Pilgrimage has been a part of our collective journey for as long as humankind has dwelt upon the Earth. Through the ages, beautiful and powerful landscapes have become the stage for activities and personages that left lasting impressions. There, architectural monuments remain as silent testament to the history and strivings of a people or even an entire civilization. But as the human drama unfolded, the central pilgrimage sites became not just places to celebrate one’s culture, but also imbued with deep spiritual value. Such locales are the central locus where the aspirations, hopes, and fears of an entire populace can be directed toward higher principles, transcendent values, and distant and promised shores. Particularly, these are sites wherein renowned saints, sages, prophets, avatars—those who broke through the bonds of suffering, mortality, and the perilous precipice of our fragile lives—lived, attained deliverance, and died. But what creates this heady mixture of possibilities that is a sacred site? And what is the spectrum of things that can happen there?
The sacred Earth
The practice of feng shui in China, vastu shastra in India, and sa ché in Tibet are about placement, about the how the organization of a home, apartment, shop, or office affects our lives. It also involves the remediation of any unfortunate or potentially negative flows or obstructions of energy within these dwellings. While this is done according to a formidable number of rules and measurements, it is also about understanding how the energy in a landscape moves, and the nature of the intelligence that resides in every piece of the living earth. Apart from such formalized and sophisticated systems, shamans, medicine people, wise elders, and those close to the land have understood and listened to the formidable forces residing within the natural realm. Additionally, there is the ancient and new science of earth energies and ley lines, the veritable acupuncture meridians, chakras, and power points that form complex geometric patterns locally and globally. These are also well understood by dowsers, water diviners, and other skilled geomancers, along with visionary adepts. All in all, this means that there are places that are inherently endowed with special and unique qualities. Some promote health and well-being, and just make you feel better and more sane. Others have a more mystical impact, fostering meditative states and internal alchemical changes. Whole cities, and indeed civilizations, have been built around such power spots since ancient times. Some such areas, such as Angkor Wat, still resonate with power thousands of years after their original civilization has vanished, and in spite of literally millions of tourists wandering those grounds. On a much smaller scale there are innumerable caves, hilltops, and remote spaces that hold extraordinary patterns of energy.
The power and promise of such places involves more than just the natural landscape and its denizens. The invisible (to mundane vision) beings that dwell there are an important part of the equation. Known throughout time and place as devi, earth lords, fairies, nature spirits, nagas, sylphs, salamanders, and so on, they have a tremendous impact on the health, prosperity, power, and peace emanating from a specific region. Some non-human entities even rise to the level of serious spiritual or Dharma practitioners, themselves gaining high levels of attainment. Of course the reverse is true, with malicious or toxic dwellers that create pestilence, filth, and altogether unhappy and unlucky circumstances. It worthwhile to pay attention to the powerful effect of such forces from both the land and its other-dimensional inhabitants. Fortunately it is part of our inherent senses to experience and even dialogue with these beings that share our world.
The malleable landscape
While the natural attributes of an area are crucial, such positive places can be enhanced, and negativity cleared by skilled practitioners. Whether they are accomplished lamas, priests, Daoists, Buddhist shaman, or simply well-trained laymen and laywomen, their practices impact the bioenergy field of the environment. This is because physical objects—houses, mountains, trees, rocks, and the depth of the earth—take on the vibratory patterns of what happens there. You can discover a happy house, and you can find a spooky street. The quality and kinds of actions that occur, the habitual thoughts and feelings of the denizens, are cumulative. Before long these vibrations—and the information tied to them—become infused into the fabric of a location. Thus when a great being, a mahasiddha, an accomplished meditator, yogi or yogini enters an area and practices there, it begins to shift, often dramatically. This change will also conform to the nature and depth of the meditations and rituals being performed. In some ways, this is independent of the skill or level of the tantric master. Tara, Vajrakilaya, Mahakala, and other archetypal deities shepherded by a vajra master will strongly imprint the locale with their unique energy signatures, their entire complex mandala. If this influence is prolonged enough and profound enough, it change can, ostensibly, last forever. The crystalline structure of the silica in rock is, like glass, a “slow liquid” and can be imprinted just like water. Indeed, this is the basis of homeopathic remedies that are prepared and stored in silica vials. The energy matrix of spiritual realization also merges with the natural energy grid of these special places. The fusion of a natural power spot with enlightened energies can produce spectacular results.
