The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker's Guide to Making Travel Sacred

The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker's Guide to Making Travel Sacred


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On Literature, New Places, and the Sacred

Sacred travel guide. First published in 1998 and updated with a new preface by the author, The Art of Pilgrimage is a sacred travel guide full of inspiration for the spiritual traveler.

Not just for pilgrims. We are descendants of nomads. And although we no longer partake in this nomadic life, the instinct to travel remains. Whether we’re planning a trip or buying a secondhand copy of Siddhartha, we’re always searching for a journey, a pilgrimage. With remarkable stories from famous travelers, poets, and modern-day pilgrims, The Art of Pilgrimage is for the mindful traveler who longs for something more than diversion and escape.

Rick Steves with a literary twist. Through literary travel stories and meditations, award-winning writer, filmmaker and host of the acclaimed Global Spirits series, Phil Cousineau, sets out to show readers that travel is worthy of mindfulness and spiritual examination. Learn to approach travel with a desire for spiritual risk and renewal, practicing intentionality and being present. Inside find:

  • Stories, myths, parables, and quotes from many travelers and many faiths
  • How to see with the “eyes of the heart”
  • More than 70 illustrations

Spiritual travel for the soul. If you’re looking for reasons to travel, this is it. Whether traveling to Mecca or Memphis, Stonehenge or Cooperstown, one’s journey becomes meaningful when the traveler’s heart and imagination are open to experiencing the sacred. The Art of Pilgrimage shows that there is something sacred waiting to be discovered around us.

If you enjoyed books like The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho or Unlikely Pilgrim, Zen on the Trail, and Pilgrimage─The Sacred Art, then The Art of Pilgrimage is a travel companion you’ll love having with you.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573245937
Publisher: Mango Media
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Edition description: Revised
Pages: 254
Sales rank: 609,567
Product dimensions: 7.80(w) x 5.70(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Phil Cousineau is an award-winning writer and filmmaker, teacher and editor, lecturer, storyteller and TV host. With more than thirty-five books translated into more than ten languages and 15 scriptwriting credits to his name, Cousineau has also appeared alongside mentors Joseph Campbell and Huston Smith. He is co-writer and host of Global Spirit and has also appeared on CNN, The Discovery Channel, NFL Films, and more. He has been interviewed for stories in Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times.

Currently, Cousineau lives with his family in North Beach in San Francisco, California. Learn more about his work at

Read an Excerpt



By Phil Cousineau

Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 2012 Phil Cousineau
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57324-593-7


The Longing

For in their hearts doth Nature stir them so, Then people long on pilgrimage to go, And palmers to be seeking foreign strands, To distant shrines renowned in sundry lands.

—Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

In February 1996, together with my brother Paul, I took the long boat ride up the Mekong River in Cambodia to see one of the great riddles of the ancient world, the sacred sprawl of ruined temples and palaces that a twelfth-century traveler said "housed numerous marvels."

On our first morning at the walled city of Angkor Wat, we witnessed a glorious sunrise over its lotus-crowned towers, then began the ritual walk up the long bridgeway toward the sanctuary. Our arms were draped across each other's shoulders. Our heads shook at the impossibly beautiful sight of the "marvelous enigma" that early European chroniclers regarded as one of the Wonders of the World, and later colonialists described as rivaling the divinely inspired architecture of Solomon.

We walked as if in a fever-dream. Halfway down the causeway, we paused to take in the beauty of the shifting light. We snapped a few photographs of the nagas, the five-headed stone serpents, that undulated along the moat and of the chiseled lacework in the colossal gateway looming before us, then grinned at each other and took a deep breath of the morning air. At that moment, we noticed a gray-robed Buddhist nun limping by us on her way to the temple. Her head was shaved and bronzed. When she drew even with us, I held out an offering, which she calmly accepted with stumps where once had been hands. Stunned, I then realized why she had been walking as if on stilts. Her feet had been severed at the ankle and she was hobbling on the knobs of her ankles. I was stricken with images of her mutilation by the demonic Khmer Rouge, then wondered if she'd been a victim of one of the 11 million landmines forgotten in the forests, fields, and roads of Cambodia.

Her eyes met mine with a gaze of almost surreal serenity. Utterly moved, we offered a few dollars for the shrine in the temple. She calmly accepted the donation in a small woven bag, bowed, and limped away, like a thin-legged crane moving stiffly through the mud of one of the nearby ponds.

