tree and offers, with great love, a tray of offerings; or to see a woman place flowers on each side of her front door after sweeping. These are ways that spiritual practice is just part of life in Asia, and it makes life very meaningful.
James: Yes, pilgrimage still matters. In fact, I’d like to think I’m on ‘indefinite pilgrimage’. The Kathmandu Valley, where I spend most of my time, is actually a mandala—a sacred geography full of temples, shrines, statues of deities and sacred rocks and trees. My teachers tell me that if you can really tune into that, then you’re continuously moving through sacred space, or—to put it another way—you’re always only one step away from enlightenment.
Living in Kathmandu, I have to make sure that I don’t take any of it for granted. Like fighting any bad habit of the mind, the only way to do it is by staying aware. You have to realize the precious opportunity, right now, of being in a sacred place or being able to hear spiritual teachings. Pretty much every day I think, “How could you be so lucky?! How did you end up here?!”
The pilgrimage begins from the moment we decide to open ourselves up to the world. Is there some part of this vast planet that has been calling you for a long time? Take a chance: Step outside of the box and onto hallowed ground. Just by shedding your ordinary world, even for a week or two, something is forever changed. Maybe, like me, you’ll find that you love spicy okra. Maybe you’ll discover that you’ve never really seen the mountains before, or finally you will learn to follow your breath. Or maybe you’ll just meet some really great new friends! No matter what you discover, the journey is waiting, and the pilgrimage will be all yours.
Marni Kravitz is the director of Yoga Nepal, a yoga retreat and pilgrimage program based in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley. When she’s not exploring sacred sites with fellow journeyers, she works as a documentary film researcher for National Geographic Channels International.