Faced with so much that is impossible to understand, standing right at the edge of the mortality of everything that we know and are and may come to be, what else can we do but create, make something, make it with love and clarity. Make it out of desperation that turns into tenderness. Make it out of the deepest part of ourselves present everywhere and nowhere.

—Margaret Gibson

In spiritual practice, sacred space is the field where a certain kind of creation becomes possible. It is the space where, to the best of our ability, we divest ourselves of that which keeps us safe and separate. The space in which we can shed our suits of armor, the visors and breastplates, faulds and tassets we construct out of our titles, our possessions, our variegated opinions and beliefs about ourselves and the world.

In sacred space we stand or sit or kneel on hallowed ground, striving to face ourselves and one another directly “at the edge of the mortality of everything,” as the American poet Margaret Gibson said. It sounds dramatic, but I think the phrase is apt. In Buddhism we would call it the edge of impermanence—the limit of what we know and are and may become; the limit of the imagined and even of the possible. Leaving all of it behind, we place ourselves in a new relationship with reality and with the act of creation. We make—not from what we know but what we intuit to be true, out of desperation perhaps, but with growing love and clarity and with some degree of surrender into the core of an embodied, connected human life—what we call tenderness.

On one hand, trying to define what makes a space sacred is a bit like wondering why we feel awed under the night sky. We can certainly point to the vastness and majesty of the heavens, our comparative insignificance, the mind-boggling scale of astronomic events, the utter mystery that is our presence in the universe—all of which contribute to the feeling we’ve come to label “awe.” But is there something inherent in the night sky that causes that feeling of awe in us? Or is this a conditioned response? Is it somehow created? The same questions apply to sacredness. And although the qualities that make a space sacred are not easily quantifiable, trying to understand what sacredness is and how it works on us has been part and parcel of religious practice since humans have had the power of reflection.

So let’s start by saying that sacred space is differentiated. We can only speak of what is sacred by comparing it to what is not, and this dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, as the philosopher and religious historian Mircea Eliade said, is and always has been evident in the experience of hierophany—the manifestation of the sacred.

Most of us (though by no means all) will experience sacredness in places like Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bear Lodge in Wyoming, but not in a casino or a mall. Our upbringing, our beliefs, and our customs all shape our experience of the sacred. Yet even a casual visitor can step into Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan and immediately sense that they’ve entered a space in which something other is taking place. Other, at least, than what is happening next door at Saks Fifth Avenue or Jimmy Choo. Other than what is happening at Rockefeller Center or the NBA Corporate Headquarters nearby. Eliade would argue that the religious person experiences sacred space as the only “real and really existing space” and all other space as “the formless expanse” around it. I would qualify this by saying that sacred places are simply better portals to the real. And by “real” here I mean fundamental. In sacred places it’s easier for us to see the isness or suchness of a place or a thing, which in turn leads to a basic kind of regard: the valuing of something simply because it is. Sacred space thus reveals even the most ordinary things as they truly are: holy, from the root of the word whole.

From this it follows that a mall or a crowded street is as sacred as a cathedral, a plastic trinket just as valuable as a relic or a precious stone. It’s difficult for us to see this, however, especially since we largely live in societies that value the material and the disposable. Still, something in us hungers for that which endures, that which is worth putting our trust in and might actually deliver the happiness we are all pursuing. Things are nice, but they don’t last. A throwaway world is not a fulfilling place to live in. So some of us continue to orient ourselves toward the sacred—in fact, we co-create it—in order to be reminded of what is all too easy to forget. In response to hierophany, we build or venerate spaces that reflect and enhance our experience of the sacred, thus making it visible and tangible.

Being differentiated, sacred space also has a threshold, the boundary that marks our passage from the ordinary to the sacred. In a Zen monastery, a practitioner stands at the entrance to the zendo (meditation hall) and offers a bow before entering the space. It’s a way to align the body, gather the mind, and say, “I am here. I am aware, and I am preparing to do something different from what I did before. I am deliberately, wakefully turning toward what is whole because that’s the reality I want to create.”

