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The places you will go, The people you will see


“The aim of all Buddhist practice is to catch a glimpse of the awakened state. Going on pilgrimage, soaking up the sacred atmosphere of holy places and mingling with other pilgrims are simply different ways of trying to achieve that glimpse.” Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

Pilgrim at Sarnath photo Sarah Mist

Rinpoche wrote the book “ What to do at India’s Buddhist Holy Sites “ in response to the questions students frequently ask about going on pilgrimage to Buddhist holy sites. What to do at India’s Buddhist Holy Sites is not a guidebook for ordinary tourists, but for Buddhists who wish to purify their defilements and accumulate merit by going on pilgrimage. Focusing primarily on the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and the great Indian masters of the past, Rinpoche offers pilgrims advice on every aspect of pilgrimage: where to go, what to do, the meaning of pilgrimage  and generating the right motivation before leaving home. He explains what Buddhists mean when they describe a person, place or object as being ‘holy’. Included are suggestions for which prayers and practices one can do at the four main Buddhist holy sites in India and Nepal.

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This story below is an excerpt from “What to do at India’s Buddhist Holy Sites” and was told to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche By Deshung Rinpoche.

There are many stories, about people whose devotion was such that their one-pointed longing actually created holy places, or even invoked the material presence of holy beings into their own perceptions.

Like Lodro, for example, who felt tremendous devotion for the bodhisattva Mañjushri. One evening, he came across an amazing passage in a book he was reading about how Mañjushri had vowed three times to show himself to anyone who travelled to Mount Panchashisha * . For Lodro this was the most wonderful and inspiring discovery, and he became so excited that, after a sleepless night and without eating breakfast, he ran to his master’s house to ask his permission and blessings to visit the mountain. At first Lodro’s master did his best to convince him that such a journey, fraught with danger and hardship, was entirely unnecessary, but Lodro would not be convinced. Again and again he begged his master to allow him to go, until eventually he gave in and agreed.

In those days travelling was difficult, but Lodro, undaunted by the dangers that lay ahead, packed enough food and medicine for several months onto the back of his donkey, waved goodbye to his master, family and all his friends, and set off across the Tibetan plateau.

The terrain was extremely tough. He had to cross several fast flowing rivers and survive the punishing heat of empty deserts where his only companions were venomous snakes and wild animals. Nevertheless, after several months, Lodro arrived safely at Mount Panchashisha and immediately started searching for Mañjushri. He looked everywhere, again and again, but couldn’t find anyone who even vaguely resembled the bodhisattva. Then, one evening as he rested his back against the cold iron steps of a monastery he fell fast asleep. The  next  thing  he  remembered  was  walking  into  a  lively  bar  where  a  boisterous  crowd  of  locals  were drinking, laughing and having fun. It was late and Lodro was tired. He asked for a room, and the enormously fat Madame who sat behind a small desk at one end of the main corridor told him they were full up, but he could sleep in a corner of the corridor if he wanted to. He accepted gratefully and pulled a book out of his luggage to read before he went to sleep. Before long a rowdy gang of Chinese boys burst out of the bar into the corridor and started making fun of the fat Madame. Lodro tried to ignore them, but the leader caught sight of him and swaggered over to examine him.

The path that leads to the Manjushri Cave at Wu Ti Shan in China

“What are you doing here?” he demanded.

Not  quite  knowing  what  to  say,  Lodro,  in  his  innocence,  found  himself  telling  the  Chinese  boy  about Mañjushri’s vow. The boy laughed and laughed.

“You Tibetans, you’re so superstitious! Why is that?” he cried. “And you actually believe what you read in books! I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve never heard of anyone called Mañjushri.”

Shaking his head in disbelief he turned back to his friends, saying, “Winter’s coming. You should go home before you freeze to death.”

The whole gang then staggered back into the bar for another drink as the Madame and Lodro exchanged a look of relief. A few days later, on his way back from another futile trek up the mountain, Lodro bumped into the same Chinese boy.

“You still here?” exclaimed the boy.

“Alright, I give up,” replied Lodro, with a wan smile. “You were right, I am too superstitious.”

“So, you’ve finally had enough, have you?” crowed the Chinese boy. “Will you go home now?”

