Pilgrimage in Buddhist Tibet
- Paul B. DonnellyPaul B. DonnellyNorthern Arizona University
The English word “pilgrimage” has been used to translate the Tibetan nekor or nejel, which means to circumambulate or to meet a sacred place, respectively. “Tibet” here refers not only to the modern Tibetan Autonomous Region but also to what has been called “Ethnographic Tibet.” This area includes the three provinces of Utsang, Kham, and Amdo, but also regions outside the modern political borders of China, such as Ladakh, Zangskar, Bhutan, Dolpo, and Mustang. The people across these regions share a common written language, largely similar social institutions and values, and a shared sense of historical connection. Though lesser known in the West than the doctrinal and meditative traditions of Tibet, pilgrimage has always been central to the religious lives of the people of the Tibetan cultural regions. In fact, while doctrine and meditation have been the purview of the elite monastic scholarly minority, pilgrimage has been far more pervasive and practiced by laypeople as well as the monastics for purposes both worldly and soteriological. Though religious elites or even ordinary Tibetans may describe pilgrimages in sophisticated Buddhist doctrinal terms, what they actually do is often as rooted in indigenous Tibetan conceptions of place and sacred power as it is in Buddhism.
The concept of sacred place preceded the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet, and sacred places have remained important to both adherents of the Bön religion and of Buddhism. Pilgrimage to holy mountains, lakes, caves, and “hidden lands” was, and remains, central to Bön practice. This fact is consistent with the Bönpos’ self-identification as the preservers of the indigenous religion of Tibet. Buddhists in Tibet visited and venerated these powerful places, either overwriting their pre-Buddhist understandings with Buddhist ones or allowing the autochthonous powers respect alongside Buddhist practice. One well-known myth describes the Buddhist taming of Tibet in terms of Buddhist masters subduing and pinning down a demoness identified with the land of Tibet itself. Once tamed, mountains, lakes, caves, and hidden lands became understood in terms of tantric Buddhist doctrine and practice. After the conquest of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1950, pilgrimage became difficult for many Tibetans. This remained the case until the liberalizations of the PRC in Tibet in the mid-1980s. This shift allowed Tibetans to resume the practice of pilgrimage and opened Tibet to Western scholars interested in the practice. Since the mid-1990s, scholarship on Tibetan pilgrimage has flourished, and some scholars have turned their attention to pilgrimage in the ethnographically Tibetan regions in Northern India.