Enso logo
Regarding Sacred Landscapes

Design of Sacred Landscape for a Spiritual Community (2)


Much remains hidden when looking into the design of sacred landscapes; however, I found it best to acknowledge a fundamental tenet: that people’s living with an intimate understanding of the interaction between natural systems is a foundation for inspirational design. Accordingly, I developed a foundation of six threads upon which to ground design of landscape for a spiritual community. I believe all points are necessary.

Thread 1: Fundamentals in philosophy, rituals and practice of the spiritual tradition and how it adapted when migrating from its lands of origin to other places. In Buddhist traditions, the landscape is considered a physical expression of spiritual practice, an integral component of the five aggregates of body and mind. A spiritual path of cultivating the mind and opening the heart will reformulate the sense of the coarsely perceived and subtly intuited personal and social landscape.

Indian Buddhist philosopher Chandrakirti said, “An undisciplined state of mind gives rise to delusions, projecting an individual into negative actions that produce the negative environment in which that person lives. Correspondingly, a disciplined and virtuous mind gives rise to insight, projecting positive actions that produce a positive, beautiful environment.”

How positive and beautiful? According to the Avatamsaka Sutra, Buddha Shakyamuni produced a landscape at the garden of Jetavana as an emanation of the awakened mind. Grounds instantaneously appeared as an indestructible diamond covered with flowers and illuminating jewels groves filled with innumerable rivers of fragrant waters, garlands of jeweled trees and radiant flowers; skies of inconceivable cloud-palaces of music and songs, and flower ornaments pervaded all of space. The Vimalakirti Sutra taught that Bodhisattvas wanting to purify their environment must make effort to fully purify their own mind because, as the Bodhisattva's mind is pure, so is their environment.

Thread 2: Research into the historical evolution of sacred landscapes, monasteries and meditation gardens; and the transmission of design techniques and adaptations in places where these artistic expressions developed. This leads to finding landscape and architecture as expressions of spiritual practice, culture and philosophical view, indispensable to design with regard to cultural and ideological school. The 11th century Japanese manual on garden making called Sakuteiki advised studying works of past masters, who drew from famous places of scenic beauty.

It’s best that design vocabulary reflects fundamental practices, rituals and philosophy of a spiritual path, and speaks to the cultural background to which the spiritual tradition has migrated. During its phases of adaption and adoption, there’s a tendency for building and landscape design to tend to the trivial. A spiritual activity has a better chance at viability if structures and landscapes used by its people are culturally familiar.

H.H. the Dalai Lama once commented about a visit to a Tibetan chorten built in a European country by a community of western Tibetan Buddhist practitioners. Sincerely appreciating the community’s earnest intentions in the context of their spiritual practices, His Holiness was mildly surprised, however, to see such a structure out of context with its natural and social surroundings.

Thread 3: Signs and symbols akin to Carl Jung’s “objects of the known world hinting something unknown; the known expressing life and sense of the inexpressible.” These tools often are necessary to mediate between spirituality and the design of physical form and space.

Except for those accomplished on spiritual paths, realizing the spiritual essence of landscape is likely obscured by afflictions such as pride, anger, attachment and ignorance. To help bridge the gap, signs and symbols can link the physical landscapes we tend to perceive with the spiritual subtlety deep within the heart. Spirituality revealed as the beauty of form and space.

Thread four: Environmental analysis techniques using both standard tools and subtle geomantic revelations like feng-shui and identification of earth energies to assess landscape’s capability to support or reject development activities. These tools indicate areas suitable for particular activities and anticipate relative environmental and social cost. They suggest ways to mitigate serious environmental results due to insensitive development. If activities are located in sensitive areas where it’s not suitable, higher environmental and social cost are likely.

Geomancy is the study of the earth by divination. Feng-shui proposes that the continually changing cosmos is revealed by the landscape’s interaction of shapes and patterns. Certain sites are considered more suitable and compatible with intended purposes and operations than others. Some sites are particularly considered auspicious. They have greater environmental, social, economical and spiritual value when properly sited and used.

A suitable activity properly located on a suitable site will assure greater potential for compatibility between the attributes of the landscape with people on the land. Why? Because proper siting more fully integrates human life with the natural and cosmic process. It binds the synchronicity between the subtle anatomy of body and mind with the subtle fabric of the earth.

Dowsing for earth energies is a search for the earth's life force system in which meridians of subtle earth energies flow, similar to acupuncture meridians within the physio-psychic human body. The convergence of these energies denotes landscapes of spiritual significance, a most suitable place for siting spiritual communities.

Thread five: Cultivation of an intimately personal, intuitive presence in the operations of nature affords a clearer window into the moods of landscape and their connections to everyday life. There, the operations of nature in their male and female aspects – their formation and erosion, their hardness and softness, their dryness and wetness, hot and cold, movement and stillness, and space – their continuing tendency towards a dynamic steady state of equilibrium. A reflecting of the innate quality of the mind. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

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

Thread six: The intimate explorations into deep awareness through kindness, clarity and insight to discover the divinity of nature, space and beauty. Personal introspective narratives and rituals can produce a landscape that reinforces one’s place on the earth. Listening to the voices of nature, giving meaning to the spirit of place.

These guidelines will help cultivate the keen sensitivity necessary to produce a landscape as an artistic expression of spiritual practice. In all this, listening is crucial, for the landscape architect is being invited to penetrate into the most sensitive and secret visions of the spiritual seeker. It’s important to take care. Enough for now.