Pilgrimage is not just going someplace, as Lama Palden’s recent trip to Bhutan demonstrates.
by Lama Palden
Years ago when I was in my mid 20s spending time in the Himalayas, I thought pilgrimage didn’t make any difference. Anyone could do it—you just go someplace. I thought the only thing that made a real difference was serious practice. Then living in Bhutan, I ended up visiting various sacred sites. I didn’t think much about it when I was there, but later when I came back to the States, I noticed the difference in energy and realized that at those sites, I had received an energetic transmission of an entirely different kind of consciousness. That transmission had affected me very deeply. It affected me on a cellular level, as well as on the level of pure consciousness. With that, I realized the value of pilgrimage, and since then I’ve been on many pilgrimages.
Receiving transmission in these sacred places depends on our willingness and capacity to open to a very different energy and consciousness than we’re used to in the States.
On pilgrimage, you see everything that happens as part of the path of transformation and liberation. A lot of times there are hardships, and we see them as purifying old karma, letting go of hardened concepts about things. Everything that happens is fuel for our spiritual path and awakening.
On the recent pilgrimage I led to Bhutan, we had an eclectic group from various backgrounds that was very harmonious.
The abiding, peaceful nature of the group was not disturbed by the difficulties we encountered. The participants had a deep openness, and so it was like being on a two-week retreat as we received profound transmission from places where Guru Rinpoche, Yeshe Tsogyal, and Longchenpa, among others, had meditated.
We visited many temples, sat in on an evening puja at one of the monasteries, and also with the nuns in Kunga Rabten, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche’s nunnery, while they did their Chöd practice. That in itself was a very powerful transmission: the group felt it was a real highlight of their journey to experience the nuns chanting and singing.
In addition to these transmission we received, we also received a kind of transmission from ordinary people because their consciousness is so different from what you feel in the USA. Growing up in a country where the government is actually trying to help the people creates a really different consciousness. There’s a purity, enthusiasm, vitality, tremendous kindness, and gentleness you feel in the people. It’s hard to put in words. I credit that to having had a beneficent government: They feel safe and supported because their whole country is working together for the common good. The difference is palpable.
We also visited the Dorje Denma, a statue that was recently finished in Thimphu. It’s the largest sitting Buddha in the world. What struck me was the incredible feeling of love and nectar in the atmosphere, even among all the other tourists. Some of the other tourists wanted to get in the photos with us. This happened at a couple different places — they would jump into our photos with a feeling of so much love. I’d never experience anything quite like that before.
On our last pilgrimage five years ago, some of the money we paid went to the government for infrastructure. At that time, there was a way you could divert that money to help benefit a particular Buddhist temple, monastery or nunnery. We diverted our money to the building of a monastery in Paro. A small group of us went up to see that monastery at the same time others went to Tiger’s Nest. It was really special to see all the temples built. They have 70 monks, who welcomed us warmly, and we did Tara Puja together, then they gave us lunch. So there were many special moments.
Toward the end of our stay, our hosts, Benchen Khenpo Rinpoche and his wife Rigzin-la, gave us a dinner in Thimphu at a new venue that was set up to preserve the history of Bhutan. Many traditional dances and songs were presented, along with contemporary songs from a couple of amazing Bhutanese solo performers. It was the best traditional dance and singing I’d ever seen, and the Home Minister and Chief Justice came and had dinner with us as well.
We all felt tremendous gratitude at the end of the pilgrimage, and our guide Ugyen, who is a serious Dharma practitioner, said that out of the hundreds of groups he’s guided, this one really stood out. He felt our genuine spiritual interest and presence.
We have found more and more over the years how powerful these pilgrimages are. When people get home, they’ve received a profound spiritual transmission of wholesome goodness. It’s transformational on the level of the psyche and on the cellular system, so it’s quite a process integrating back into American culture.