Additionally, such great beings, steeped in compassion, perform prayers and aspirations that whosoever makes the inevitably difficult journey to the place will be amply rewarded. Many such sites are known to clear every manner of negative karma that is contributing to sufferings of mind, body, and circumstance, while greatly enhancing one’s spiritual possibilities and experiences. And this brings us to the what we can do while on pilgrimage.
When visiting even briefly, or spending a prolonged time in the vicinity of such pilgrimage sites, the effects can be markedly enhanced in a number of ways.
• Mindfulness or a sense of presence and wakefulness to all that is going on inside and outside oneself makes one more available to subtle messages and experiences.
• A knowledge of the sacred place, the deities involved, the enlightened beings associated with the pilgrimage site, deepen one’s appreciation and receptiveness.
• Here the practice of “taking experience on the path” is particularly worthwhile. For example: when walking forward, think that you are moving toward full awakening; when climbing a stair, feel you are moving beyond mundane fixation, hope, and fear; when walking downward, think that you are bringing these precious gifts back down to others, and so on with eating or drinking, smiling, to the limits of your imagination.
• Performing mantras or prayers associated with a place, practice or person is obviously beneficial, especially if you already have a connection with them. But even if they are completely new to you, unexpected blessings may pour forth into the open mind.
• Clearly despoiling, exploiting, stealing from the site, or acting in angry, uncaring, or disrespectful ways is not a good idea, as the negative results are greatly magnified. This is not because anyone or thing is “punishing” such activities. But in this karmic situation, like will attract like.
• On a more subtle level, pilgrimage is an opportunity to suspend the usual negative thoughts, either about oneself or those particularly annoying fellow travelers.
• As part of sacred view, all phenomena can be seen as inherently pure. Thus one can, dedicate the positive karma one has accumulated toward relieving the suffering of all sentient beings, or specific people, animals, or situations you would like to uplift.
Finally, note that planning and organizing yourself to make the trip, and every step of travel along the way are included in this entire pilgrimage experience, and the same principles apply.
All of the above helps the development of an attitude of devotion, humility, and supplication. But there are also even more active ways to engage with the powerful energies of sacred spaces. The added benefit is that this can be extended into daily life and one’s everyday activities. The base of these alternative methods is simply sensitivity, of tuning in to the vivid world of energy and information that continually swirls around us. We are all energy-sensitive beings and this natural trait, our common birthright, is something we experience every day, albeit unconsciously. Because it is not an integral part of our culture, not fostered within us, we forget or ignore that it is part of our sense array. Everyday normal places each have their own energy fingerprint and we all have the sensation of feeling good or bad about a place, a room, a street. This are not based on complex sensory cues or even some deeper intuition, but simple energy sensitivity. Imagine truly awakening this new capacity and making it as readily available as sight, hearing, smell, taste, or touch. And the kinds of information we could receive is as different as those senses are, one from another.
If we remember and re-learn this basic capacity, we will be all-the-more ready for visiting a sacred site. That open, spacious listening will allow us to receive the grace and luminosity that pervades these special places. Take the journey, and drop all expectations. One thing I find to be consistently true is that pilgrimages are full of surprises, of the new, fresh, and unique. Dropping our habitual perceptions of the self and our world, something that has no words and needs no name can enter our field of being. And we need that now more than ever.
In October 2023, Asa plans to lead a 10-day pilgrimage to Bouddha, Nepal, titled “Energy Body, Light Body: Transformation of the 5 Elements.” For information contact Asa at [email protected]