The route to one’s faith has never been easy. From near-equatorial Thailand to 6,700m-high Mount Kailash in Tibet, Krisdawan Hongladarom needed to take different vessels and routes; from aeroplanes to a four-wheel drive car through a barren landscape with snow-capped mountain ranges on the horizon.
Pilgrims are on their knees and prostrated to pay respect to the holy ‘natural stupa’ Mount Kailash. Photos courtesy of the THOUSAND STARS FOUNDATION
This was comfortable considering traditional pilgrims walked through the passage.
Finally, the magnificent Mt Kailash came into sight and readily gave her the first lesson _ humility.
By the foothill of the mountain, Krisdawan and her two companions _ one Thai and the other Tibetan _ kneeled down and prostrated their bodies to pay respect to the holy mountain that people in many spiritual traditions regard as a ”natural stupa” and the abode of the god Shiva.
”To undertake a pilgrimage is a way to transform your mind. When you travel in this manner, your perspectives on life will not be the same. The hardships along the path are a test of our faith and inner strength,” said Assoc Prof jlKrisdawan, former linguistics lecturer and president of the Thousand Stars Foundation, whose mission in part is to promote the ancient wisdom and culture of Tibet.
Undertaking a pilgrimage in Tibet is a way of fortifying her faith for the monumental task of constructing Shanti Tara Maha Stupa and Tara Khadiravana Retreat Centre in Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan.
Over the past three years, Krisdawan has already made several pilgrimages. In 2007, she undertook a pilgrimage in Tibet, performing full body prostrations throughout the 80-kilometre journey.
”This mission requires a great deal of faith and determination. While building a physical stupa, I need to build a stupa in my mind too,” she said.
At Darchen, the gateway for pilgrimage, Krisdawan and her friends left their hired car and driver and walked up Mt Kailash to circumambulate the sacred peak. Each step and prayer recitation was a practice to transcend her mind.
The clockwise trek of 52km took about four days to complete. The high altitude of 4,570m, the average negative temperature in July last year, the strong winds and the rough terrain of rugged rocks; without strong faith, pilgrims could not survive.
Once at the toughest point called Drolma-La, a swift change of temperature almost took her life. ”My heart shivered and I barely had strength to walk,” said the lean and delicate woman. ”That was when I realised the fear and hindrances that need to be purified. We know more about ourselves through the presence of obstacles,” she said.
Surviving the trip, Krisdawan and her team took solace at another popular holy spot, Lake Manasarovar (known among Thais as Anodad), where she exchanged cordial conversations with other pilgrims on the mountain _ Tibetan Buddhists, Jains and Hindus.
”As we were driving away, I looked back at the mountain until it was out of sight. It was like I was descending from the world of peace to the one full of conflicts. I was deeply moved and tears filled my eyes.”
Touched by the experience, Krisdawan believed that pilgrimage is a meaningful spiritual practice that can illuminate some truths of life and restore peace and harmony in people’s hearts. So in collaboration with the Centre for Ethics of Science and Technology, Chulalong korn University, Krisdawan held a seminar entitled ”Pilgrimage and the Journey of the Heart”.
Pilgrim Assoc Prof Krisdawan Hongladarom recited prayers when she first saw the holy Mt Kailash. ‘We take the external route to get in touch with the inner world,’ she said.
In the event, scholars and religious practitioners from various traditions _ Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism _ shared their inter-religious perspectives and experiences of pilgrimage.
Each tradition may start with different stories and practice, but the core spirit of pilgrimage is succinctly the same _ it is the journey towards spiritual refinement.
”We take the external route to get in touch with the inner world,” said Krisdawan.
Travel is rooted from ”travail” which means hardship, said Sulak Sivaraksa, prominent Buddhism scholar. ”This denotes difficulties and hard work. Without some hardship, we won’t learn or have a chance to cleanse ourselves,” he said.
In all traditions, pilgrimage has been taken by foot. Most saints and missionaries walked.
”Walking slows our speed, we can see more by walking. Along the path, we see realities of life; suffering, friendships and joy. That’s how our consciousness shifts,” said Komkrit Uitekkeng, Hindu practitioner and philosophy lecturer at Silpakorn University.
Unfortunately, this spiritual dimension, which entails some difficulties and slow pace, is neglected in the modernising world now that pilgrimages are commercialised for the tourism industry.
Chartered airlines are arranged to land pilgrims on holy sites. Hotels and resorts are built near the areas. Taxis and limousines provide easy access to the spots. Memorabilia related to holy places are in high demand.
Thai tourism authorities, for instance, are promoting a ”Meditation in Thailand” campaign among other spiritual travel packages already in place, one of which is visiting nine temples on one day tour.
”It would be a waste if we travelled to religious sites without cultivating the benefits from the teachings. When one travels to spiritual places, one should bear in mind the truth, the teachings and values of religions. In this manner, travel will transform our minds and life for the better,” said social critic Sulak.
In fact, the idea of pilgrimage is not emphasized in Thai Buddhism, according to Dr Anil Sakya from Wat Bovornnives. But there is a term jarik boon, he added.