The encounter with the Cambodian nun was an ominous way to begin our visit, a gift briefly disguised as a disturbance. Her enigmatic smile eerily anticipated the expression on the sculptured faces of the fifty-four giant bodhisattvas that loomed in the Holy of Holies above the nearby pyramid temples of the Bayon. Each time I met their timeless gaze, my heart leapt. As the lotus ponds and pools throughout the complex were created to reflect each work of religious art, the faces of the bodhisattvas and the nun mirrored each other. I began to think of the nun as the embodiment of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the god of inexhaustible compassion, who has come to symbolize the miracle of Angkor for millions of pilgrims.

How far does your forgiveness reach? the sculpted faces ask from a thousand statues.

As far as prayers allow, the nun's eyes seemed to respond.

I rambled through the ruins with my brother for the next several hours, stunned by our sheer good fortune of being there. The Angkor complex was destroyed in the fifteenth century, then forgotten for 400 years and overrun with the stone-strangling vines of the jungle. Marveling at the beauty laced with terror in the stories of our young Cambodian guide (who told us the local villagers believed that Angkor was built by angels and giants), time seemed poised on the still-point of the world. This was more than an architectural curiosity, a pious parable of fleeting glory; it was a microcosm of the universe itself. According to scholars, the walls, moats, and soaring terraces represented the different levels of existence itself. The five towers of Angkor symbolized the five peaks of Mount Meru, the center of the world in Hindu cosmology. This was the world mountain in stone, a monumental mandala encompassed by moats that evoked the oceans. A visit was an accomplishment demanding the rigorous climbing of precipitously steep staircases, built that way not without reason.

"It is clear," wrote Vice Admiral Bonard, an early colonialist, "that the worshiper penetrating the temple was intended to have a tangible sense of moving to higher and higher levels of initiation." Our three days stretched on. The hours seemed to contain days, the days held weeks, as in all dreamtime adventures. We were graced with one strangely moving encounter after another. Silently, we mingled with saffron-robed monks who had walked hundreds of miles in the footsteps of their ancestors from Cambodia, Thailand, India, and Japan to pray in the sanctuary of a place believed for a thousand years to be the center of the world. Gratefully, we traded road stories with travelers who'd been through Burma, Vietnam, and China. After dark, we read the accounts of fellow pilgrims who had been making the arduous trek here by foot for centuries, from China and Japan in ancient times, then by car from France and England, and by boat from America.

Though neither Buddhist nor Hindu, wandering through the site I was more than smitten by the romancing of old stones. In the uncanny way of spiritually magnetized centers of pilgrimage, I felt a wonderful calm exploring the derelict pavilions, abandoned libraries, and looted monasteries. My imagination was animated by the strange and wonderful challenge to fill in what time had destroyed, thrilling to the knowledge that tigers, panthers, and elephants still roamed over the flagstones of these shrines when Angkor was rediscovered in the 1860s.

But through our visit the dark thread ran.

With every step through the ghostly glory of the ancient temple grounds, it was impossible not to be reminded of the scourge of Pol Pot, the ever-present threat of landmines, and the fragility of a site that had endured a thousand years of historical chaos. The maimed children and fierce soldiers we encountered everywhere were grim evidence of a never-ending war. Once upon a time, foreigners were spared the horrors of remote revolutions, but no more. In a local English-language newspaper, we read that Pol Pot had ordered the executions of three Australian tourists, saying only, "Crush them."

Overshadowing even this were the twinges of guilt I felt for having undertaken the journey—Jo, my partner back in San Francisco, was seven months pregnant with our baby. Though she was selflessly supportive, I was uneasy. So why make such a risky journey?

To fulfill a vow.

Twice in the previous fifteen years, my plans to make the long trek to the ruins of Angkor had been thwarted at the Thai-Cambodia border. Dreading that war might break out again and the borders clamp shut for another twenty years, I believed that the research trip my brother and I were on in the Philippines serendipitously offered a last chance to fulfill a promise to my father.

On my eleventh birthday, he had presented me with a book, not a Zane Grey Western or the biography of my hometown baseball hero, Al Kaline, that I had asked for, but a book with a bronze-tinted cover depicting sculptures of fabulous creatures from a distant world. These creatures were not from a phantasmagorical planet out of science fiction, but the long-forgotten world of the Khmers, the ancient civilization that had built Angkor.

