The Discipline of Pilgrimages

Ever since the dawning of religion, spiritual seekers have undertaken pilgrimages to visit holy sites, to find teachers and teachings, to search out relics, or to receive blessings. From a mystical point of view, however, all these forms of journeying are really the outer expression of an inward journey to the center of one's self. Thus, while orthodox Muslims may make a pilgrimage to Mecca in order to circumambulate the Ka'bah (the sacred stone structure at the center of the Grand Mosque), according to the Sufis, the true Ka'bah lies within oneself. And while a devout Buddhist may travel many miles to visit the Buddha's place of Enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, still, as Lama Shabkar writes, "He may comb the three dimensions of the microcosmic world systems for an eternity, but he will not find so much as the name of the Buddha other than the one in his heart." [1]

But this is not to say that the outer pilgrimage should be dismissed as merely an "exoteric" exercise, having no importance for those who are following a mystical path. Indeed, the rigors of a pilgrimage can provide powerful opportunities to expose hidden attachments and practice real surrender. This is especially true if the pilgrimage involves travel in a foreign country or to communities which maintain a Spartan life-style, free of the luxuries many of us westerners have come to take so much for granted. There is nothing like the absence of air-conditioning, television sets, and flush toilets, to make us aware of how much we secretly rely on "worldly things" to bring us happiness. Similarly, there is nothing like being placed in an unfamiliar environment, faced with strange foods, strange customs, and strange people, to help us confront our deepest fears and surrender our most ingrained prejudices. All of which is part and parcel of learning one of the most important lessons of the path; namely, that there is absolutely no security to be found anywhere in this sea of shifting forms we take to be "reality."

Of course, the mere fact that one visits a foreign country or strange land does not, in itself, constitute a pilgrimage. Many people travel for purely worldly reasons—to conduct business, to shop for bargains, to further their education, or simply to "get away from it all" by taking an exotic vacation. What distinguishes the spiritual pilgrim from the secular traveler are motivation and discipline. The secular traveler is primarily motivated by a desire to enhance him or herself, whereas, the spiritual pilgrim wishes to expose and, ultimately, "die" to that self, in order to Awaken to the True Self which is the Ultimate Reality underlying all that is. For this reason, pilgrims of all traditions have adopted special disciplines to serve as reminders of their journeys' sacred purpose. In the Middle Ages, for example, Christians headed for the Holy Land often donned horse-hair shirts and went barefoot. Muslims traveling to Mecca wear white robes and observe strict celibacy during their journey. Some Buddhists on the way to visiting sacred shrines will stop to make a certain number of prescribed prostrations every few steps they take.

But even if you do not belong to an established tradition, which already possesses disciplines for undertaking a pilgrimage, you can still create your own. The last phase of my own spiritual quest unfolded in the context of just such a "pilgrimage." In the summer of 1983 I traveled throughout the Western United States, visiting various spiritual communities. The outer purpose of this journey was to perform a service by taping a video newsletter in which each community would have ten minutes to present a sample of their activities. When the newsletter was completed, I then sent copies to all the communities that had participated so that each could see what the others were up to. The inner purpose of the journey, however, was to find the Holy Grail of Enlightenment—something I had vowed to do or die trying. What follows is a short excerpt from my book, Naked Through the Gate [2] , which describes the disciplines I adopted for my travels.

1. Although I would ask free room and board wherever I videotaped, I would accept no money, nor would I sell the tape at a later date. I wanted the newsletter to be a true service to which I had no financial attachment or expectation of reward.

2. I would travel with a low profile, asking no preferential treatment, participating in whatever tasks were at hand, and generally making myself useful. Specifically, knowing that many of the communities I visited would be vegetarian, I resolved to obey Jesus' instructions to his disciples when he sent them forth to preach, "And into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you." And I resolved to do this without secret disdain or concealed complaint.

3. While traveling between communities I looked forward to spending sometime by myself, but I would not stay in motels. I would camp out whenever possible and shun all luxuries. Further, I would adhere to no fixed schedule and remain flexible in my route, allowing time and fate to work their will in guiding me.

4. Finally, and most important, I would not judge the people I stayed with. I would keep inner silence and outward humility, as I had been instructed in my testing dream.

Obviously, these rules were tailored to the particulars of my own journey, and will not suit everyone's needs. I offer them here only as an example of how one can convert an otherwise ordinary adventure into a true spiritual pilgrimage which, in my own case, stripped away the last of my worldly desires and attachments and so led directly to the Gate of Gnosis.

May all your pilgrimages be so blessed!

- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Fall 1996. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.


1. The Flight of the Garuda, comp. and trans. Keith Dowman (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1994) p. 91.
2. Joel, Naked Through the Gate (Eugene, OR: Center for Sacred Sciences, 1985) p. 201-202.

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