Would you become a pilgrim on the road of love? The first condition is that you make yourself humble as dust and ashes.
Ansari of Herat
One of the objectives of the Earth Pilgrims documentary series must be a re-definition of the word 'pilgrim' for our modern world. In a growingly secular global society where religion has too often become a weapon of control, the role of the religious pilgrim has blurred to the point of obscurity. If you doubt the 'control' then consider that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, arguably one of the main pilgimage sites on Earth, was recently the scene of an embarrasing fracas during Easter celebrations in 2008. The religion's founder would not be amused at the following:
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A scuffle broke out at the traditional site of Jesus' burial on Sunday when Greek Orthodox and Armenian believers, who fiercely protect their hold over sections of the shrine, traded blows.
Police said a fist-fight broke out after Armenian worshippers yanked a Greek Orthodox cleric away from a tomb in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection.
A spokesman said he did know the precise cause of the scuffle. Fights are not uncommon among the representatives of Christian sects who jealously guard their rights to parts of the centuries-old church.
"There is always tension there between the different sides," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. "That's why police were on scene ahead of time to prevent any arguments or disturbances from breaking out."
When I have visited this church the sense of real estate is poignant. The Franciscans vie with the Greek orthodox for control of the territory inside this most important of all Christian churches. What an incredibly pathetic statement of our failure to understand the meaning of 'pilgrim' as quoted above by a wiser brother on the way. There is obviously something askew with the manner in which the original idea of pilgrimage has become seriously compromised by that most human of all vices, greed. Greed for control of a place venerated for centuries and greed for the power and prestige that come from sitting on a relic. Personally I felt that this church, amongst all the places I have visited in the world of 'sacred geography' is very poorly suited to the true meaning of pilgrimage. The only saving grace is in the faces of the pilgrims who have travelled acrosss the world to physically position themselves in the place where their master died and was resurrected. For them there can be no power struggle if they are at all serious about their religious convictions. Yet it is not the poor pilgrim who controls the place but the far more morally corrupt priesthood which vies for even another square inch of territory. How did this happen?
The ancient notion of pilgrimage which is so obviously present in almost all the world's religions of course reflects a human desire for spiritual fulfillment. I would dare to say that atheists too have such a strong desire since their denial of God reveals a sincere consideration of the meaning of 'spiritual'. When we realise that the very word fulfillment entails an understanding that merely satisfying physical or mental appetites alone will never fulfill anybody, we inevitably have our noses pressed upon the tricky word spiritual. Naturally, modern psychologists will tell us that spiritual really means 'mental', but these fragmentary experts on psychic phenomena tend to be infantile interpreters perched on the back of Greek philosophical giants (amongst others) who really did comprehend spiritual. What I am saying is that fulfillment implies a totally holistic therefore spiritual understanding and whether you are religious or not about such an understanding is entirely a personal and private affair. Oh, if only the priests and mullas could arrive at this. One's spiritual life, as one's highly related sexual life, is nobody's business but yours.
Throughout history, pilgrimage has mainly been a religious phenomenon that set people on a physical journey that hopefully yielded spiritual results. All of the world's religions have inherently some sense of pilgrimage. Many Jews, Muslims and Christians visit Jerusalem, the Abrahamic centre of those three faiths while Muslims alone travel to Mecca or visit the tombs of Sunni saints. Buddhists will journey to Tibet and of course in Japan Shikoku's 88 temples for example as well as to an expansive canvas of sacred places all over Asia . Hindus would go principally to Benares (Varanasi) as well as to a plethora of holy sites including a cave in Kashmir adorned witha giant phallic symbol at Amarnath. Catholicism has its own rich history of pilgrimage dating back to the Medieval period when pilgrims traveled to major churches, such as Chartres or visited the sites where saints had lived, such as Assisi in Italy and to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Basically any site where either an individual of high spiritual consciousness once enacted a significant miracle (in the case of the Fatima phenomenon for example), died, was born or spent long years in prayer or meditation will be a candidate for a pilgrimage. The Camino (the Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage) has become greatly popularised by the works of Paulo Coelho and Shirley Maclaine amongst others and allows both young and old to feel spiritual and enjoy Spain as a travel destination in a unique manner.
Swami Sivananda was an Indian Yoga master, Physician, Monk and Founder of The Divine Life Society. He had the following to say on pilgrimage:
“Life is a pilgrimage. The wise man does not rest by the roadside inns. He marches direct to the illimitable domain of eternal bliss, his ultimate destination.”
Resting by roadside inns appears to have become religion, with the best of intentions of course. We now find ourselves languishing in those inns, scrapping like dogs in them over bones as seen in the above example and even worse preaching about how our inn is better than eveybody else's. Indeed it is time for us to consider seriously whether the concept of pilgrim has any use for us anymore, and if so in what way. The documentary film Earth Pilgrims and its attendant book series, published by a major Japanese publishing house, will show us that the answer is a resounding yes. The age of religious pilgrims I dare to say is over, must be over. The time of the Earth Pilgrims is upon us as our communal space and time vehicle, Earth herself, is poised for what clearly looks like a voyage upon rougher seas. She orbits in now very hoary climes and is perhaps in no mood for local power struggles upon her sacred face. If we are to really have a future, and I say that in all sincerity and with the logical consistency of an open minded layman who has simply opened his eyes to reality, then it must be as spiritual pilgrims on a scared planet. All else, as Ecclesiastes says, is pure vanity.
The individulas who will be sharing their profound insights with us about the deeper ramifications of this pilgrimage including Satish Kumar, Graham Hancock, Wade Davis and several others have been chosen because they are not stuck in the inns. Satish has ventured deep into the meaning of pilgrim in his life and his work. Graham shares with us how the pilgrim-as-shaman is the great archetypal explorer of inner worlds that are just as real as this one. And Wade Davis whose perigrinations amongst the ethnic minorities of planet Earth, they who were once the mainstream of humanity for tens of thousands of years, will teach us what it is we are on the verge of losing forever. If we can only remember that we are essentially pilgrims, born to move through life and death into a deeper world, then we may have a chance at a new civilization. The farce of a political solution, an economic answer, or a religious breakthrough that will somehow save us from ourselves, has to be seen with naked intelligence as the same promise of fulfillment that has ever left us dry. There have been great souls though amongst our Earth Pilgrims who knew this, even 800 years ago. Let us close then with our favourite pilgrim, Rumi:
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival: A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they're a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice — meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.