From that moment on, the book came to symbolize for me the hidden beauty of the world. With the transportive magic that only books possess, it offered a vision of the vast world outside of my small hometown in Michigan; it set a fire in my heart and through the years inspired in me the pilgrim's desire to see this wondrous place for myself.

When my father became ill in the fall of 1984, I drove cross-country from San Francisco to Detroit to see him and, in an effort to lift his spirits, promised him that when he recovered we would travel together. I tried to convince him that after years of unfulfilled plans to see Europe, we would travel together to Amsterdam and visit Van Gogh's nephew, whom he had once guided on a personal tour through Ford's River Rouge complex in Dearborn. After Holland, I suggested, we could take the train to Périgueux in southern France and track down the story of our ancestors who had left there in 1678. Then, I said haltingly, we could take a direct flight from Paris to Phnom Penh and visit Angkor Wat. He seemed pleased by the former, puzzled by the latter.

"Don't you remember the book you gave me as a boy?" I asked him, disappointed in his response to my cue. "The one on the excavations at Angkor?" He riffled through the memory of a lifetime of books he had bestowed on friends and family Then his face lit up, and he harrumphed, "Oh, yes. Angkor, the Malcolm MacDonald book, the one with the sculptures of the Terrace of the Leper King on the cover." He paused to consider the possibilities of our traveling together, then painfully readjusted himself in his old leather reading chair.

"I just wish I were as confident as you that I was going to recover," he said with the first note of despair I'd ever heard from him. "Of course, I'd like to see these places with you. It would be wonderful." Then his voice broke. "But I don't know, son, if I'm going to make it."

No one I've ever met has pronounced the word "wonderful" like my father. He stressed the first syllable, "won," as if the adjective did indeed have its roots in victory and triumph. He so rarely used upbeat words, so when he did I knew he meant it. Hearing it there and then, watching this once-ferocious and formidable man sit in a chair, unable to move his hands and feet because of a crippling nerve disease, I was shaken. Still, I feigned confidence and courage and promised we would hit the road together as soon as he recovered.

He didn't. Four months later, on the very Ides of March which he had announced every year in our house as though it were the strangest day on the calendar, my father died in his sleep.

Shortly after the funeral, while packing up the books in his stilled apartment, I made one of the few vows in my life. I promised myself I would take the journey for both of us, make the pilgrimage to a place made holy by the play of light on stone and the devotion of pilgrims who had walked astonishing distances so that they might touch the sacred sculpture and offer their prayers on the wings of incense.

And, in so doing, perhaps restore my faith in life itself.


We journey across the days as over a stone the waves. —Paul Valéry

All our journeys are rhapsodies on the theme of discovery. We travel as seekers after answers we cannot find at home, and soon find that a change of climate is easier than a change of heart. The bittersweet truth about travel is embedded in the word, which derives from the older word travail itself rooted in the Latin tripalium, a medieval torture rack. As many a far-ranging roamer has suspected, there are moments in travel that are like being "on the rack." For the wandering Bedouins, "Travel is travail." The ancient Greeks taught that obstacles were the tests of the gods, and the medieval Japanese believed that the sorrows of travel were challenges to overcome and transform into poetry and song. Whether we are on vacation, a business trip, or a far-flung adventure tour, we can look at the trying times along the road as either torment or chances to "stretch" ourselves.

But what do we do if we feel a need for something more out of our journeys than the perennial challenges and pleasures of travel? What happens if the search for the new is no longer enough? What if our heart aches for a kind of journey that defies explanation?

Centuries of travel lore suggest that when we no longer know where to turn, our real journey has just begun. At that crossroads moment, a voice calls to our pilgrim soul. The time has come to set out for the sacred ground—the mountain, the temple, the ancestral home—that will stir our heart and restore our sense of wonder. It is down the path to the deeply real where time stops and we are seized by the mysteries. This is the journey we cannot not take.

On that long and winding road, it is easy to lose the way. Listen. The old hermit along the side of the road whispers, Stranger, pass by that which you do not love.

