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Can Places Transform People?: A History of Pilgrimage in Buddhism and Tibet - August 8, 2021 Event

Can Places Transform People?: A History of Pilgrimage in Buddhism and Tibet

Presented by Dr. Kate Hartmann Hosted by the Philadelphia Buddhist Association Sunday August 8 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time via Zoom


Pilgrimage seems by all accounts to have been widely practiced across Tibet since at least the 13th century, but that does not mean that Tibetans unanimously approved of it. While pilgrimage practices date back to early Buddhist history, these practices have a complicated history. Throughout the written record, Tibetan Buddhist writers highlight the dangers of pilgrimage, argue that it is pointless, or suggest that real practice does not require travel to faraway places. Behind these critiques stands a central question: are practices that engage the external, material landscape worthwhile, or is it better to focus on internally directed practices like meditation or philosophy? Some Tibetan thinkers argued that certain places have the power to grant blessings, merit, or realizations to even the most mindless pilgrim. Others argued that the benefits of pilgrimage--if there were any--depend entirely on the pilgrim's faith and mental outlook.

This talk traces these debates, and suggests that the more extreme views notwithstanding, most Tibetan thinkers from the 13th through 19th centuries did not attribute the benefits of pilgrimage to the pilgrim or place alone, but to a relational network of factors that included the pilgrim's faith, the material nature of the site, the holy masters who had visited the site in the past, supramundane beings who live there, the ordinary appearance of the site, and the pilgrim's cultivated vision of the site. In other words, material places do not exert independent agency, but have special powers or ‘blessings’ that can be activated by the pilgrim’s participation in a complex relational network.

DR. HARTMANN (Ph.D., Harvard University 2020) is Assistant Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Wyoming. Her engagement with Religious Studies arises out of a longstanding interest in religion as a force that shapes the way we perceive the world, and in the practices religions develop to transform that perception. Her current research focuses on the history of Tibetan pilgrimage to holy mountains and the goal of cultivating pure perception of the sacred landscape.

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