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Regarding Sacred Landscapes

Regarding Sacred Landscapes and the Everyday Corollary

Architecture, Culture and Spirituality – Chapter 12
Edited by Thomas Barrie, Julio Bermudez and Philip James Tabb
Ashgate Publishing Company, 2015


Making my way through a grove of mature hemlock we call The Cathedral. Attentive to a profoundly, mysterious and intimate relationship to something present both within and around me, a luminous familiarity with this place; surrender and embrace. This island grove of beauty and majesty, unmarked on any topographic map, was neither designated nor implied as a special place. Yet surely, here was a landscape connected to the sacred fabric of the universe.

The thought arose that designated sacred landscapes provide both a foundation and qualitative index by which to design and evaluate landscapes in everyday life where people can experience spiritual renewal. Three vital questions: 1) What distinguishes sacred landscapes from other landscapes? 2) How does one’s relationship with landscape make spiritual experience viable in landscapes of everyday life? 3) What qualities of sacred landscapes are assumed by equivalent landscapes of daily life, the everyday corollary?

Designating the Sacred Landscape

Seemingly with magical and mysterious qualities, sacred landscapes are places that captivate and move us to increased awareness, energizing feelings and thoughts attending spiritual dimensions of life. According to classical Buddhist perspectives, a sacred landscape is a place transformed as a medium for pilgrims’ devotional practices through the caveat of a four-fold ordination process, where spiritual experience becomes tangible as form and space. But for its extraordinary features, physically apparent or esoterically subtle, a landscape otherwise is considered everyday space, unrecognized unless officially acknowledged.

Certainly there are many places in Tibet that are power places by geomantic definition, but unless they have been consecrated by tradition they lack the association with Buddha-mind that endows them with particular sanctity. When both geomantic and human factors are optimized the result will be a great power place, a sacred place.1

First, the landscape arises through geological, atmospheric and ecological forces – orogeny, tectonics, glacial morphogenesis, mass-wasting, fluvial erosion – producing distinct physical qualities and characteristics accorded to a sacred landscape. Certain landscapes reveal the essence of these natural forces, where people acutely sense landscape’s power and are drawn for spiritual renewal, not unlike celestial moments of transformation when people became acutely aware of time.

Second, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas empower these particular landscapes with dignity by purifying the landscape of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual afflictions and delusions. Esoteric Shingon Buddhism posits Buddha as inseparable from Nature, having the ability to manipulate the operations of nature so that a natural landscape is transformed into sacred landscape.

Third, a spiritual teacher discovers the sacred landscape and consecrates the lands, waters and skies by their personal presence and purification practices. Tibetan Buddhist texts refer to this blessing, “opening the sacred landscape,” whereby the natural sacred landscape is designed as an artistic expression of spiritual teachings.

Fourth, continued reverence by pilgrims and disciples maintain the sacred landscape. Although the landscape produced by the awakened mind is considered a permanent phenomenon, its presence is dependent upon reception by disciples; Buddhas’ teachings last only if disciples cultivate karmic predispositions to receive them.

How would such a place be identified? In Japan, a sacred landscape is designated with a shimenawa, a straw rope tied with paper around the sacred precinct. The gate, a torii in Japanese, marks a transition between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’. In Tibet, prayer flags and laptche, piles of stones carved with mantras, conspicuously acknowledges homes of protectors and the presence of deities at mountain peaks and passes, ends of ascents, stream crossings and caves where revered teachers have meditated.

The Everyday Corollary

As noted above, a landscape not officially established to be sacred, regardless of its spiritual qualities, is considered ordinary. However, the everyday corollary, a landscape endowed by physical characteristics in accord with ordination’s phase one, has potential to contravene orthodoxy, transforming into a place that provides for the experience of spiritual engagement. According to both Christian and Mahayana Buddhist views, the everyday corollary performs through the instrument of virtuous relationships and qualities of interaction between individual (and community) and landscape. How?

The relationship – In contrast to a purely objective view that identifies person here and landscape over there, philosophers of many traditions questioned the seemingly hard edge placed between thoughts and substances observed on either side of one’s skin, in which (striking one’s chest) it might be said: “This here is me, and the surrounding landscape is not me.” However, Kobo Daishi, founder of Japanese Shingon Buddhism, said:

Differences exist between matter and mind, but in their essential nature they remain the same. Matter is no other than mind; mind is no other than matter. Without any obstruction, they are interrelated. The subject is the object; the object is the subject. The seeing is the seen, and the seen is the seeing. Nothing differentiates them.4

H. H. the Dalai Lama says that we inhabiting the landscape as well the landscape we inhabit all evolve, abide and dissolve through the operation of five elemental forces: solidity of Earth, fluidity of Water, heat of Fire, movement of Wind, and unobstruction of Space. In terms of the origin of the actual particles that compose our physical body and the environment, no difference is to be found. Investigating the relationship among very subtle, internal and external elemental forces develops an understanding of the interaction between mental events and external matter, the relationship between inhabitant and landscape.5

I came to realize clearly that mind is no other
than mountains and rivers and the great earth.6

