Where are you going…and Are you a Pilgrim?

What is a pilgrim? Who is a pilgrim? Simply visiting a shrine, cathedral, temple, or other ‘sacred’ site cannot be the defining characteristic. How do you choose a vacation destination? Is it a specific location with personal meaning, or is the potential for exploration more alluring than anything else?

By Claire Miller Skriletz

Claire Miller Skriletz is an Independent Researcher of Feminism, Gender Studies, and Religion. She has an undergraduate degree from Drew University (2002) and a Master's degree in Religious Studies from the University of Colorado Boulder (2012). Claire's research interests are broad and multidisciplinary, including gender and feminist studies of religion, religions in/of Japan, the ethnographic study of religious communities in the United States, and Buddhist communities in the West. Her MA thesis examined the insufficiency of existing theoretical models for the study of Buddhism in the United States, particularly as it applies to the Buddhist Churches of America. In April 2013 she presented a paper on gender and representation in The Book of Margery Kempe at the Rocky Mountain-Great Plains Regional AAR conference. In August of the same year, she presented a paper at the International Jain Conference on gender and ethics in the Dhammapada Commentary, a collection of early Buddhist morality tales. Her recent publications include book reviews of Reiko Ohnuma's Ties That Bind: Maternal Imagery and Discourse in Indian Buddhism in Religion and Gender 4:1 (2014), and Joseph Cheah's Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation in Nova Religio 18:1 (August 2014). Claire can be found online at her website and blog, https://claire.skriletz.net, on Academia.edu at https://colorado.academia.edu/ClaireMillerSkriletz, and @CMillerSkriletz on Twitter.

Claire Miller Skriletz

Claire Miller Skriletz is an Independent Researcher of Feminism, Gender Studies, and Religion. She has an undergraduate degree from Drew University (2002) and a Master's degree in Religious Studies from the University of Colorado Boulder (2012). Claire's research interests are broad and multidisciplinary, including gender and feminist studies of religion, religions in/of Japan, the ethnographic study of religious communities in the United States, and Buddhist communities in the West. Her MA thesis examined the insufficiency of existing theoretical models for the study of Buddhism in the United States, particularly as it applies to the Buddhist Churches of America. In April 2013 she presented a paper on gender and representation in The Book of Margery Kempe at the Rocky Mountain-Great Plains Regional AAR conference. In August of the same year, she presented a paper at the International Jain Conference on gender and ethics in the Dhammapada Commentary, a collection of early Buddhist morality tales. Her recent publications include book reviews of Reiko Ohnuma's Ties That Bind: Maternal Imagery and Discourse in Indian Buddhism in Religion and Gender 4:1 (2014), and Joseph Cheah's Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation in Nova Religio 18:1 (August 2014). Claire can be found online at her website and blog, https://claire.skriletz.net, on Academia.edu at https://colorado.academia.edu/ClaireMillerSkriletz, and @CMillerSkriletz on Twitter.

In response to:

Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond: Part 1

Professor Ian Reader discusses his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’, which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained.

How do you choose a vacation destination? Is it a specific location with personal meaning, or is the potential for exploration more alluring than anything else? If you visit the same location over and over again, is that a pilgrimage? These are just a few questions that came to mind after listening to the recent Religious Studies Project interview with Prof. Ian Reader of Lancaster University. Reader has spent much of his academic career investigating the idea of pilgrimage and challenges the listener to think through the difference between a ‘pilgrim’ and a ‘tourist’ in the contemporary world.

Prior to listening to Reader’s remarks, my understanding of a pilgrimage was the following: an arduous trip undergone by an adherent of a religious tradition, to a site with meaning or importance in that tradition, with the expectation of gaining spiritual fulfillment or insight during – or as a result of – the journey. I realize now that my understanding of pilgrimage is idealistic, a touch naïve, and largely shaped by my previous studies of medieval Christianity. Reader suggests that scholarly understanding of pilgrimage is much like mine, and often abstracted from reality, simplistic, and too limited. In his most recent publication, Pilgrimage in the Marketplace (Routledge, 2014), Reader examines in detail the complexities of pilgrimage sites, considering how pilgrimages are developed, constructed, and marketed. He further highlights that the success of a pilgrimage site is based on the number of visitors; if no one visits, it is likely to decline. The popularity of Lourdes, for instance, is not simply that it is a place that was visited by Mary. The Church supported Bernadette because she fit the image of a pious young Catholic woman. The location of Lourdes in relation to transportation (roads, train line, etc.) made it viable as a destination for Catholic pilgrims. In other words, Lourdes was not only a place where Mary appeared – there are many of those all over the world – but it had other, necessary qualities to make it a pilgrimage destination. Reader also discusses what motivates people to go on a pilgrimage. In his research in Japan, he found that very few people go on a pilgrimage to achieve enlightenment. More commonly it is an escape from everyday life, or provides the person with a sense of being in a location where something important could happen. Along the same lines, Reader explains that places such as Lourdes, Santiago de Compostela, and Shikoku are places where ordinary individuals can go to have a private, unmediated encounter with the world of the sacred/spiritual/divine.

