In 2008, while working on a Fulbright research project in Nepal, I was writing a novel that was set in the Buddha’s birthplace. Half of the story was a re-imagining of the moment when Siddhartha Gautama decided to leave the Eastern Gate of his father’s palace in Kapilavastu—I was inspired by his search for something vague and undefined, a gut feeling he had about the mysteries of life—and the other half was about my own pilgrimage to the place that he decided to leave. One of us was going while the other was coming, but we were seeking the same thing. It was an attempt to align myself with my highest aspirations. This coming and going happened at the same sacred site: Lumbini, Nepal. (Okay, technically Kapilavastu is a short distance from Lumbini, but they’re quite close.) Due to technical difficulties, I lost a great deal of the novel while traveling. Discouraged, I quit writing for a period and decided to make a short documentary about Lumbini. To accomplish this goal, I enlisted Ajay Pillarisetti—a fellow Fulbrighter, friend, and most importantly, a filmmaker.
And thus, Creating Sacred Space was born. Far from comprehensive, we wanted the film to shed a little light on an incredibly interesting place and hopefully inspire others to explore more, dig deeper. Our guiding question while making the film was:
What is necessary for a Buddhist place to become marked as sacred?
Issues of the development and maintenance of sacred space are more prevalent in present day Lumbini, Nepal, than anywhere in the world. In addition to being an UNESCO World Heritage Site, various organizations and individuals are explicitly attempting to establish and present Lumbini as “the Fountain of World Peace and Holiest Pilgrimage Shrine for all the Buddhists and peace loving people of the world.”
However, some visitors aren’t quite sure how to experience Lumbini, a land brimming with contradictions. It’s a major Buddhist site in the middle of Hindu and Muslim country. It’s presented as the “Fountain of World Peace” on the entrance archway, but it lies in what has been a hotbed of Maoist activity during a decade-long insurgency in Nepal. Is it a pilgrimage site or a tourist destination? Can it be both?
Creating Sacred Space is a short documentary that explores these questions by interviewing many Lumbini stakeholders: pilgrims, tourists, monks, nuns, scholars, archaeologists, and village locals.
See also, from the Summer 2011 issue of Tricycle: An illustrated timeline of Lumbini, Nepal
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