2020 Gil Fronsdal

Reflections on pilgrimage

[Transcribed (with editorial liberties) by Peter Crimmin.]

Since the time of the Buddha there was a custom for those people who were serious about engaging in meditation practice (which was the monastics, there were no meditation centers and life was not set up for laypeople to spend a lot of time meditating) that the monastics would alternate their year between being on the rains retreat (being sedentary, meditating) and then going traveling. Going forth. As the Buddha sometimes said, “going forth for the welfare and happiness of all beings.

And this rhythm of traveling back then meant walking and meditating. It is a time-honored practice in Buddhism that has a number of benefits going back and forth. This custom of doing so (I’ve been told that in Korea at least in the 1980s when I was in that area) that Buddhist monastics would do two rains retreats a year. They would do two practice periods a year for three months. And the three months between they would empty the monasteries, and they would go traveling around. And then after three months it would come back to a monastery and do another practice period. This alternating rhythm going back and forth.

I’m rather fond of the instructions by this Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trumpa who said that if you can’t meditate, travel. I think for those that can meditate, it’s meditate AND travel. Meditate and head out.

There’s something about a journey in pilgrimage where the purpose of it is not to get someplace. But the purpose is to be on the journey, to be on the walk, on the bike ride where there can be a connection to freedom, to be open to new experiences, to some of the qualities of mind that are developed in meditation: being concentrated, being in the present moment, being open for new experiences, not being stuck in old ways.

If you’re traveling in new places where people don’t know you too much or not at all, then it’s also kind of freedom from our own persona. We don’t necessarily have to live up to the same expectations that people have of us. Or the same personas that we try to project or try to be. We can be kind of fresh and new and light.[03:09] skipped personal anecdote [05:26]

Both the freedom of being ourselves in a fresh way, in the freedom of allowing the people we encounter to be free of our associations and reference points we usually have.

And then there’s the movement of a journey, of a pilgrimage. If it’s walking classically, if it’s biking in this modern world, it kind of represents being unimpeded. You know, just going and going. And if there are obstacles, to persevere through them. To keep going, just keep going and adjusting according to what’s needed and have the wisdom to know what right effort is. When to apply ourselves going uphill harder, and when to stop making effort biking downhill and just coasting. How to prepare for a hill. How to manage with traffic, and potholes, and water on the road. Or whatever it might be. There’s a lot of understanding what is right effort on in biking.

I understand that one of your themes this year is the last three factors of the eightfold path. The idea that in biking it becomes effortless… I hope that even though it might take a lot of energy there’s an effortlessness when someone is skilled in biking, or skilled in hiking in navigating the subtle choices that are made. “What is the right effort here?”

And the same thing happens in meditation practice that were constantly making… As we get skilled in it, as we get as skilled in meditation as we get skilled in something like biking, it starts becoming effortless. There is an ease to it about how we adjust meditation depending on what’s going on in our inner life or the world around us.

It takes a lot of mindfulness on a bicycle trip. The motivation to be attentive biking is much higher for some people than it is while meditating because the consequences of not being attentive is so strong. So big. You can have an accident. You can go over a cliff. All kinds of things can happen.

It happened to one of your members many years ago. They went over a cliff. It wasn’t because he was inattentive, I don’t think. But it requires attention, and that attention is meant to be done in conjunction with right effort.

What is the right effort in being attentive? How do we pay attention? How do we be mindful in a way that supportive, that’s ease-full, that’s enjoyable, that actually freeing. Is there freedom to be found in mindfulness itself? And I would say “yes, absolutely!”

Sometimes on pilgrimage, in this movement… Enter a new place and having to pay attention where to put your feet or where you pedal that can also come with a very acute sense of clarity, really be there, and a feeling of freedom and delight and joy of doing it.

And then the quality of concentration. I suspect that some people find it easier to get concentrated biking or walking then they do sitting in meditation. It points to how something like a pilgrimage can support meditation. That alternating between meditation and a pilgrimage, or biking and sitting and sitting in biking helps support and develop this very important of concentration and stability to be gathered.

My favorite translation for the word samadhi is “unification.” That’s kind of one of the meanings of samadhi, to gather together things. Many of the synonyms for samadhi in pali that often get translated as concentration by the great translators are words that mean “to be composed” or “to be settled” on something. And so settling together, gathering together, harmonizing, unifying.

That’s one of the things that happens when we go on a walk, on a bicycle ride, and we stay in it, and stay in the flow, and just keep doing it and after a while everything is gathering together to just be right there for that activity.

And hopefully some of the ordinary concerns and worries of life, and also some of the conceits and self-preoccupations that we might have in ordinary life begin to fall away and become thinner and weaker and something that fully engages us in what we do.

The Buddha talked about doing pilgrimages, visits to the four sacred sites of his life. But he also talked about three places that every practitioner should remember. This is kind of like where you make your own personal pilgrimage. And he said there are three places.

One is the place where you went for refuge. The place were something happened to you where you finally recognized “I go for refuge. I’m orienting my life, I’m basing my life on Buddhism.” That’s considered a momentous occasion. Even though it might not seem momentous to oneself at the time. But you really feel “this really works for me.” This Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. Whatever it represents for me. This is what really I want to base my life on. This is a mirror for what I’m discovering in my practice that I want to make in my life. To have some sense of freedom. To have some sense of inner goodness, some sense of inner purity or wisdom or something. “Okay, now I know. This is what I take refuge in and what I orient myself around. So, the place where that happens.

He also said for those people who become stream entererss, the place where one becomes a stream enterer.

And for someone who becomes a fully awakened arahant, the place where they became fully awakened.

For a practitioner, their own place where significant stages of practice or occur are considered important to remember. (It doesn’t say to go back and visit them, but to remember.) How I interpret this is that if a pilgrimage means to go to someplace sacred (in conventional English), is that the sacred places we’re going is in ourselves. That we can find in ourselves the pilgrimage spot by our practice, by engaging in practice and connecting as we do something with our own capacity for inner freedom and compassion and love and wisdom.

For you all to go on a pilgrimage with the current era of smoke and COVID maybe some of you will do it in an unconventional way not just on a bike. But for you to go out on a pilgrimage now, what would it be like to call it a pilgrimage that is a pilgrimage to yourself? A pilgrimage to really discover or touch into or awaken or evoke something deep that you know from your practice or that you know existencially is really core to how you want to live and what’s valuable to you. To make that the theme, the purpose of doing something called a pilgrimage that inside yourself. Even though you might go some place, from one place to another, it’s really the place you’re hopefully coming to is in some renewed deeper connection to yourself that is really free. In a sense it becomes free of self. Has a vast boundless freedom.

The pilgrimage, the full engagement, the involvement, the movement, the classically being in the open air and open to new experiences, and new discoveries, and being attentive having the effort to just really give yourself over to it fully. To have the awareness to really see everything is fresh and new. To really get focused and unified in this experience a pilgrimage is partly a pilgrimage to oneself. Some people would say to finally arrive here in the sacred site in your own heart.

So that would be a pilgrimage. I think that this bicycle pilgrimage that’s been going on for many years now is kind of a pioneer. Effort making sacred California for us Buddhists. As you bring yourself, your practice, and your freedom, and your refuge on this bicycle trip to the various places that you’ve gone over the years and that you’ll continue to go over the years, you’re creating a tradition here of something extremely important for us Buddhist to be engaged in and be a part of.

And the fact that this year because of the smoke and different things some of you are going to do it and non-bicycle ways. I think maybe this is fantastic! Maybe this is a new era! I mean always do bicycle trips but maybe it can expand and include all kinds of other ways in which people can do pilgrimages and learn the freedom and the goodness.