”Jarik means to walk, to move and to practice. And boon in pali means cleansing the mind. So jarik boon is a walk, a movement or a practice that helps cleanse our mind from kilesa,” the monk explained.
”You can jarik boon without going anywhere. As long as you are mindful of your deeds and constantly clear your minds off kilesa, that is the spirit of jarik,” the monk said.
As for monks, the Buddha advised them to jarik to places to bring benefits and peace to people and to learn and share their understanding in dharma with others.
In recent decades, Phra Anil remarked, there has been a growing trend for Thai Buddhists, in particular, to visit four main sites related to the life of the Buddha in Nepal and India.
”In the Maha Parinibbhana sutra, the Buddha may have spoken about one of the ways Buddhists can accumulate merit. That is to travel to places associated with his life story.
”However, the purposes for visiting these sites are for practitioners to learn about impermanence, to be reminded of the Buddha’s teachings and to feel inspired to follow the Buddha’s footsteps in doing good deeds for all sentient beings,” the monk said.
Similar to Buddhism, other religions such as Christianity see pilgrimage as an intrinsically inward journey.
”Basically, our life is a journey _ a journey back to God. Human beings are travellers. We are pilgrims,” said Assoc Dr Warayuth Sriwarakuel from Assumption University.
”Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden to live on earth. Throughout their lives, as in ours, the goal was to find a way back home, to our God,” said Warayuth.
To undertake pilgrimage to holy places is not mandatory for Christians. However, stories in Christianity are never short of it. The Bible, Warayuth added, is a record of human journeys; the exodus, the life of Christ, and pilgrimages of the saints.
”Pilgrimage is a way to serve others along the path and to create peace and harmony in the world,” said Warayuth.
These days, many Christians take pilgrimage to places related to Christ and saints. Popular places include Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Rome, Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal, to name a few.
”Pilgrimage to holy places offers unique opportunity for us to repent our sins, to express our devotional faith and to follow the teachings. If that does not happen en route, then we fail the purpose of the journey,” said Warayuth.
The condition for Christians to be in heaven with God, he added, is not about taking pilgrimage to holy places, but our deeds throughout the journey of our life.
Unlike Christianity, pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca) in Saudi Arabia is one of a Muslim’s duties, as described in the five pillars of Islam. They have to go to perform hajj at least once in a lifetime.
”We perform hajj to express our faithful commitment to Allah. In this spirit, we have to leave behind our preoccupations _ family, friends, work and material clinging and ready to take a journey to devote ourselves to God,” said Dr Pranee Lapanich, retired faculty member of Chulalongkorn University.
The journey to Makkah is not a rosy path for everyone, including Dr Pranee. ”Apart from your faith, you need to be physically fit and financially viable. Your family must allow you to go, too. Most importantly, you need to be ready to devote your life and mind to God,” she said, adding that people with ill health or lack of money are excused from the obligation.
Each year in the 12th month of the Muslim lunar calendar, millions of Muslims across the world, regardless of race or language, flock to Makkah where they perform several prayers and rituals. Amid the seas of devout pilgrims and searing temperatures, one’s patience and faith get tested, said Dr Pranee.
”There, it is a holy place and thus we need to purify our minds. I thought only about God; to be reminded that we are God’s possessions and to love other human beings,” said Dr Pranee. The destination, Makkah, she said, transformed her.
Like Islam, pilgrimage is a tradition of the oldest living religion, Hinduism. Although it is not obligatory, most Hindu eclectics and laypeople prefer to journey to places deemed sacred.
”To see holy sites, shrines and places of their gurus are blessings and merit-making activities that help purify their karma,” said Komkrit, philosophy lecturer at Silpakorn University. ”That’s why some travelled for 10 miles to see Mahatma Gandhi even for a swift second. Then they felt at peace.”
There are many holy sites in India where the population is predominately Hindu. Holy cities in India include Allahabad, Haridwar, Varanasi and Vrindavan, to name a few. Sacred shrines are scattered across the county, not to mention natural holy places like Mt Kailash (also known as Mt Meru) and the Ganges River. Additionally, places related to gurus _ places where they lived and prayed _ are considered sacred.
According to Hinduism, everyone has committed sins in many past lives. To meet and worship at holy places is one of many ways to reduce some of these sins.
”To me, taking a pilgrimage is an opportunity to contemplate the teachings and practice them on the path. That’s why, I think, our sins are reduced. Not by seeing the gurus or holy places, but the interactions we have with everything on the path,” said Komkrit.
He recalled an experience while taking a visit at a holy shrine of the elephant god in India.
”When the shrine’s gate opened, there was a thundering cheer from worshippers. The hall inside was magnificent and the small Ganesha in gold was illuminating. It must have been all of those components at the time that made me shed tears of joy,” he recalled.
In a procession of the god Ganesha, Komkrit said he was fused in the sea of collective consciousness among people who shared one faith _ one heart.
”The journey takes us off our humdrum routine in life, it allows us to see new things and our mind to be alert and fresh. We will have a chance to contemplate life as we make the journey and to relive and practice the teachings we believe in,” said Komkrit.
After all, life is a journey, not one day is the same.
When we know how to walk our life like undertaking a pilgrimage, every step we make will take us to some sacred places _ it is a journey of our heart.