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Regarding Sacred Landscapes

Regarding Six Signs of Sacred Landscapes

Presented at the 1st Symposium of The Forum for Architecture, Culture and Spirituality, Mount Angel Abbey, Oregon, 2009

Sacred landscapes provide a foundation and qualitative index by which to design and evaluate landscapes in everyday life where people can experience spiritual renewal. Transformed as a medium for pilgrims’ devotional practice, the sacred landscape is an integral place in one’s spiritual path enhancing inner strength. With magical and mysterious qualities, it captivates and moves the mind to states of increased awareness – opening up the heart, energizing feelings and beliefs associated with spiritual dimensions of life.

What distinguishes a sacred landscape from other landscapes? 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: spiritual experience becomes tangible as form and space. When Buddhist teachers identify a landscape having auspicious features, the lands, waters and skies will be purified, consecrated and empowered with freedom from physical, mental, emotional and spiritual afflictions. Tibetan Buddhist texts refer to this as "opening up the sacred landscape," whereby the natural landscape is transformed and designed as the medium for pilgrims' devotional practices.

The qualitative index speaks to both potential states of mind and qualities of sacred landscape. Giving language to the quality of sacred landscape is equivalent to giving language to an individual’s capacity for full awakening. The Prajna-paramita Sutra and Vimalakirti Sutra refer to landscapes cultivated by the purity of mind as a field of perfection itself. Each of Buddhist’s Six Perfections – giving, ethics, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom – gives language to the ability of landscape to awaken equivalent to the ability of a person to be awakened. Sacred landscapes also provide inspiration to cultivate the spiritual tools needed to design a contemplative garden and therapeutic health-care environment.

Giving tangibility to the relationship between landscape and person, I’ve condensed the qualitative index to six in number, corresponding to six degrees of subtlety in design, procedures of meditation and perfections. I call them Six Signs of Sacred Landscape.

1. Favourable Context – refers to locating and selecting the location, a Field of Generosity. A sacred landscape is a place of refuge, nestled in its embrace, accepting gifts of earth, waters and skies. Embodying the balance and harmony of the universe, the sacred landscape is sited to absorb auspicious life forces and mitigate negative ones. Seeking transactional grounds for spiritual renewal, a pilgrim will discover the universe is offered in its entirety.

Not all places are considered suitable for physical and spiritual renewal. When found, best a site be tested. If an activity is properly located because of its favorable relationship to surrounding landforms, environmental conditions and celestial events, there is greater potential to benefit from the attributes of the site. While occupying this physical and mental place, one has a better opportunity to cultivate their mind and heal their heart.

2. Contained – refers to formulating and analyzing the relationship with the physical and social environment, cleaning the meditation place, a Field of Pacifying Ethics. A sacred landscape is experienced as a distinct form in space, or a distinct space surrounded by form; silence cradled by sound, light cradled by night. Visually uncomplicated, a sacred landscape is easily identifiable, appearing in contrast with the generally chaotic, nebulous forms and spaces otherwise seen and experienced.

The sacred landscape speaks to a harmonious and virtuous relationship with people, with a wholesome and respectful regard, held in esteem by its supporting theatrical cast. An expression of security not dependent upon egoism and the negative thoughts and actions it fuels, such a landscape offers a place from which to view others with compassion and kindness. Because of its unique appearance, one can point a finger to its presence in the landscape; it is certainly contained within the heart. Upon arriving, cradled and secure as if at home, a pilgrim senses as if the sacred landscape were always known.

3. Coherent – refers to organizing the framework, arranging the meditation grounds, implements and texts, a Field of Patience. Defined and organized to help the spiritual journey make sense, a sacred landscape comprises an orderly arrangement of constituent parts: a) enclosure, a refuge where busyness and confusion can be left outside; b) gateway, the transition marking entry into sacred space; c) paths directing guided, focused movement. Coherence corresponds to Aristotle’s Definiteness in “Metaphysics” and Harmony in “Poetics;” and Thomas Aquinas’ Integrity.

With its orderly arrangement of constituent parts, a sacred landscape helps a spiritual journey make sense. The entrance to sacred landscape provides a sense of arrival. Boundaries establish a clear domain. Paths leading pilgrims through the sacred landscape provide orientation. 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 acknowledge 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.

Coherence of landscape helps clear the mind from confusion caused by apprehension and uncertainty, debilitating companions to suffering. Suffering is experienced when wishing that circumstances were other than at present. Coherence in one’s mind helps clear landscape from suffering. Coherence helps to cultivate presence and patience. Having arrived, right here and right now, the landscape is all there is; nothing else to want or to not-want, to need or to not-need.

4. Composed – refers to creatively designing the focus, formulating the meditation procedure, a Field of Joyous Effort. A sacred landscape is composed of an intentional arrangement of form and space in nature’s lyrics – flora, earth, water, fire, wind and space; and architecture’s scores – ordering principles, balance and sacred geometry. Features, patterns and operations of nature concisely tell one story, observant to objects, activities and thoughts binding mind and landscape. Corresponds to Aristotle’s Symmetry in “Metaphysics” and Rhythm in “Poetics;” and Thomas Aquinas’ Proportion.

In landscape, form and space interact in balance and harmony tending to a state of dynamic equilibrium. A composition calls attention: “You! Look, listen, smell, taste! Focus, orient and awaken your mind.” This is a form of mindfulness, becoming completely observant to activities and thoughts taking place together inside the mind and in landscape. Mindfulness helps develop appreciation, understanding, consideration and passion for people, places and things. It cultivates intimacy with the forces of nature and a desire to deepen it.

5. Clarity – refers to illuminating design intent, luminosity in meditation, a Field of Concentration. The clarity of sacred landscape presents a simple format, cultivating concentration and insight. Pointing to less in order to see more, with unwavering attention to just one thing provides opportunity to control thoughts and actions. Present and mindful in each moment. Clarity corresponds to Aristotle’s Order in “Metaphysics” and Language in “Poetics;” and Thomas Aquinas’ Clarity, as well as Plotinus’ Charm of Colours.

Clarity offers a vehicle for cultivating self-control, necessary for health and the sense of well being. Just as meditation develops deep mental concentration and insight, the sacred landscape gives unwavering attention to one thing at a time. The mind is more inclined to becoming calm and stable, focused on the present moment, focused on the more subtle contexts of the body and mind.

6. Artistic expression of Contemplation – refers to conveying the narrative with a deliberate design vocabulary, to insight, a Field of Wisdom. A sacred landscape is a poetic image of profound wisdom and compassion, a pure abode of divinity. In unique dialects of subtle design, it appears as mandala, pure land, paradise, nature, breath, God, silence. Now presented with the glory of awakening, how will you inhabit this divine sacred space?

The sacred landscape expresses the most profound aspects of the contemplative mind. Contemplation is the cultivation of complete consciousness, and complete consciousness is creativity in every moment, each moment an act of beauty. Accompanied by wisdom, one develops an understanding of the nature of reality and the reality of nature. Accompanied by altruism, sacred landscape embodies qualities of caring for one self and others, and for habitats of past, present and future generations.

Although the ability of sacred landscapes to heal may be questioned and scrutinized through scientific methods of analysis and proof, even the incredulous will discover an experience of remarkable physical and mental transformations. At the very least, sacred landscapes help increase people's inner spiritual strength, necessary companions to healing. Yes, much is to be learned from developing a keen understanding of the features and characteristics of these places most conducive to contemplation and healing.