Intention & Religious Practice

The intent of an individual pilgrim, the physical activity of his or her pilgrimage, and the heightened effect of religious practice performed at sacred sites

Previously it has been suggested that a field of spiritual energy has accumulated at the sacred sites generated by the power of intention of the many people engaged in the building and ceremonial activity at the sites. Now we will discuss the power of intent - and particularly the effects of that intent - in an individual person making a pilgrimage to a sacred site. It is quite possible that the power of focused intent actually predisposes a pilgrim to having a more profound experience of the energy or spirit of a site. In other words, focused mental intent is a wonderfully effective way of calling forth and accessing the power of place.

As a social phenomenon, the practice of pilgrimage is found in some form in virtually every culture on Earth (in its current usage, the term ‘pilgrimage’ connotes a religious journey, but its Latin derivation from peregrinus allows broader interpretations, including foreigner, wanderer, exile and traveler, as well as newcomer and stranger). For thousands of years, whether focused on a single shrine or a wandering journey to many sites, pilgrimage has been an enormously successful method for addressing physical, psychological and spiritual concerns. How can we explain its effectiveness in these matters? Much of the benefit of pilgrimage derives from its capacity to intensify and focus intention, and thereby evoke or manifest assistance from unseen realms.

To understand this concept, it is necessary to recognize the personal performance of pilgrimage as being prayer in action - the physical, willful demonstration of the intent and yearning of an individual. In order to better comprehend this idea, let us examine the practice of pilgrimage in some detail. What follows are several definitions and short discussions of pilgrimage in the words of various anthropologists, cultural geographers and religious historians. As you read these, keep in mind the crucial idea that intent and action, when exercised in the practice of pilgrimage, have the wondrous ability to call forth the answers to prayers. The power of intent opens doorways in the heart, mind and body through which may enter the spirit and power of the miraculous.

Pilgrimage is a religious journey, either temporary or long, to a particular site or set of sites which have been invested with sanctity by tradition. (24)

Usually, pilgrims are motivated by religious objectives, such as adoration of the deities or saints who are enshrined at various sacred places, gaining merit for one's salvation, paying penance of annulment of sin, or praying for the repose of the spirits of the deceased, but these religious motives are often mixed with the desire to acquire healing, good fortune, easy childbirth, prosperity, and other this-worldly benefits. (25)

The pilgrim is seeking something that will enhance or affirm his or her being and existence on one or more levels, that may make him or her more complete. (26)

Pilgrimage is an enactment of mankind's position as a wayfarer and stranger in this world and a metaphor of the struggle of human existence, the earthly act of pilgrimage to particular places is a viable way to deal with the stresses of the human condition. (27)

Pilgrimages are meant to be transformative processes, from which the individual emerges altered from his or her previous situation. Pilgrimage is conceived of as an important means by which individuals can gain access to the sources of power believed to control their destiny. Pilgrimage is an exercise in humble supplication, surrender, and prayer in which the qualities of the Christian heart are cultivated. (28)

Pilgrimage was an appropriation by the common people of the symbolic and behavioral patterns of the ascetic holy man. (29)

Pilgrimage is exterior mysticism, while mysticism is interior pilgrimage, and in pilgrimage it is the journey itself that really matters, perhaps just as much as the arrival at the destination. (30)

The practice of pilgrimage is as varied as the religions in which it is found. Alan Morinis, a leading scholar in the anthropological study of pilgrimage, explains that…

the principal types of sacred journeys are (1) devotional; (2) instrumental; (3) normative; (4) obligatory; (5) wandering; and (6) initiatory....Devotional pilgrimages have as their goal encounter with, and honoring of, the shrine divinity, personage, or symbol. In both Hindu and Buddhist devotional pilgrimage, the goal is often the accumulation of merit that can be applied in this or future lives. Devotional pilgrimage has motivated much of the traffic of Christians seeking out holy places that witnessed Christ's life and passion.

Instrumental pilgrimages are undertaken to accomplish finite, worldly goals. A common example found in all religious traditions is the journey to the shrine in the hopes of obtaining a cure for illness.... The normative type of pilgrimage occurs as a part of a ritual cycle, relating to either the life cycle or annual calendrical celebrations. In the Hindu tradition it is appropriate to undertake pilgrimage at any major life passage. Feeding a child his first solid food, cutting a child's hair, or investing a boy with a sacred thread are all important rites that are given higher value when performed at a recognized pilgrimage center. Newly married couples frequently seek out a shrine to request the blessing of the deity on their union. Death in a pilgrimage center is said to free the deceased from further rebirth.

