Pilgrimage—a journey to a holy site with the purpose of veneration and in the hope of an epiphany. Given such a definition of a pilgrimage it might seem like the destination is the primary goal. A pilgrimage differs from a “ramble” in that there is a specific destination in mind rather than a wandering about in the wilderness. But the notion of journey is also important to a pilgrimage. The journey itself is intended as a purification, a leaving behind of certain things, a readying of the heart for certain experiences.
A friend pointed out the forecast in Delhi is in the 100’s—if it were just a trip I would be prompted to think of that as an obstacle to get through. But as a pilgrim, I might think of this as a kind of providence—a test or temptation—maybe even a blessing in disguise. I am trying to go to place where I will gain wisdom and compassion—but what would that mean if all along the way I am filled with irritation and snap at my fellow travelers or at the teeming group of people who have snarled traffic? If I am going to a holy place, then I must prepare myself by being holy, compassionate and wise along the way.
At the pilgrimage, the destination site is by definition a transcendent reality. It is tempting to see the “everyday” side of things as paling next to this transcendent goal. However, the common and everyday may be just the place where the transcendent appears. In Christian monasticism—the virtue of vigilance is urged—a careful watching for signs of the divine breaking into the world. Similarly, in Buddhism the practice of mindfulness urges attention to the small details–both the inner and the outer landscape. Pilgrimage is a kind of walking meditation, noticing those who one meets along the way as openings to be more deeply in touch with reality both in its everydayness and it transcendent splendor.
The picture of Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama taken when Merton first met the Dalai Lama is perfectly ordinary–yet when I look at it after having read the journal entries of Merton’s pilgrimage and the Dalai Lama’s later reflections on their meeting–I can’t help but see this picture as something that opens out into something vast.