His friends, whom I met a few days later further on up the trail, later confirmed the story. They couldn't believe he had blown off his deep-seated determination to see Mount Everest for a couple weeks of sitting quietly in an incense-filled room.
While you may never have quite that powerful and sudden an epiphany, you can still take advantage of remarkably numerous opportunities to have both a physical and spiritual adventure. Frankly, such an adventure may be the truest way to actually leave your own culture temporarily, to really travel.
Certainly, one of the most popular places for meditation practice and Buddhist study is in Nepal. First of all, Tibetan Buddhism (practiced widely in Nepal) is certainly among the most well-known and glamorized branches. It's also dirt cheap relative to some other countries.
The ease of getting involved can be summed up in one word: Just go to Kathmandu and look at the tourist bulletin boards. Meditation retreats are plentiful and amazingly cheap. At the Kopan Monastery, one of the better established facilities, a month of instruction, lodging, and food costs only $300. The risk of getting ripped off or encountering a low-quality meditation program meant to bilk tourists is quite low in Nepal. (Kopan Monastery, 011-977-1- 481 268)
Esoteric Buddhism, Koyasan, Japan
Japanese forms of Buddhism are typically overlooked by the traveling Dharma types. That country is vastly less trendy than, say, Tibetan Buddhism. It's also wildly more expensive to exist in Japan. As a result, fewer people "wing it" in finding a facility to study in.
Koyasan, an area with more than 55 temples, near Ikoma, Japan, is a likely place to start, however. A crisp-aired mountain region packed with old-growth cedar, the area is the birthplace of Shingon Buddhism. Many monasteries welcome foreigners for study and can provide accommodations, though there is a cost.
Alternatively, an outfitter can provide a graceful way to get your feet wet in the area. A one-week, $1,300 option from Spirit World Tours will provide several days of meditation retreat along with more traditional tourist activities at either end. (Spirit World Tours, 800-447-1483)
Holy Land Tour
Obviously, if you're considering a religious experience for your travels, you can scarcely do better than a visit to Israel, the birthplace of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. You can go it solo here with relative ease - the significant landmarks are densely packed and the tourist infrastructure quite good.
However, it's also a complicated place and a good tour guide will ease logistics and enable you to learn about the region in a much more focused way. Ami Travel, an Israeli company with an office in Chicago, offers quality, local tours with a respectfully religious bent.
You can take the "Christian Experience" tour intended for American Christians who wish to tour primarily the areas ministered by Jesus. Even better, though, is their "Classical Tour Plus Eilat," offering a more comprehensive overview of locations central to Judeo-Christian history. The number of important sites this tour stops by boggles the mind - Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Last Supper room and many points in between. (Ami Travel, 800-821-8947)
Unfortunately, inter-faith outreach programs and tour operators are substantially less common for the Islamic world. Moreover, political differences between many Muslim countries and the West complicate tourism, to say the least. Things are improving, however. Several tour operators now offer trips through Syria, Jordan, and Iran. And of course, Egypt remains by and large quite safe, despite periodic, isolated instances of violence.
One reasonably uncomplicated way for non-Muslims to take part in an Islamic ritual is to attend the annual Great Feast in Cairo. The event kicks off the pilgrimage to the Holy Land by Egyptian Muslims. The event involves a great deal of dancing and eating. It occurs in early April, the exact date depending on lunar observations by the mullahs.
If you wish to tour the Middle East itself, a tour operator can help significantly. Seattle-based Extraordinary Places has been hosting trips through the region for many years, and has continually expanded their offerings as borders have opened in the Muslim world. (Extraordinary Places, 206-784-2761)