The most famous of the obligatory pilgrimages is the Hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam that enjoins all Muslims to visit Mecca once in their lives. Obligatory pilgrimages in Christianity were commonly imposed by ecclesiastical or secular authorities as a punishment or penance. (In early medieval times pilgrimage came to be prescribed by ecclesiastical authorities as methods of penance. Indulgences were offered to pilgrims as rewards for visiting a shrine and these indulgences were believed by medieval people to bring forgiveness of sins and remission of the time spent in purgatory due to those sins. As different sins had varying degrees of sinfulness, local or distant places of pilgrimage would be proscribed.) Santiago de Compostela, the famous shrine in northern Spain, was a pilgrimage place to which convicted criminals were commonly sent on penitential journeys in the Middle Ages. Some pilgrims were condemned to wander from shrine to shrine until their chains were worn away by the friction of dragging along the roadways.

The wandering type of pilgrimage has no predetermined goal. The pilgrim sets out in the hope that his feet will be guided to a place that will satisfy his inner craving. Early Christian theologians interpreted the pilgrimage as the search for solitary exile. The pilgrim abandoned the cities of the world to become a hermit or wanderer in the wilderness, an image of Abraham, who received God's commandment to leave his homeland. The pilgrimage was a dying to the world to inherit heaven. In general, wandering pilgrimages reflect the ideal that the pilgrim's goal need not be located in time and space. We know that here is incomplete and unsatisfactory, and so we set out, hoping to find the Other through the act of going forth....The initiatory includes all pilgrimages that have as their purpose the transformation of the status or state of participants. Important here is the "journey" that a seeker undertakes to work a transformation of self.  (31)

Other scholars have conducted detailed studies of pilgrimage traditions in specific geographic regions and historical periods. Allan Grapard, a specialist in Japanese history and religion, considers pilgrimage in Japan's medieval period to have been…

an expression, in spatial and temporal terms, of a specific Buddhist vision of the religious experience. Although a pilgrimage is generally regarded as a visit to a sacred space, in Esoteric Buddhism it is much more than that. The practice of pilgrimage is intimately related to the Buddhist notion that the religious experience was a process (ongoing practice) rather than simply the final goal of practice. Through practice, a larger consciousness was opened up, and consequently, a larger spatial realm of human experience could be discovered. Gradually a network of roads was mapped out for believers, leading to various sacred spaces. The quality of the religious experience was such that the entirety of the path followed by the pilgrim was seen to be sacred. The processes involved in the pilgrimage were complex and had to become the basis for a complete change in the pilgrim's consciousness and perspective on the universe. The pilgrimage was an exercise in rebirth and magical transformation.

To understand the notion of pilgrimage more fully, we must first discuss the distinction posited in Esoteric Buddhism between the "lower world" of the profane (the realm of ordinary experience), and the "higher world" of the sacred, which is the site of the manifestation of the divine or the chosen site of practice leading to Buddhahood. When pilgrims went out from one world to the other, they were actually going to meet the Other. This experience in Otherness began with the first step out of the house; as soon as the pilgrims set out on the road they became foreigners: the pilgrims were and were not themselves as soon as they moved into a realm which transcended their former knowledge of the world. We are told over and over again that this process is of a therapeutic nature: the actual physical effort is good: the rivers crossed purify the pilgrim and may even rejuvenate them; and the pilgrims may realize their own true nature. This exercise is fundamental; it is a prerequisite to the ultimate change. The farther pilgrims move from their common world, the closer they come to the realm of the divine. (32)