* * *

"I left Tangier, my birthplace, the 13th of June, 1325," wrote Ibn Battua, one of the most remarkable spiritual seekers who ever ventured down the long and winding roads of the world, "being at the time twenty-two years of age, with the intention of making the Pilgrimage to the Holy House {at Mecca} and the Tomb of the Prophet {at Medina}. I set out alone, finding no companions to cheer the way with friendly intercourse, and no party of travelers with whom to associate myself. Swayed by an overwhelming impulse within me, and a longcherished desire to visit all those glorious sanctuaries, I resolved to leave all my friends both female and male, to abandon my home as birds abandon the nest." A nineteenth-century drawing of the Mosque at Mecca, revealing hajji, pilgrims, prostrating themselves and circumambulating the Ka'aba.

For twenty-nine years, Battua made pilgrimages from Spain to China, roaming 75,000 miles, three times the distance covered by Marco Polo. When he finally returned to Morocco, he wrote in his astonishing rihla, or travel book, that his native land was "the best of countries, for its fruits are plentiful, and running water and nourishing food are never exhausted."

If it is so that one's home is the "best of countries," why do millions of us, every year since time immemorial, cast our fates to the wind and follow the ancient tracks of the pilgrim roads of the world? By what "overwhelming impulse" are we swayed to travel to faraway places at great cost and often at great risk?

For Ibn Battua, the longing was a chorus of calls: religious, scientific, poetic, political, and mercenary. He was the quintessential pilgrim, spiritually grounded, soulfully inspired, responding to what Goethe called "the holy longing," the desire to be caught up in a deeper quest.

Meanwhile, according to the German scholar of travel, Winfried Löschburg, "the longing to defeat distance, the longing for the unknown became stronger and stronger in parts of Europe. It was the desire to escape the baronial castle or the convent-school, and move out into the wide world through the town gates...." Anatole France wrote that during the Age of Exploration, the urge was described as un long desire, the passionate pursuit of the hidden or forbidden, the novel or the legendary; impossible to satisfy but equally impossible to ignore.

The impulse to travel is as old as stone, as timeless as the rising and setting of the sun. Zora Neale Hurston felt that "Travel is the soul of civilization." To some, the urge is for motion itself, as with Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote, "For my part I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." The very word traveler conjures up images of the romance of movement. Henry David Thoreau wrote, "A traveler. I love his title. A traveler is to be reverenced as such. His profession is the best symbol of our life. Going from—toward; it is the history of every one of us."

To others, like the French novelist Colette, travel suggests sensuous possibilities: "I am going away with him to an unknown country where I shall have no past and no name, and where I shall be born again with a new face and an untried heart." To the rapscallion rover Mark Twain, long journeys held out the possibility of self-improvement: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." The nomadic Bruce Chatwin told how a tramp once described his own compulsion to wander: "It's as though the tides was pulling you along the high road." In her landmark anthology Maiden Voyages, Mary Morris cites Lawrence Durrell's splendid description of Freya Stark as an example of the way women "move differently through the world." Durrell writes, "A great traveler ... is a kind of introspective; as she covers the ground outwardly, so she advances fresh interpretations of herself inwardly."

There is a tradition of travel as a kind of peripatetic university. In his classic book Abroad, Paul Fussell writes, "Before the development of tourism, travel was conceived to be like study, and its fruits were considered to be the adornment of the mind and the formation of judgment. The traveler was a student of what he sought...." But, Fussell postulates, the romantic aura and aristocratic associations surrounding travel changed irrevocably with the humbling horrors of World War I. Now there is no more true exploration, no serious travel, only "jet travel to ruins."

Excerpted from THE ART OF PILGRIMAGE by Phil Cousineau. Copyright © 2012 Phil Cousineau. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Huston Smith ix

Preface xiii

Introduction xvii

I The Longing 1

II The Call 31

III Departure 61

IV The Pilgrim's Way 89

V The Labyrinth 127

VI Arrival 159

VII Bringing Back The Boon 211

Gratitudes 235

Permissions 237

Recommended Reading 239

List of Illustrations 247

About the Author 253

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Stories, anecdotes, quotes, vignettes, and practical suggestions from travelers and pilgrims throughout history create a guide to building a personal journey by learning to slow down and linger, savor, and absorb each stage.”

Library Journal

“A treasure. It triggers the imagination and memory of all inner and outer journeys one has or has not taken.”

—Angeles Arrien, PhD, cultural anthropologist and author of The Four-Fold Way and Signs of Life

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