Entering a sacred space reminds us: there is holiness here, and if we move too fast, talk too loud, we’ll miss it. We need space and time to look and listen and feel the real. Bustle and busyness are the enemies of hierophany. There is no better way to keep the experience of the sacred at bay than to rush from one task to the next. Instead, entering the sacred requires a drastic slowing down. That’s why sacred space is not only differentiated space; it’s also a change in time.

sacred spaces
Photo by Kenro Izu

The Sabbath . . . is a sanctuary which we build, a sanctuary in time,” said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of the Jewish day of rest. If Christianity has its churches and cathedrals, Buddhism its stupas and temples, Islam its mosques and shrines, Judaism has Shabbat as a cathedral in time. It is a space, less physical than it is psychical—from the Greek psychikos for “of the soul, spirit, or mind”—that allows for a deliberate turning toward the divine. For one day a week, time is sanctified because this consciously changes the way we perceive and therefore make use of it. Nestled between the lighting of the candles on Friday night and the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night, Shabbat is a space for the remembrance—or mindfulness, if we take the Buddha’s use of the term sati—of what is most important.

Within Buddhism, Zen is the school that most overtly highlights the importance of time, encouraging us to remember that it is passing and therefore precious. Paradoxically, it also points to the elasticity, and even infinity, of time. “Ten thousand years in a single moment; a single moment contains ten thousand years” is a well-known saying from the Chinese koan collection The Blue Cliff Record that highlights the importance of presence in the experience of sacred time. When we immerse ourselves in a moment and meet it in its suchness or wholeness—whether through prayer or meditation, or through more “profane” activities like doing the laundry or having a cup of tea—all of time gets folded into a single point: now. There’s no longer a past or a future, or even a present to put a frame around. That’s precisely why having a cup of tea, mending a piece of clothing, or digging a ditch can be seen as sacred activities. In the all-encompassing reality of now, nothing else is more important than the activity we’re engaged in. In fact, nothing else exists at all.

Sacred time is comprehensive. It is more circular than linear. Nicholas of Cusa, the fifteenth century German philosopher and mystic, said, “God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Zen acknowledges in its own way the truth of Cusa’s words. It dissolves the boundary between the ordinary and the sacred, between then and now, allowing all things, all activities, all beings, into the circumference of the real. Nothing is kept separate. Nothing is left out. Therefore, everything is holy.

Entering a sacred space reminds us: there is holiness here, and if we move too fast, talk too loud, we’ll miss it.

But this doesn’t mean anything goes, either. Holding a keg party in a zendo might not harm its holiness, but it will affect the way we view and experience the space. Sacred space is relational and dynamic. It constantly interacts with itself and its own history, with those who occupy it, and with every other space around it. A sacred space does not become sacred inherently or abstractly. We consider a shrine sacred in the way that a garbage dump is not because over time, both our actions and our understanding of what is sacred have shaped our experience in each of those spaces. Remember, this is an act of co-creation, which means that all of the elements in a sacred space—its design, its location, the objects it contains, as well as every action and every gesture that happens within it both singularly and cumulatively— help to shape that experience of hierophany, which in turns affects our actions further. So in this process of creation, we are both creators and created.

Sacred space affects our bodies and our minds. Arranging a group of zafus and zabutons in neat, straight lines will have a certain effect on us. Placing the same cushions in concentric circles will have a different effect. So will replacing the cushions with pews, or plastic chairs, or empty space. We don’t exist independently of the spaces we inhabit. And although we may not always be able to voice why we feel the sacred in certain spaces, the feeling itself is hard to deny. I’ve watched scores of newcomers grow hushed as they enter the hallway that leads to our zendo. Many of them have never been to a monastery, know nothing about Zen or Buddhism, and aren’t even necessarily interested in meditation. Yet invariably, the moment they enter the space, something happens. Regardless of whether they feel drawn or repelled, their initial response is what you’d expect from someone who is suddenly, starkly confronted with reality: silence.

Silence is both a necessary ingredient for the experience of hierophany and a common response to it. We need to be willing to relinquish our incessant dialogue in order to experience the sacred. A busy mind or tongue generates static, effectively preventing us from attuning ourselves to the holy.

