The lake Lha mo bla mtsho Central Tibet , for example, is traditionally visited to receive visions of the birthplace of the next Dalai Lama. The most important of the natural pilgrimage places, however, are sacred mountains, like Mount Kailash in Western Tibet, Tsa ri in Southeast Tibet, and A myes rma chen in Qinghai province.
A mountain associated with a lake — with the mountain considered the father and the lake the mother — is regarded as the ideal sacred place. Beginning long before the introduction of Buddhism, the mountains of Tibet were regarded as territorial gods yul lha. In Buddhist Tibet many mountains have retained this status and its cult, according to which only males were permitted to perform rituals of offering on the slope. Many of these mountains were incorporated into the Buddhist cosmography through the deeds of a Buddhist saint.
This transformation typically occurred when a great religious figure "opened the pilgrimage" gnas skor phyed ba by subduing the negative forces that prevented access to the site. It was then a Buddhist site, and the practice of circumambulation was performed by men and women alike to consolidate this metamorphosis. The popularity of such sacred sites has waxed and waned over time through competition between Buddhist schools to gain real and symbolic control over them. A rarer type of pilgrimage takes the form of great millenarian migrations toward "hidden lands" sbas yul , revealed by Padmasambhava, where Tibetans can take refuge when dangers threaten the country.
The most well known of these is Gnas Padma bkod in Southeast Tibet.
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A wide variety of Tibetan texts have been designated by Western scholars with the term pilgrimage guides. Some of these are indeed guidebooks in the ordinary sense of the term. They provide concrete information, indicate directions to follow, and sometimes even give the approximate time it takes to go from one point to another.
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A great number of texts, however, are not conventional guidebooks. They are dedicated to a single site and present a tantric vision of the sacred place. These texts are literary projections of an internal vision onto the physical landscape, intended to convey the pilgrim toward a higher level of spiritual insight.
Pilgrims, many of whom have traditionally been illiterate, know these texts from monks, nuns, and lamas met along the pilgrimage routes.
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Thus these written sources, passed on orally, superimpose the sacred landscape onto the land for those who have not yet gained the insight to see its true nature for themselves. Through pilgrimage, Tibetans seek purification, the accumulation of merit, and blessings. Some of these are gained through the rituals they perform along the way. Yet the place itself has its own power, often derived from the past presence of a saint, and pilgrims often take water, stones, earth, and plants home with them from their pilgrimages.
Drinking the water or wearing the earth or the stone inside an amulet around the neck is said to aid in finding a better rebirth in the next lifetime. But it also brings more immediate rewards, such as prosperity, long life, and protection from harm. Despite the pervasive influence of Buddhism in Tibet, pilgrimage remains a mixture of Buddhist and non-Buddhist, Tibetan and non-Tibetan elements. Circumambulation derives from the Indian practice of keeping revered objects to one's right; there is evidence of this ritual act being practiced in Tibet during the final centuries of the monarchy seventh to ninth centuries ce.
Buddhists must move in a clockwise direction; adherents of the Bon religion move counterclockwise. In order to accrue special merit, pilgrims sometimes perform prostrations lying face down, rising, taking a step, and lying face down again along the entire route. There are also particularly auspicious times to perform pilgrimage during the twelve-year cycle of the Tibetan calendar.
Upon arrival at the sacred site, pilgrims make Buddhist offerings of money, butter lamps, or ceremonial scarves. But they also perform non-Buddhist rituals, like burning juniper branches and adding stones to a cairn.
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Other practices mix Buddhist and non-Buddhist elements in a single act, like weighing sins by hanging from a projection of a rock or crossing the smyal lam , the "path to hell," in order to overcome the fear of facing the intermediate state bar do between death and the next rebirth. Pilgrimage routes link the sacred sites of Tibet and provide pathways for the expression of political and cultural identity.
The long pilgrimages so typical in Tibet lead to large movements of population into new regions where all forms of social interaction occur. Pilgrims not only visit sacred sites, they also meet people leading sometimes to marriage , they carry news, and they transmit forms of knowledge. The practice of pilgrimage in Tibet helped in breaking down cultural separatism and building political integration.
Along the pilgrimage routes all the ranks of the society are encountered, yet social distinctions and hierarchies do not fade. In some cases women are not permitted to enter monastic spaces or set foot on certain segments of the ritual route. At the same time, pilgrimage offers the opportunity to escape from a variety of political constraints and social obligations.
Since the s, for example, pilgrimage has sometimes provided a pretext for escaping from Chinese oppression; numerous refugees who have gone on pilgrimage to Mount Kailash in Western Tibet have then continued on to Nepal. In the Tibetan world, pilgrimage is a collective practice. Groups of pilgrims from the same family, the same locality, or the same monastery typically gather together. Often monks or lamas will serve as guides for lay people, providing information along the way. Upon arrival at the sacred site, these groups of pilgrims do not mix with one another, and conversation is limited to requests for information from a local person or a religious figure.
But pilgrimage is also a festive occasion, with groups stopping along the way for song and dance and people dressed in their most beautiful clothes and jewelry. The economic implications of pilgrimage are also significant. It promotes trade, both large-scale and small-scale, and thus the redistribution of wealth. Pilgrims typically are asked by family members to carry gifts and make offerings on their behalf at the sacred destination in order that they might share in the merit of the pilgrimage. The monastery or temple, so often located near the pilgrimage place if it is not the sacred site itself , provides consecrated items ceremonial scarves, consecrated pills, and sometimes food in return for these donations.
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