Pilgrimage has been part of our collective journey since humanity has inhabited the Earth. Through the ages, beautiful and powerful landscapes have become the scene of activities and characters that have left lasting impressions. There, the architectural monuments remain as a silent testimony to the history and efforts of a people or even an entire civilization. But as the human drama unfolded, the central shrines became not only places to celebrate one's culture, but also imbued with deep spiritual value. These places are the central place where the aspirations, hopes and fears of an entire population can be directed towards higher principles, transcendent values and distant and promised shores. In particular, they are sites where renowned saints, sages, prophets, avatars – those who broke the bonds of suffering, mortality and the perilous precipice of our fragile lives – lived, attained deliverance and are dead. But what creates the heady mix of possibilities that is a sacred site? And what is the range of things that can happen there?
The Holy Land
The practice of feng shui in China, vast shastra in India, and Sache in Tibet are about placement, how the organization of a house, apartment, store or office affects our lives. It also involves the remediation of any unfortunate or potentially negative energy flow or obstruction within these dwellings. While this is done by a tremendous 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 living earth. Outside of these formalized and sophisticated systems, shamans, healers, ancient sages and people close to the earth understood and listened to the tremendous forces residing in the natural realm. Additionally, there is the old and new science of earth energies and ley lines, the actual acupuncture meridians, chakras and power points which form intricate geometric patterns locally and globally. These are also well understood by dowsers, dowsers and other skilled geomancers, as well as visionary adepts. Overall, this means that there are places that are inherently endowed with special and unique qualities. Some promote health and well-being and simply make you feel better and healthier. Others have a more mystical impact, promoting meditative states and internal alchemical shifts. Entire cities, and even civilizations, have been built around such points of power since ancient times. Some of these areas, like Angkor Wat, still resonate with power thousands of years after the demise of their original civilization, and despite the millions of tourists who roam these lands. On a much smaller scale, there are countless caves, peaks and remote spaces that contain extraordinary energy patterns.
The power and promise of such places involves more than the natural landscape and its inhabitants. The invisible (to ordinary sight) beings that dwell there are an important part of the equation. Known across time and space as devi, earth lords, fairies, nature spirits, nagas, sylphs, salamanders, etc., they greatly impact 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, reaching high levels of realization themselves. Of course, the reverse is true, with malevolent or poisonous inhabitants creating pestilence, filth, and altogether unfortunate and unlucky circumstances. It is worth paying attention to the powerful effect of such forces from both the earth and its inhabitants from other dimensions. Fortunately, it is part of our inherent senses to experience and even dialogue with these beings who share our world.
The malleable landscape
Although the natural attributes of an area are crucial, these positive places can be enhanced and negativity removed by skilled practitioners. Whether they are accomplished lamas, priests, Taoists, Buddhist shamans, or simply well-trained lay people and laity, their practices impact the bioenergetic field of the environment. This is because physical objects – houses, mountains, trees, rocks and the depth of the earth – take on vibrational patterns of what is happening there. You can find a happy home and you can find a scary street. The quality and types of actions that occur, the habitual thoughts and feelings of the inhabitants, are cumulative. Before long, these vibrations – and the information related to them – infuse themselves into the fabric of a place. So when a great being, a mahasiddha, an accomplished meditator, yogi or yogini enters an area and practices there, it begins to change, often dramatically. This change will also be consistent with 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 led by a vajra master will strongly imprint the place with their unique energy signatures, their entire intricate mandala. If this influence is long enough and deep enough, the change can, seemingly, last forever. The crystal structure of silica in rock is, like glass, a "slow liquid" and can be imprinted like water. Indeed, it is the basis of homeopathic remedies which are prepared and stored in silica bottles. The energy matrix of spiritual realization also merges with the natural energy grid of these special places. Merging a natural power point with enlightened energies can produce dramatic results.
Moreover, such great beings, imbued with compassion, fulfill prayers and aspirations that whoever makes the inevitably difficult journey to the place will be amply rewarded. Many of these sites are known to eliminate all forms of negative karma that contribute to the sufferings of mind, body and circumstances, while greatly enhancing a person's spiritual possibilities and experiences. And that brings us to what we can do on the pilgrimage.
During a visit, however brief, or an extended stay near these places of pilgrimage, the effects can be significantly enhanced in several ways.
• Mindfulness or a sense of presence and awareness to all that is happening inside and outside of oneself makes subtle messages and experiences more accessible.
• A knowledge of the sacred place, the deities involved, the enlightened beings associated with the shrine, deepens one's appreciation and receptivity.
• Here the practice of “taking the experience on the way” is particularly interesting. For example: when you walk forward, think that you are moving towards full enlightenment; when you go up a flight of stairs, feel that you are going beyond the mundane fixation, hope and fear; on the way down, think that you are bringing these precious gifts back to others, and so on, 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 can flow into the open mind.
• Clearly stripping, exploiting, stealing the site, or acting in an angry, indifferent, or disrespectful manner is not a good idea, as the negative results are greatly magnified. It is not because anyone or anything "punishes" such activities. But in this karmic situation, likes attract.
• On a more subtle level, the pilgrimage is an opportunity to suspend habitual negative thoughts, either about oneself or about particularly troublesome traveling companions.
• As part of sacred view, all phenomena can be considered intrinsically pure. Thus, one can dedicate the positive karma one has accumulated to alleviating the suffering of all sentient beings, or specific people, animals, or situations one wishes to uplift.
Finally, note that the planning and organization of your journey, and every stage of the journey along the way are included in this entire pilgrimage experience, and the same principles apply.
All of the above helps to develop 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 it can be extended to everyday life and daily activities. The basis of these alternative methods is simply sensitivity, to connect to the living 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 part of our culture, because it is not encouraged in us, we forget or ignore that it is part of our range of meanings. Normal everyday places each have their own energetic imprint and we all have the feeling of feeling good or bad about a place, a room, a street. It does not rely on complex sensory cues or even deeper intuition, but on simple energetic sensitivity. Really imagine awakening this new ability and making it as easily accessible as sight, hearing, smell, taste or touch. And the types of information we might receive are as different as these senses from each other.
If we remember and relearn this basic ability, we will be all the more ready to visit a sacred site. It's open, spacious listening will allow us to receive the grace and luminosity that pervades these special places. Take the trip and drop all expectations. One thing that I always find true is that pilgrimages are full of surprises, novelty, freshness and uniqueness. By dropping our habitual perceptions of self and our world, something that has no words and needs no name can enter our field of being. And we need it more than ever.
In October 2023, Asa plans to lead a 10-day pilgrimage to Buddha, Nepal, entitled “Energy body, light body: transformation of the 5 elements”. For more information, contact Asa at (email protected)