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Footsteps of the Pilgrims
Upon mentioning of Tibetan pilgrims, the first image that is conjured up in your mind may be colorful prayer flags flapping against the backdrop of a crisp blue sky. It may be a person with a much-weathered yet peaceful face, wearing protective apron and padded gloves, touching his clasped hands to the crown of his head, forehead, throat and heart before prostrating his full body on the ground. It may also be an intricate prayer wheel turning in its owner's hand, uttering silent prayers.
Tibetan Buddhists from all over the land aspire to make the pilgrimage to Jokhang, the most sacred temple in Tibet, at least once in their lifetime. The plateau is also full of holy places made significant by the saints and scholars who brought Buddhism to Tibet. Families often have to save for several years to finance one such long and arduous trip, which can take several months for some. For those of us who live in the "modern" societies, this seems an unimaginable devotion of time. What do they hope to achieve from such journeys? We are curious to know.
For Tibetans, the journey of the pilgrimage is as crucial as the destination. When a person leaves the comfort of his home and daily routine to enter unknown lands, he learns to break down, in his perception, the barrier between his "self" and the world around him. Getting away gives him an opportunity to look beyond his attachments. Indeed, the pilgrims often have to leave behind most of their worldly possessions and rely on the goodwill of others. Some beg for their daily food on the way, following the example of humility demonstrated by the Buddha. It is believed that rigors of the journey, if borne with a positive attitude, can generate merits just as the blessing one receives from a holy site. As they travel to magnificent sacred mountains and meet people from distant places, they are inspired to let go of their self-centeredness and self-importance.
Entering a monastic life also means transcending one's material attachment and pursuing liberation through the path of wisdom and compassion. Chatral Rinpoche once explained, "we abide nowhere, we possess nothing" . This in essence is a spiritual pilgrimage. Buddhist monks aspire to emulate the Bodhisattvas, who vow to strive for the deliverance of all living beings. I was deeply moved by a quote of a monk in pilgrimage in : "Prostrating, I can use my whole body to pray. Many people tell me to meditate or stay in retreat ... that my sins are all purified, but I prostrate for all beings, not just for myself."
In a strange twist of fate, the Tibetan refugees' exile in the last fifty years can be thought of as a pilgrimage on two levels. On an outer level, their forced exodus brought them to the land of their faith. Many, like the Dalai Lama, reaffirm their faith as they trace the footsteps of the Buddha through India and Nepal. "During a discourse recently delivered on the Wisdom of Emptiness Sutra," the Dalai Lama once recounted, "I became quite sure that when the Buddha was preaching this text I myself was one of the poor Indians listening on the fringes of the crowd ... in the present moment, as I carry out some activity in serving Buddha's teaching, I feel there must be a cause. That is my reason." 
On an inner level, as they escaped from their homeland, the loss of their loved ones, the anguish they felt against their oppressors, the harsh conditions they were subject to in their new environment, and the uncertainty about their future, all put their faith to the most severe tests. Can they seek refuge in the teaching of life's impermanence by the Buddha and relinquish their pain and anger? Can they abide by the practice of compassion, including compassion toward the enemy, in the face of violence and oppression?
I once heard Phil Borges, the photographer of "Tibetan Portrait" , commenting on a Tibetan nun he met. He said that she never dwelled upon the traumatic suffering she went through in the Chinese prison, yet shed tears of compassion when talking about her companion who died in that prison. I think the resilience of the Tibetan people in their exile, the propagation of Tibetan Buddhism to the rest of the world, and the principle of peaceful struggle have been the best testimony for their spirit and their faith.