Addressing the personal dimensions of pilgrimage, the cultural historian Barbara Nimri Aziz has written…

it is important for us to acknowledge the close correspondence between quest and the pilgrimage experience which has resulted in the wide application of pilgrimage as a poetic metaphor. The actual and mythic journeys can become so intertwined that any attempt to separate the two is difficult if not fruitless. Physical journey is secondary to the inner one. For those pilgrims who do set out on a journey with a particular idea, it may well shape the kind of experience they have....I would like to discuss the particular ideal of becoming the hero. We can see this heroic ideal operating at two levels. At one, this heroism is demanded by the challenges and trials the pilgrim must face and must overcome to complete the journey. At another level the pilgrim enacts the quest of the culture heroes who provide a model of the ideal pilgrim, this we find in the pilgrimages where a person follows the footsteps of a saint, for example. I suggest that pilgrimage is a cultural idiom for "becoming the hero/heroine" - a means for negotiating a divine connection. If we accept that the ideal pilgrimage is an expression of human aspiration for perfection, then those myths and legends associated with sacred journeys define the ideal and the structures and symbols for its enactment. Sacred geography, as the sages say, may be realized either in the real world or in the geography of the mind. (33)

Together with anthropologist N. Ross Crumrine, Alan Morinis has conducted extensive research in the pilgrimage traditions of South America. The following comments, while specifically about those regions, are relevant to sacred journeys taken by people all around the world…

We can speculate that the access to power which is cast in a divine mold in the pilgrimage has something to do with the accessing of inner power through the ritual experience....The spiritual cultivation of the heart which is stressed in the pilgrimage may have psychological and somatic effects that do indeed work changes in health, fertility, and aspects of life where attitude is relevant.  This power of the pilgrimage is set loose by the direct experiences of the pilgrim. The sacred journey often involves prescribed actions which induce peaks of sensory experience, with the resultant predictable psychospiritual effects. One common means to stimulate a self-transformative perceptual peak on pilgrimage is through pain induction, as in the well-reported practice of pilgrims performing penance by crossing stone courtyards or mounting long stone stairways on their bare knees.

The behavior of pilgrims often involves displays of extraordinary emotion, especially of devotion or sorrow. The intoxication, feasting, music, and dance of the fiestas which frequently accompany pilgrimages serve the same purpose by providing the pilgrim with extraordinary peaks of sensation....The peak experiences of  the pilgrimage have a physiological role in inducing altered states of consciousness. In many cases, these experiences are deliberately structured into the pilgrimage to occur as the very climax of the individual's journey.

This structuring, which has developed over centuries of cultural experimentation, is based on recognition of basic human characteristics and the possibilities that exist for manipulating these. Whether the individual is motivated by instrumental or spiritual goals, the reaching out to God on the pilgrimage has implicit within it the reaching inward to the depths of one's own being. The extraordinary communication and communion sought in the home of heaven on earth must come forward from the inner core of the devotee. Extreme experiences such as self-inflicted pain open the pathways through ego to the inner sanctums where the roots of being are anchored. Access to these ordinarily closed levels of self is a precondition to the spiritually transformative experience of the pilgrimage and also to the accomplishment of instrumental goals reached by prayer to God. (34)

And lastly, writing about the wandering pilgrims of the Islamic tradition, Peter Lamborn Wilson explains…

The dervish travels, so to speak, both in the material world and in the "world of imagination" simultaneously. But, for the eye of the heart, these worlds interpenetrate at certain points. One might say that they mutually reveal or "unveil" each other. Ultimately they are "one", and only our state of tranced inattention, our mundane consciousness, prevents us from experiencing this "deep" identity at every moment. The purpose of intentional travel, with its "adventures" and its uprooting of habits, is to shake loose the dervish from all the trance-effects of ordinariness. Travel, in other words, is meant to induce a certain state of consciousness or "spiritual state" - that of Expansion. (35)

Personal intent is of enormous importance in explaining the occurrence of miraculous phenomena at the sacred sites. The clarity of intent that we bring to a sacred place is instrumental in opening us to the power of place. That power, while generated and perpetuated by many of the other factors discussed in this chapter, becomes truly available to us only when we make ourselves available to it through the focusing of our intent. This matter is very difficult to convey in words; it can really be known only through personal experience. The pilgrimage must be embarked upon, the sacred site must be visited.

If the Divinities of Heaven and Earth have any knowledge of human affairs, I pray they look upon my heart-mind. I intend to offer these scriptures and representations at the very top of this mountain and to revere with awe the divine splendor, so that plentiful will be the happiness of all human beings. So, Divinities increase my strength, and may the poisonous dragons disappear like sight-barring mists, may the spirits of the mountain show me the way and all help me to fulfill my wish! If I do not reach the top of this mountain, I shall never be able to achieve Awakening!

The vow of the Buddhist monk Shodo as he began
his pilgrimage ascent of MountFudaraku(36)