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Pilgrimage Gossip

An Article on 'Pilgrimage on Bicycles' by His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, published in March 2003

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I do not really know exactly where to start, yet I want to express something about the wonderful and fulfilling pilgrimage that we did on bicycles. First of all, I do not really know whether or not this pilgrimage would be accepted by very traditionally minded people. About one thousand years ago, the yogis and panditas who came to Tibet from India could not readily accept the method of transportation of riding a horse as the Tibetans sometimes did. For instance, Atisha found it hard to even gaze upon the panditas who came to him on the backs of horses to receive him on his way to Tibet. He would cover his eyes with his tunic and say that "the ghosts from Tibet are coming," yet the Tibetans themselves were obliviously happy about their way of approaching him. Finally though, it was necessary for them to dismount their horses and come close to him on foot so that he would uncover his eyes and actually meet with them.

During the past thousand years, most Tibetan practitioners have been apt to use the horse as a mode of transportation, except for those yogis who had taken very strict vows not to do so.

However, in the modern era, we have many different means of transportation, some of which are difficult for Tibetan practitioners to accept. For instance, I was told that in some parts of Tibet, the sight of a practitioner driving a car is nearly unthinkable for many, and therefore it would be necessary to change out of one's robes while driving one to avoid shocking the people. Strangely enough, though, Tibetans accept completely the riding of horses. And even though I, myself, like horses and have enjoyed riding horses from childhood until today, I think that for a practitioner of the Bodhisattva Path it is quite inappropriate. This excludes, however, those practitioners with a hidden and divine purpose of some sort. In both my younger days and present days outside of Tibet, I came to know many people who did not accept practitioners driving cars, motorbikes or even riding bicycles, because, I imagine, that these were not even seen by anybody before the very end of the century. On the one hand, it is very understandable that one would object to travel such as this if it were a real obstacle to his or her own practice or an accumulation of negative karma. On the other hand, none of these modes of transport need to fall into that category unless they are used to deliberately break the vows and samaya, and that includes the riding of horses. According to my interpretation of the Dharma, it would be very understandable if a person objected to the riding of horses, which is giving some hardship to another being, yet I have to admit that it would certainly be my choice of travel over the riding of bicycles.

Nonetheless, the reasons we chose bicycle as the means of transport on our pilgrimage were several. One reason was to have more communication with the nature of the sacred places, as there is not the usual psychological separation from the powerful energy that is there. We applied effort to reach each place and we became a part of each blessed location in the feeling part of our minds as a natural dimension of the continuum of the journey. An old friend of mine who had done a walking pilgrimage once told me of a similar experience, where he felt a kind of absorption of the sacred locations in his deepest heart congruent with the mindstream itself. However, at that time I was not really sure of what he was telling me but it gave me the inspiration to do our recent pilgrimage in the same manner---by foot. It is completely apparent to me why one would make a pilgrimage the way he did. However, the reality of our deliriously spinning world dictated that we would have to choose a different method in order to complete the task. I would like to say that in the real inner experience there is nothing to compare with the pilgrimage of the full prostration, where the body must contact the earth and develop an atomically rich relationship of full physical absorption. When speaking about the pilgrimages of prostrating, walking or bicycling, I learned that it is only by really using these methods that one can fully understand them. When you have experienced the different ways, it is easy to comprehend that the poorest method of pilgrimage is by car, a superior way is by bicycle, an even more superior way is by walking, and the supreme method is by full prostration.

Another experience that I would like to share with you, and it may be a reason also why we initially chose bicycle as the mode of transport is that arrogance is automatically eliminated while traveling on the pilgrimage. You have to eat with your fellow pilgrims, sleep next to each other, and furthermore, really be on the same level with the people and even the animals on the streets and in the fields throughout every part of the route: the cows, the camels, the dogs and all other creatures. There is really no room for excessive pride; everyone is humbled by the process of working together and coping with the natural hardship. It occurs to me that this is the way that all spiritual practice should be undertaken, exactly the same. Consequently, I took the liberty to give the pilgrimage a very low profile, particularly in the sacred places where we could easily have attracted attention. I hope people understand why I did it in this way. It is not because we were doing something illegal or something of which to be ashamed. It is because the whole purpose of the journey was to become more deeply involved in the practice. In many other situations I also maintain a low profile and I feel this is often misinterpreted by people who may think that I am avoiding certain responsibilities. I am not avoiding anything but the egoistic game that provokes nonsense in the mind while we are attempting to generate some merit and develop some spiritual understanding. My motivation is simply to make the practice more potent. Quite simply, I am not opposed to the luxuries of life or natural acclaim, but to my knowledge it is pride specifically that mostly has to be diminished for all the practitioners who are not already realized. In summation, luxury is synonymous with pride; it automatically provokes our pride. Therefore, a pilgrimage done in a luxurious way runs against the natural grain of the Bodhidharma. However, once again, this does not pertain to realized or advanced practitioners. Prostration in front of holy beings or in sacred places itself is for diminishing one's own pride, as it is said in the Sutras. This is even found in other religions as well. The same, I suppose, is accomplished by doing pilgrimage on bicycle.

A third reason for doing such a pilgrimage is the actual hardship causes a natural type of purification. All pilgrimages are purifiers, but one on bicycle that is harder on the body accelerates the purification. However, I must say, that both myself and my friends on the journey did not feel the hardship that we experienced. We were tired, but we did not feel tired. In addition, most of us had three or four minor mishaps on our way. I also experienced three minor and one major difficulty on this journey. In particular, about one hundred kilometers prior to reaching Varanasi, one vehicle collided head-on with me and I also collided head-on with it. Right at that moment, I had full awareness that I was going into an accident and I even thought that I should not try to avoid it. Instead, I should aim straight face-to-face with it because I had my helmet on. These thoughts all came into my head in a split second. As soon as we had collided the driver of the vehicle pressed his accelerator vigorously and left the scene. Locals screamed at me to pursue him and punish him but the accident was already finished. It could not be changed and perhaps the driver had intelligently fled for his life. Funnily enough, that morning I had decided to borrow a helmet and wear it for the first and only time. On a relative level, it was my savior. Right after the accident, my head was obviously saved but my friends found that my nose and my knee were broken. My only thought right at that moment was that there was nothing to do about it. There are no helmets appropriate for the nose. Why don't they make them? I don't know. It guess it had to be that way. I jokingly said that both my nose and my knee can be easily fixed but my friends were not convinced. They were seriously concerned. However, the damage to my body did not really bother me at all, and that incident never caused even the slightest obstacle to our journey. I think indeed that this was a blessing.

This was a prime example of our carelessness about the hardship; a factor which made me slightly suspicious of how much purification was actually being accomplished. In other words, we enjoyed the pilgrimage so much. When we came to the end, no one wanted it to finish. Everyone kept on saying that it was a shame that we could not keep going, yet we had no place to go and no time in which to do it. When we finally packed the bicycles on top of the bus and some of our group went back to Kathmandu by vehicle, some of us had eyes full of tears due to a feeling of joy at our fulfillment of such a great deed.