Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Pilgrimage as Purification

"The more difficult the journey, the greater the depth of purification."

This is an old Tibetan saying recorded by Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer in his WWII era travel memoir Seven Years in Tibet. I read the book a few years ago, and it stands out in my mind as being one of my all time favorite adventure travel books.

I bring it up because a couple nights ago I watched the movie adaptation, starring Brad Pitt, which is not nearly as good as the book, but being a fan of mountaineering movies in general and anything to do with Tibet, it was worth watching again for that reason alone. Well, this was the second time I saw the film, the first time was shortly after its theatrical debut back in the late '90s. So it had been awhile, was almost like seeing it for the first time. And like I said, while I enjoyed the book version very much, the movie version, though it has some merit, is not really anything special, but on this second viewing one line stood out to me that I found thought provoking enough to write it down in my journal and share it with you here.

"The more difficult the journey, the greater the depth of purification."

I thought that was an interesting line. It was in reference to the fact that the Tibetan people as a whole, both peasant and priest, were culturally orientated toward going on regular pilgrimages. It was believed that the act of pilgrimage, walking long distances over difficult terrain to visit sacred sites, while enduring numerous obstacles along the way, would help cleanse one's sins. That the more difficult the journey, the more rewarding that journey would be. So it was like an act of atonement, a way of finding forgiveness and consolation and strength in moving forward, helping one to discard, however large or small, the bonds of guilt and grief and discontent accumulated from past misdeeds and mistakes.

Though I suppose that's true of all pilgrimages, not just Tibetan, about it being an act of purification; that regardless of which spiritual or religious point of view one is aligned with, a pilgrimage is fundamentally about seeking clarity through the purification of negative thoughts.

Kind of reminded me of the Catholic concept of purgatory, that intermediary stage between death and resurrection, except that the pilgrimage is a sort of a purgatory one experiences while still alive. You could say that it's a way of dying, without dying, to be reborn again in this life; where pilgrimage provides a means of purification along the journey to enlightenment.

As a hiker, who also considers myself to be a spiritually minded person, what I find exceptionally interesting about pilgrimage, is that not only does it involve travel and adversity as a means of purification, but that walking in particular is considered an essential component of it. And I think that is not simply because of the fact that walking is more challenging, particularly because it is slower, and a greater hardship if you must carry your own gear, but that it is also because of the very specific state of mind that walking tends to inspire.

For instance, walking is more humbling, because you are more vulnerable, being momentarily homeless, living out of a bag, perhaps sleeping outside, and at the mercy of the hospitality of strangers. But another reason is that walking is essentially a moving meditation, which helps to ground you to the immediacy of the ever changing landscape of the moment; where there is struggle, but also exceptional clarity and mindfulness which makes it all the more conducive to the task of mental and spiritual purification.


baroness radon said...

If you haven't seen it, though you probably have, another nice pilgrimage movie is The Way, with Martin Sheen.

Cym said...

Yeah, I've seen it. But thanks for the reminder. If I ever make it to Europe, even better than seeing the movie, I'd definitely like to do something like that myself.