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Regarding Sacred Landscapes

Pretapuri: Sacred Landscape of Tibet – Expression of Spiritual Practice

Presented at UNESCO Natural Sacred Sites International Symposium, Paris 1998; Making Sacred Places Conference, University of Cincinnati, 1997; American Society of Landscape Architects Annual Conference, Los Angeles, 1996; 3rd Annual Symposium of The Forum for Architecture, Culture and Spirituality, St. John’s University, Collegeville, MN, 2010

Where does one become completely absorbed; draw inspiration and prescriptions for designing landscapes that profoundly affect people’s lives? There are special landscapes in the world to which people travel on pilgrimage. They undergo difficulties and put aside dangers to receive the blessings of places that, with their magical and mysterious qualities, captivate and move the mind to conditions of increased awareness - places that open up the heart and energize within feelings and beliefs associated with the spiritual dimensions of life.

Sacred landscapes surrounding Mt. Kailas in Western Tibet reverberate in hearts of Buddhists and Hindus throughout the world. These places of pilgrimage are held sacred owing to unique features appearing in natural formations of earth, waters and skies, and energies emanating from the presence of revered sages who taught and meditated at these spots. This landscape is considered embodiment of spirits themselves, deities as recognizable natural forces; and through presence of pilgrims, designed as artistic expressions of spiritual practice and philosophical view used in quests to become peaceful with oneself and surrounding world.

Mt. Kailas embodies Mt. Meru, center of the Buddhist cosmological universe. Surrounding the centre are the twenty-four sacred sites recognized in Tibetan Buddhist systems of practice: eight sacred sites of the skywalkers, eight sacred sites of the walkers on earth, and eight sacred sites of the underground walkers. This composition is part of the body mandala of the Buddhist deities Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi in tantric embrace, physical expression of a purified landscape.

Located thirty miles west of Mt. Kailas, Pretapuri is one of the eight underground sites and represents the sexual organ of the Chakrasamvara body mandala. Scriptural guidebooks say that pilgrims must visit Pretapuri in order to completely fulfill the holy pilgrimage to Mt. Kailas. This is because Pretapuri has the same essence as Mt. Kailas, deriving its power from the embodiment of wisdom, Great Mother Vajravarahi. It is considered gathering place of all wisdom deities of the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, their presence expressed as a designed landscape invested with symbolism and meaning. They say that pilgrims can naturally hear the source of the mantras all the time, and will attain enlightenment just by going to this place.

These guidebooks use three layers of discourse to present characteristics and features of Pretapuri – external, internal and secret explanations – used here as basis to explore this designed sacred landscape. In dependence upon the relationship between people and spirit, some aspects of landscape appear rich in external features. Other aspects depend more on richness of internal explanations, so a minimal degree of human–modified design is visually apparent.

External explanations present physical descriptions of the landscape in cultural terms familiar to Tibetan people. Using geomantic terms derived from divination techniques, they refer to artistic expressions embracing a basic design vocabulary through subtleties of position, movement, interaction, wind, space, spirit, life and death.

The location of Pretapuri on the Sutlej River, as described by Japanese monk Ekai Kawaguchi in 1909, constitutes one of nature's best essays on landscape. Incontestably dramatic, it amplifies the ability of landscapes’ quality and characteristics to affect spiritual engagement, acknowledged by notable teachers who choose to undertake meditation retreats and disciples produce architecture in which to strengthen connection to place.

Pretapuri is a liminal landscape: points of contact of form and space that defines positioning and relationship of landscape formations within their environmental context – between intersections of geological chapters, margins between ecological systems, topographic tendencies of rising and falling – where mountain edge meets level plain, outcrop hangs over valley, river cuts through gorge and flows over embankment, rock strata deforms in recumbent fold, wind rises with windward side and falls over leeward. It is where landscapes meet and speak with one another.

If nature is divinity, as presented by Plotinus, Aquinas, Blake and Berry, these liminal landscapes dramatically reveal the essence of nature’s divine operations. Not unlike the celestial solstice and equinox, when people become acutely aware of seasonal values during the course of the year, this is the landscape where people are drawn for spiritual renewal, most clearly sensing (phenomenologically) who they are through their relationship to landscape.

Where life forms associated with female principles are broadened by meeting with life forms associated with male principles; where sensitivity to rising is heightened by meeting with the descent of falling; and where sensitivity to motion is increased by meeting with the activity of resting. It is where the essence of the movements of the subtle energies rides through the earth, in the waters and on the winds.

These are the transactional grounds where pilgrims make sacred pacts with the deities, charging the atmosphere with the power of those pacts; absorbing the energy of the landscape, breathing it – and as it flows through their veins, strike chords in their hearts to make them sing.

Internal explanations present stories and legends taking place as a result of having been designated and invested with the more subtle attributes to which pilgrims give respect and devotion accorded to a sacred landscape – tales associated with teachers living there, deities making their appearance and physical phenomena resulting from their presence.

Landscape features are modified as spirits in rocks, mountains, waters and the air, providing opportunity for pilgrims to engage with deities in ways they can relate. Scattered among shrines and low walls forming the most dominant feature of human activity are stones and landscapes identified as ‘self-appeared images’ (Tib. rang-jin), soft fine-grained sandstone and calcium carbonate remnants of the mountain eroded by wind-borne sand. As pilgrims circumambulate on prescribed paths, images appear in every landscape feature on the grounds, rocks and cliffs. Seen very clearly, karmic connections between pilgrims and deities become well established.

Secret explanations present the subtle visualizations and activities of Vajrayana Buddhist practice and the deepening awareness of the esoteric mandala, resulting in the cultivation of the awakened mind and the designed sacred landscape as artistic expression of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Pretapuri here arises as the purified environment produced through the power of the forces of the six perfections: giving, ethics, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom.

As a landscape sited and designed as an integral component of the spiritual teachings, a medium for pilgrims' devotional practices, Pretapuri provides causes for attaining enlightenment, basis for opening up the heart – grounds for contemporary design efforts. To the Buddhist, deities recognize values that pilgrims place in the unique qualities of landscape and appear in ways to which disciples can relate and understand. The rocks in the landscape contain the energy and blessings of the deities, consecrated by the great teachers. For Buddhists, these deities are present all the time. For those who believe in their presence, they can be seen as clearly as you and I. This gives them great encouragement and inspiration.

Keeping in mind these explanations, Pretapuri serves as a landscape from which to draw inspiration, sited and designed as component of spiritual teachings, medium for pilgrims’ most subtle devotional practices, providing a basis for opening the heart and causes for attaining enlightenment – grounds for contemporary design efforts.

Selected References

Conze, Edward, trans. The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979)
Dorje, Choying. "Story to the History of Pretapuri," Bod I Jongs Nang bsTan, (!990)
Hedin, Sven. Trans Himalaya, Vol. III. (London: Macmillan and Company, 1913)
Huber, Toni and Tsepak Rigzin. "Tibetan Guide for Pilgrimage to Ti-se and mTsho Ma-pam." Tibet Journal. (Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Spring 1995)
Kawaguchi, Ekai. Three Years in Tibet. (Benares: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1909)
Tucci, Giuseppe. Santi e Briganti nel Tibet Ignoto. (Roma: Instituto Italiano Per Il Medio Ed Estremo Oriente, 1937)
Ugyen. Gnas Pre Ta Pu Ri'i Gnas Yig Gsal Ba'i Me Lon Bz'ugs So (The Clear Guide Letter Like a Mirror)