Of all the examples that were mentioned in the interview, the one that stayed with me is of Chichibu, a Japanese shrine to Kannon that was in a state of severe decline until it played a role in a popular anime series.

Chichibu Shrine
chichibu_shrine_anime_ema_4738 Chichibu Shrine

After that, the shrine experienced a resurgence of interest as a destination – not by those visiting out of devotion to Kannon, but out of curiosity to see the place that factored in a beloved show. As scholars of religion, how do we represent that renewed interest? Reader strongly critiques the idea that the rise in popularity of some pilgrimage sites indicates a renewed religious fervor; Reader maintains that such an understanding does not investigate the nuances of why a site has become popular or how that has occurred. Perhaps one shrine is more accessible, or is located in a region with other, non-religious attractions such as hiking spots, or simply sells better souvenirs.

Because of my ongoing academic interest in religions in Japan, I hope someday to visit in order to experience the people, places, and culture. I would make a point of visiting as many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines as possible, as well as other sites of cultural and historical interest. Since I am neither Buddhist nor Shinto, I would not consider this to be a pilgrimage. It would be an educational trip that I would also enjoy, and from which I would derive intellectual satisfaction. In my mind, I would be a tourist. According to Reader, the temples and shrines have adapted to be appealing to travelers like me, rather than those on a spiritual journey. It is tourists, rather than the religiously inclined, who determine what temples and shrines remain economically afloat.

As a related thought, I also wonder if academics are a contemporary type of pilgrim. We are seeking knowledge, our research trips are filled with purpose, and we may visit a certain place multiple times in pursuit of a goal. Moreover, if the academic is also a practitioner of the religious tradition, do those research trips take on an additional, personal meaning? Have we considered the impact that our travels (and subsequent writing) may have on the success or failure of a destination? Extrapolating from Reader’s remarks, one distinction might be the lack of economic gain for a tour agency that would set apart research-oriented travel from pilgrimage.

This highlights the one aspect of the topic that Reader does not directly address in the interview: what is a pilgrim? Who is a pilgrim? Simply visiting a shrine, cathedral, temple, or other ‘sacred’ site cannot be the defining characteristic. Based on the examples from Reader’s study of Japanese pilgrims and pilgrimage locations, it seems that there is a dictionary definition for a pilgrim, such as “a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons,” and the more complicated pilgrim of the modern world who may or may not declare themselves to be a pilgrim, but makes a specific journey to a place that holds special meaning, whether that’s Lourdes, Chichibu, Santiago de Compostela, Graceland, or Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island.

References

Reader, Ian. Pilgrimage in the Marketplace. Routledge Studies in Religion, Travel, and Tourism. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Pilgrimage Sites and Further Information

Chichibu, Japan –

Chichibu Shrine

Chichibu Kannon Pilgrimage

Guadalupe, Mexico –

Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe

Lourdes, France –

Sanctuary of Our-Lady of Lourdes

Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage, Japan –

Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage (Wikipedia)

Sacred Japan (website of a Shingon priest & tour guide)

Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Camino de Santiago (The pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in pictures)

Santiago Cathedral

Shikoku, Japan –

Shikoku Shrine Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage to the 88 Sacred Places of Shikoku (tourism website)

 

Other EPISODES YOU MIGHT ENJOY

Titus Hjelm on Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions

Podcast

"The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is indeed the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, state, society. This state and this society produce religion, ...
Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes

Podcast

In this interview, recorded at the SocRel 2017 Annual Conference, Professor James Spickard talks about his latest project. Starting with a critique of North American sociology’s approach to religion, Spickard emphasises how our concepts of religion are historically grounded,
Christian evangelical organisations in global anti-trafficking networks

Podcast

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention.
Is Secularism a World Religion?

Podcast

Discussion starts with the entanglement of the concepts 'religion' and 'secularism', a brief discussion of the problems associated with the World Religions Paradigm, and then moves to the pedagogical merits and challenges of teaching 'secularism/s' within a World Religions model. We hope you enjoy this experiment!
Religious Freedom in America: Theoretical Considerations

Podcast

Religious freedom is an inherently good thing, right? It’s a cherished idea that is easy for state governments to enact, no? In this interview, Finbarr Curtis questions both of these assertions. In The Production of American Religious Freedom, Curtis argues that religious freedom is a fluent and malleable concept that people deploy for various and competing reasons.
The Secularisation Thesis

Podcast

The secularisation thesis - the idea that traditional religions are in terminal decline in the industrialised world - was perhaps the central debate in the sociology of religion in the second half of the 20th century. Scholars such as Steve Bruce, Rodney Stark and Charles Taylor argued whether religion was becoming less important to individuals, or that only the authority of religions in the public sphere was declining.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The views expressed in podcasts, features and responses are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Religious Studies Project or our sponsors. The Religious Studies Project is produced by the Religious Studies Project Association (SCIO), a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (charity number SC047750).