Going on pilgrimages to sacred sites has always been an important activity in the religious lives of the Chinese people. A sacred site is a place where the efficacious power of a deity has become manifest. These sites are located on mountains, for deities are believed to reside there. This is why pilgrimage is expressed in the Chinese language by the phrase "paying one's respect to a mountain and offering incense" (ch'ao-shan chin-hsiang). One goes to a mountain in order to seek audience with the presiding deity as one would with a ruler. The most distinctive offering the pilgrim brings are the incense sticks which will establish the desired contact between the worshipper and the deity.
Chinese pilgrims, like their counterparts in other parts of the world, have had a great variety of motivations for undertaking pilgrimages. They might go to seek a vision of the deity, perform a penance, ask for heirs or cures, or pray for good health and long life for themselves and their family members. The vague phrase "to obtain blessings and avert calamities" is often used to describe such goals. Many such journeys are undertaken as a part of specific, personal exchanges with a god, expressed in the contractual language of making promises to a deity and fulfilling such vows.
Over the centuries, specific sites have become known as homes of different deities. Hangchow, the city south of Shanghai, has had a special relationship with Kuan-yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, one of the most beloved Buddhist deities in China. Chinese began to worship Kuan-yin in the 4th century C.E. Kuan-yin was usually depicted as a handsome princely figure, or with multiple heads and multiple arms, and finally, a completely feminine deity.
Traditionally called "the Land of the Buddha" in her heyday during the 12th century, Hangchow boasted some 480 Buddhist monasteries. Every spring, for centuries, pilgrims from all over China as well as the surrounding areas would come to Hangchow on pilgrimage. Although religious activities came to a complete halt during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), there has been a resurgence of popular piety since 1979. Today, five monasteries around the West Lake have been restored and pilgrims have once again come to the city in increasingly large numbers.
In 1987, I was in Hangchow during the spring pilgrimage season which began in mid-February (soon after the Chinese New Year) and ended in mid-April (not long after the Ch'ing-ming festival). Pilgrims came in groups ranging from 40-50 up to 200-300. Depending on the size of the group, there would be one or more group leaders who carried a pole with a red banner to identify their group. They took care of practical matters such as making arrangements for transportation and lodging. In addition, some groups also had a spiritual leader who knew how to chant scriptures, sing pilgrims' songs, go into trance, become a spokesperson for Kuan-yin ("living bodhisattva"), and practice healing among fellow pilgrims. While most pilgrims were village women in their 50's, there were also some men, young people of both sexes, and less frequently, children.
Women pilgrims wore pieces of red cloth with their group names written in ink on their left arms. They also wore distinctive head coverings which provided them with their regional identities. Those from Soochow covered their heads with towels, while those from other villages wore square kerchiefs of either green or deep blue. Colored yarns binding their hair had symbolic meanings: red indicating that the husband was alive, white that he died recently, black that he died two years ago and blue that he had died for three years. It was desirable for a pilgrim to come to Hangchow for either three years or five years in a row: the first year for the benefit of her father, the second year for her mother, the third year for her husband, the fourth year for herself, and the fifth year for her children. They carried yellow incense bags on their shoulders and wore incense belts around their waists. Red seals were stamped on the bags and belts indicating the monasteries they had visited. When they die, they would be dressed like this and be cremated together with the incense bags and belts. These would serve as "travel passes", as one pilgrim put it, and would assure them a safe journey to the Western Paradise.
Pilgrims kept vegetarian diet, starting with the evening meal before they left home and lasting until their return. If they came with their husbands, they must sleep in separate quarters. Even their married children back at home must observe the taboo against eating meat and having sex. Otherwise, some untoward accidents would happen to their travelling parents or mothers. They could resume their normal way of life only upon the safe return of the pilgrim.
Pilgrims followed a pilgrimage circuit sanctified by tradition. As soon as they disembarked from boats or buses in Hangchow, they would first head for the Upper T'ien-chu Monastery to workshop Kuan-yin. The Upper T'ien-chu Monastery has a history of over a thousand years. Since its founding in the middle of the 10th century, it had received royal patronage from successive dynasties. Kuan-yin of the Upper T'ien-chu protected Hangchow by providing timely rainfall and sunshine. She would also give guidance to pilgrims who came to seek dreams of her at the temple. Miracles abound. Restored in the spring of 1986, only the main hall and a few buildings were now ready for use.
Groups of women pilgrims often bore gifts to Kuan-yin: many tiered lotus lanterns made of colorful paper, or silk capes of red, pink or purple for the image. Turtles were sometimes brought to the temple to be set free in the Pond for Releasing Life in the temple's front courtyard. Bought from the market and saved from sure death, these creatures would be protected by the temple and allowed to die naturally. Such activity, called "releasing life", has long been a characteristic of Chinese Buddhism. Some pilgrims took a few pinches of incense ashes from the incense burners in front of Kuan-yin's image. They would bring these back home and use them as medicine.
The Pilgrim's Way leading to Upper T'ien-chu Monastery must be covered on foot. Once inside the temple, the pilgrims busied themselves with lighting candles and incense, burning the spirit money for their ancestors, having their yellow incense bags and incense belts stamped with the seals of the monastery, having their own names and names of their loved ones entered in the temple's donation book. They usually spent half an hour to an hour doing these, depending on the size of the group. Even though the temple ground was filled with pilgrims, they always stayed with their own group and never mingled with other groups. The sense of communitas stressed so strongly by Victor Turner was found among members of the same group, but strikingly absent between different groups, which usually had nothing to do with each other. If it was a large group composed of people from different villages, new friendships were often formed after spending four days together. The sense of camaraderie and fellowship was especially strong when I visited them at night in the inn. After they returned to the inn around four in the afternoon, they relaxed in the evening by visiting each other, sharing gossips and laughter, exchanging stories about Kuan-yin and singing pilgrims' songs together.
The height of the pilgrimage season centered around Kuan-yin's birthday, the 19th day of the second month according to the lunar calendar. Pious pilgrims kept an all-night vigil on the 18th and attended the pre-dawn service.
After pilgrims concluded their worship at Upper T'ien-chu Monastery, they would visit other noted sites, for instance, the Smoky Cloud Grotto and the Yellow Dragon Grotto. When they finished making the pilgrimage circuit, they would then do their sightseeing and shopping before they returned to their home villages. Coming to Hangchow was as much for fun as for religious reasons. Many villagers used the term "enjoying the spring outing with the pretext of worshipping the Buddha" to describe their trip.
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