Fostering Spirituality through Pain: Chinese Buddhist Pilgrimage in Premodern China

Buddhist pilgrimage comprised a large proportion of the biography of monks that composed in the premodern period. But these records, rather than embellishing pilgrimage as a privileged act that aimed at exaggerating the status of monks, accentuated the distance between pilgrimage sites, the danger the pilgrims encountered along the journey, the starvation they needed to endure, the diseases and disasters from which they suffered. By travelling primarily on foot, these pilgrims became fragilely exposed to death, a fact that kept reiterated throughout the records. Since it is quite unusual to underline the experience of pain and fear during the pilgrimage as it might diminish the degree of spirituality of the pilgrims gained from the process, these records became significant as they provided access to the contemporary ideology behind. Furthermore, these records were appealing as they provoked a connection between body and mind in the context of pain that led to spiritual advancement during the journey of pilgrimage. Body became a vehicle that fortified spirituality by enduring sufferings. Following these premises, this paper attempts to examine the sensory experience of the monk pilgrims that addressed the perception of pain during the pilgrimage journey. It argues that pain creates an ascetic experience that plays a key role in defining the spirituality and religiosity of the pilgrims. By reviewing the records in the biography of monks that describe the difficulty of pilgrimage, this paper reexamines the significance of pain in elevating the degree of spirituality.

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