The following are excerpts from Meeting the Buddha: On Pilgrimage in Buddhist India, a selection of writings by pilgrims from ancient times to the present, to be published in November by Tricycle Books (an imprint of Putnam/Riverhead). Here we have selected pieces from the sections on the pilgrimage itself and on Bodh Gaya.

In a discussion with his attendant Ananda, the Buddha delineates the basis for the eight holy sites in India. Tathagatarefers to the Buddha:

Ananda, there are four places the sight of which should arouse emotion in the faithful. Which are they? “Here the Tathagata was born” is the first [Lumbini]. “Here the Tathagata attained supreme enlightenment” is the second [Bodh Gaya]. “Here the Tathagata set in motion the Wheel of Dhamma” is the third [Sarnath]. “Here the Tathagata attained the Nibbana-element without remainder” is the fourth [Kusinagara]. And, Ananda, the faithful monks and nuns, male and female lay-followers will visit those places. And any who die while making the pilgrimage to theses shrines with a devout heart will, at the breaking-up of the body, be reborn in a heavenly world.

[From Thus Have I Heard: The Long Discourses of the Buddha, translated by Maurice Walsh, published by Wisdom Publications.]

It is said the Buddha spoke these words to his followers before dying for the last time. In death, the Buddha was thought to find release from samsara, the cycle of continuous re-births. His last words offered his followers a way to honor and remember their teacher and his teachings after his departure, and pilgrimage to the four sites of the Buddha’s life became an established form of Buddhist devotion. Within a few hundred years of the Buddha’s death, these four had multiplied, with places as far north as Gandhara claiming to bear traces of the Buddha’s passage through them. By the first century B.C.E., eight places had become canonical: the original four, Rajagriha, Sravasti, Sankasya and Vaisali.

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