Sacred Places in Vajrayana

Go to the mountain tops, charnel grounds, islets, and fairgrounds…
Places that make the mind waver,
And let the mind project innumerable thoughts.
Fuse them with the view and practice of spontaneous liberation,
Then all arises as the Path.
— Longchenpa

Pilgrimage is a powerful metaphor and an important devotional practice for all spiritual seekers. Regardless of religion, pilgrimage always involves a journey to one or more sacred places. How are sacred places understood in Vajrayana?

First, because the origin of all places, without exception, is the radiant luminosity of the nature of reality, Vajrayana holds that all places are ultimately pure. As it is stated:

In the primordial basis, there is nothing at all.
Yet, from this basis, all appearances rise.

To the enlightened, places appear but are immaterial. From such places, apparent loci manifest to benefit the unenlightened. Those of great spiritual development experience them as the pure lands of buddhas and deities. Those of moderate development experience them as sacred places or power sites and those who are spiritually immature experience them as ordinary places made of earth, water, fire, wind and space.

According to Vajrayana, there are countless sacred places in the world and in relation to Tibetan Vajrayana, throughout the Himalaya. These are all branches of the thirty-two principal sacred places that are sourced in legendary time, in the elements of the true nature of reality. Some of the secondary sacred places are natural and some have become sacred by virtue of narrative history such as having been consecrated by masters, awareness-holders, and yogins. It is also the view of Vajrayana that these secondary places are the appearances in the external world of the impure channels, energy winds, and vital essences of the inner subtle body which practitioners strive to purify. 

There are various enumerations of these secondary places, but in general, they include:

  • 5 supreme places for meditation
  • 5 supreme places of enlightenment's body, speech, and mind
  • 25 wondrous great places
  • 5 valleys, 3 provinces, and 1 park
  • 8 major meditation places
  • 4 snow mountain ranges
  • 21 hidden regions
  • 21 snow mountains
  • 108 major sacred places
  • 1002 minor sacred places
The two—the person and the place—merge as one.
There is nothing to see: the viewer is at the very basis empty.
Meditation is impossible: the meditator has vanished into the absolute expanse.

Throughout Sangha Journeys pilgrimages, we will enter monasteries and temples filled with sacred icons and libraries, walk the land and visit caves, hermitages. We will meet lamas, monastics and practicing householders, and there will be many opportunities to make offerings, pray and meditate.

Guru Rinpoche himself was a pilgrim. With Yeshe Tsogyal, he traveled to all the Himalayan sacred sites, concealing his spiritual treasures for the future benefit of others. Later, the greatest Tibetan masters were also pilgrims, often undertaking several long and arduous journeys in their lifetimes and writing guides to pilgrimage sites. And last but not least, the Tibetan people themselves, despite unfavorable circumstances, have continued the practice of pilgrimage and rebuilding sacred sites.