Travelling is my life – and Buddhism is my compass.
My very first expedition took place when I was only twelve months old: a journey by train from my birthplace in Milan to Aalborg in northern Denmark (my mother and grandmother are both Danish). From the age of three onwards every holiday would alternate: one summer in Denmark with its windswept, green flatlands and wide skies; the following summer far to the south in the remote heartland of Basilicata, with its chirping cicadas and sleepy ancient villages perched on the top of steep hills. Most of the time we would travel in my father’s small car – three full days to reach Denmark, another three days to get to Accettura, his native village …
At the age of 16 I took my first solo trip abroad – to Norfolk to work in an international Summer Camp. It was a momentous experience. For the first time in my life I felt I was a citizen of the world, surrounded by young people like me from all over Europe, Asia and Africa.
Shortly afterwards, I discovered Buddhism through a book I came across by chance in the small library of my secondary school; but it was a further ten years before I started practising meditation.
Aged 27 I left a teaching job in Italy and spent several years studying and working in the UK, Spain and the Netherlands. I continued to take every opportunity to travel: to Japan where I managed to see the giant Buddhas in Kamakura and Nara, to North Africa (Morocco in particular), to the Middle East and to Cuba.
It was when I got a university post in Brunei on the Island of Borneo that my fascination with Buddhism really took off. I had maintained an interest in Eastern spirituality through reading and meditating twice a day, but it was travelling through Buddhist countries that brought up the urge to write and document my various encounters.
After leaving Brunei and before starting my present teaching and research activity here in Malaysia, I embarked on another epic journey: a five-month backpacking tour of Southeast Asia and China. Many other travels followed (including the sites described in this book). All the time I was immersing myself in the world of Buddhism, thanks to the many Dharma talks and retreats I attended in this wonderful multi-ethnic and multicultural country of Malaysia, where the presence of Buddhism is so strong.
Travelling and living in so many countries has been not just a discovery of places, languages and cultures; it has given me a deep sense of connection with the planet and the people living on it. Whenever I have found myself in a different Buddhist country, it has made me appreciate Buddhism’s social, spiritual and artistic achievements even more.
At some point it occurred to me that I could combine travel writing and my interest in Buddhism: hence Buddhism and Pilgrimage. My hope is that readers will feel at least part of what I’ve experienced during my pilgrimage in India and Nepal to the four key Buddhist sites – Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar. It is a pilgrimage that the Buddha himself recommended:
‘Ananda, there are four places the sight of which should arise emotion in the faithful. Which are they?
“Here the Tathagata was born” is the first.
“Here the Tathagata attained supreme enlightenment” is the second.
“Here the Tathagata set in motion the Wheel of Dhamma” is the third.
“Here the Tathagata attained the Nibbana-element without remainder” is the fourth.’