Paul Brunton wrote that as much as he tried, he couldn’t hold existence and the perception of existence apart from each other. He concluded that in reality they were not two but indissolubly one; mental experiences were the visible things that he took to be outside himself.7 John Blofeld recalled the young Assistant Taoist Abbot named Wu:

You see, dear friend from the Western Ocean, mind is all! Eliminate thought and the mind is no longer to be differentiated from the formless Tao, in which all things and processes originate, however ordinary or extraordinary.8

The quality of interaction – Recognition of beauty and spirituality in the everyday corollary is dependent upon the cultivation of virtues in one’s mind. Seventh century CE Indian Buddhist scholar Chandrakirti wrote in his Guide to the Middle Way that an undisciplined state of mind gives rise to delusions, projecting an individual into negative actions, and produces a negative environment in which that person lives; a disciplined and virtuous mind gives rise to insight, projecting positive actions, and produces a pleasing environment.9 Concerning the interaction of spirituality and landscape beauty, the Avatamsaka Sutra portrayed:

Teaching how to strengthen spiritual practice, Buddha Shakyamuni caused the landscape of Jetavana Monastery to appear as an emanation of the awakened mind; garlands of jewelled trees and radiant flowers, rivers of fragrant waters, cloud-palaces of music and song, and flower ornaments pervaded all of space. Although they sat before the Buddha, disciples had not cultivated virtues enabling them to see the landscape as a Buddha Field.10

In a Vimalakirti Sutra parable, Buddha Shakyamuni was asked, “How can anyone create and inhabit a beautiful landscape?” The Buddha replied, “The magnificent landscape you witness is none other than an expression of Buddha’s mind, with qualities developed through pure action, compassion and wisdom: physical manifestation of the Six Perfections of Bodhisattvas: Giving, Ethics, Patience, Effort, Concentration and Wisdom.”11

Teachers of Neo-Platonic and Christian traditions also regarded the experience of landscapes’ beauty as no less a spiritual engagement. In Enneads, Plotinus stated

All the Beauty and Good of this world comes by Communion with Divinity as Ideal-Form. Communicating in thought (reason and logic) that flows from the Divine is how material becomes beautiful; and the Soul, heightened to Intellectual Principle, expression of Divinity, makes beautiful to the fullness of all things it grasps and moulds, attained as the Good.12

Positing in The Divine Names that Divinity was the same as Goodness, and Dionysius Areopagite celebrated Goodness as Beautiful, and the cause of harmony and splendour in all things.13 And William Blake profoundly exclaimed in his “Vision of the Last Judgement:”

When the sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a guinea?
O, no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly Host crying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.’ 14

The fuel empowering the landscape with spirituality arises from the core of every sentient being, the subtlest faculty of mind. Buddhists call it the Spark of Awakening, or ‘Buddha-nature’ (Skt: Tathagathagarbha). Indistinguishable from the Buddha’s mind, the Spark of Awakening is an individual’s source of wisdom and virtuous activities; the source of happiness, kindness and love, and the capacity to cry at the sight, sound and touch of beauty. And like the Buddha, the Spark of Awakening is the source of the ability to produce beauty in artistic expression, promoted in everyday life through spiritual practice. It is comprised of two parts: the natural and potential spark.15

Accordingly, just as exterior spaces are reflections of the inner spaces of an individual, so is the designated sacred landscape an expression of one’s positive thoughts and actions. Just as cultivation of body and mind has the potential to alter qualities of the landscape in which one participates, so can the everyday corollary assume qualities of designated sacred landscape. And just as individual has the potential to transform landscape, so does the everyday corollary have the reciprocal potential to alter the state of one’s body and mind. They mirror each other. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his Essay on Nature:

Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of the mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture.16


1. See Keith Dowman, The Sacred Life of Tibet (London: Thorsons, 1997), 147-150.
2. However, the power of Buddha is equal to the collective karma of sentient beings.
3. See Dennis Alan Winters, Searching for the Heart of Sacred Space (Toronto: Sumeru Press, 2014), 144.
4. See Yoshito Hakeda, Kukai - Major Works (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972), 90.
5. Teachings by H.H. The XIVth Dalai Lama, University of Toronto, Sept. 1990.
6. See Dogen, “The Voices of the River-Valley and the Form of the Mountains” in Shobogenzo (Woking, Surrey: Windbell, 1994).
7. See Paul Brunton, The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1977).
8. John Blofeld, The Secret and Sublime, Taoist Mysteries and Magic (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1973), 97.
9. Oral teaching by His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama on Chandrakirti’s Guide to the Middle Way
10. See Thomas Cleary, The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra, Vol. III (Boston: Shambala, 1987).
11. See Thurman, Robert, “Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra,” Pennsylvania State University, 1976, source: huntingtonarchive.osu.edu/resources/downloads/sutras accessed 1/2005.
12. See Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna (London: Penguin, 1991), 45-47.
13. See Dionysius the Areopagite, The Divine Names (Fintry, Surrey: The Shrine of Wisdom, 1980), 34.
14. See Northrup Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947).
15. See Obermiller, E. trans., Uttaratantra: The Work of Arya Maitreya with a Commentary by Arya Asanga (Talent, Oregon: Canon Publications, 1984).
16. Stephen, Whicher, ed., "Nature," in Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1960)