“I thought I’d make a pilgrimage to Mongolia,” said Lodro. “I might as well, it’s on the way home. And it’ll mean this journey wasn’t a complete waste of time.”

Lodro looked sad and there was something about the way his shoulders slumped as he spoke that softened the Chinese boy’s heart.

“I tell you what,” he said, slightly less aggressively than before. “You don’t have much money and you’ve run out of supplies, so you’re going to need some help. I have a friend in Mongolia. I’ll write him a letter. If you deliver it to him I’m sure he’ll do what he can.”

Auspicious Clouds at Wu Ti Shan

The next day, Lodro once again packed everything he had onto his old donkey and, feeling depressed and disheartened, took one last look at Mañjushri’s mountain, hoping desperately that Mañjushri might appear at least long enough to wave him goodbye. But no. The crowds of people rushing to and fro before him gave up nothing but the Chinese boy with the letter he’d promised. Lodro thanked him, tucked the letter into his yak skin coat and left for Mongolia.

After several months Lodro reached the town where the Chinese boy’s friend was supposed to live. Waving the letter in his hand, he stopped everyone he met to ask where the recipient of the letter might be found. To his surprise, every single person he approached burst out laughing. Lodro was extremely puzzled. Eventually he met an old woman who managed to control herself long enough to ask if she could read the letter. Lodro gave it to her, without reading it himself. She studied it carefully, then asked,

“Who wrote this letter?”

And Lodro told her the whole story. She shook her head and sighed, “Those young men are always bullying helpless pilgrims like you. But there is one creature I know of who bears the name written in this letter. If you really want to deliver it, go to the rubbish tip at the edge of the village. There you’ll find a pig. He’s very fat so you can’t miss him.”

Lodro was a little baffled by this information, nevertheless he decided that, as he was already so close he would go to the tip and have a look at the pig.

Before long, he found a huge hill of rubbish on top of which sat an extremely large and rather hairy pig. Feeling a little self-conscious, Lodro unrolled the letter and held it in front of the pig’s small, bright eyes and was completely astounded when the pig appeared to read it. Once he’d finished, the pig started weeping uncontrollably and fell down dead. Suddenly curious about what could possibly have had such a strong effect on the animal, Lodro finally read the letter.

Dharma Arya Bodhisattva,

Your mission to benefit beings in Mongolia has been accomplished. Now hurry back to Mount Panchashisha.


Amazed and reinvigorated, Lodro rushed back to Mount Panchashisha with just one thought in his mind,

“This time, when I meet Mañjushri, I’m going to hold onto him extremely tightly and I’ll never let him go!”

His first stop back on the mountain was the bar where the Madame had given him shelter. Lodro asked her if she’d seen the Chinese boy.

“Those boys are always on the move. Who knows where they’ll be?” she said.

Lodro’s heart sank.

“But you’re tired,” continued the Madame, a little more gently. “Why don’t you sleep now. You can look for the boys tomorrow.”

And she offered him his old place in the corridor. He fell asleep quickly, only to wake with a start to find himself slumped against the steps of the monastery and freezing cold. There was no sign of the Madame, the bar or the town. Physically he was on Mount Panchashisha, the external realm where Mañjushri is said to live, yet his merit had been such that his experiences of Mañjushri had all taken place in a dream.

I’ve always hoped that Lodro finally realized that Mañjushri’s compassion is so immense and all pervasive that it’s possible to invoke his presence absolutely anywhere—even his hometown. And from that point of view, his journey to China had been unnecessary, but it definitely wasn’t a waste, because if Lodro had not made his pilgrimage he probably wouldn’t have experienced this inner journey, or realized anything at all.

Chotu, the chai wala at Bodhgayas Number 1 tea stall photo Pawo Choyning

After I heard this story from Deshung Rinpoche, I visited Mount Panchashisha * several times, but had even less success than Lodro. Not only did I completely fail to invoke Mañjushri’s presence, I didn’t have any dreams at all. The only thing that happened was I got annoyed by the ticketing system that’s been instituted at most of the temples and by the monks who sold the tickets. Most of all I was extremely disappointed to see holy shrines reduced to the status of national monuments. Later, though, my intellectual mind began to wonder if one of those arrogant, acquisitive monks who could only think about the amount of tickets they were selling, was in fact Mañjushri. Who knows?

*Also known as Mount Wu Tai Shan.