I think that all of us—whether we know it consciously or not—understand that in order to be in relationship with the sacred, we must be willing to become still and quiet. We must be willing to be, if only for a short while, silence itself.

A few kilometers north of Ratnapura, Sri Lanka, there’s a sacred mountain called Sri Pada (“Sacred Foot”). On its peak, a modest shrine houses a rock formation with a deep indentation in the shape of a foot. Buddhists believe the print belongs to the Buddha, who left his mark on the mountain peak as a relic for his followers to venerate. But one of the features of Sri Pada is that it is an unusually ecumenical pilgrimage site. Christians and Muslims also claim it, saying that the footprint belonged to Adam and that it marks the spot where he fell from Paradise to Earth. In order to expiate his sin of eating of the forbidden fruit, Adam stood on one foot on the peak of Sri Pada for a thousand years, leaving his imprint. For their part, Hindus say it’s the trace of Lord Shiva’s foot, who settled on the mountain to shed his light upon the world. Thus their name for the mountain is Shivanolipadam (“Foot of Shiva’s Light”).

Roughly 5,200 concrete steps lead to the peak of Sri Pada, and pilgrims belonging to these various religious traditions and hailing from all over the world climb them in tightly packed lines, often barefoot. Starting in the middle of the night, they reach the peak by dawn, where the spectacular view of the rising sun mimics a floating ball of fire.

Above the threshold to the shrine, a sign in English reads: “Be silence.” Perhaps it’s only a faulty translation, but it doesn’t matter. It’s too perfect to correct. Be silence, Sri Pada urges its pilgrims, and let this sacred silence bring you back to yourself, back to the realm of the real.

In the Kolita Sutta, the Buddha called this silence noble silence, and it’s equated not just with quiet but also with concentration. A mind resting in noble silence is free of wandering or even directed thoughts. It’s both focused and at ease with itself. To me, this is really the core of meditation. In the sacred space that is our bodymind we practice noble silence with the intent to abide in reality. Again, not because at other times our living isn’t real but because we forget that it is. We get lost in our heads, in each other, in our work, in those things that will buffer us from the pain of being lost or simply the pain of living. We therefore need spaces and objects and practices to remind us that since our center is everywhere and our circumference nowhere, it’s not possible for us to get lost. We need deep, abiding silence to remember that no matter how far we think we’ve strayed, how long we’ve wandered, we’ve never really left home.

At the same time, we need actions and gestures and words that give expression to our wholeness and our belonging. As much as we need silence, we also need the language of the sacred to simply and directly communicate the truth of our holiness.

A Zen liturgical service follows a general pattern: the liturgist introduces a chant (usually a sutra or dharani); the sangha chants it together; the liturgist offers a dedication and then introduces an “echo”—a short chant that acts as a kind of antiphon and that the sangha also chants in unison:

All buddhas throughout space
and time
All bodhisattvas, mahasattvas,
Maha Prajna Paramita.

I’ve always seen this chant—a chant that lacks verbs and therefore any overt action—as both an invocation and an invitation. With it we are calling to the zendo all the buddhas that have ever lived and all the great enlightenment beings who will ever manifest throughout all of space and time in the great perfection of wisdom, prajna paramita. (A friend suggested that, given what we now know about the nature of space and time, we should change the chant to “throughout spacetime.”)

In one sense, to invite these buddhas and bodhisattvas is a formality. They don’t need an invitation. They’re already home, just as we are already home in sacred space. But by calling them forth we acknowledge their existence and their presence, and we place ourselves in relationship to them. If we’re fortunate, we even see ourselves as them, as the awakened reality that lives in each of us and that, through the language of the sacred, we’re attempting to draw out. But these buddhas and bodhisattvas also need us. Without people—ordinary people—to realize, however imperfectly, their awakened nature, how will buddhas manifest in the world? How will compassion come to life without the presence of those who are willing to work toward it? The invocation works both ways. Summoning these buddhas and bodhisattvas, we are in turn summoned by them. We are asked to remember and turn to and give voice to the very reality we are working hard not to forget.

So we chant or pray, we stand or kneel, we bow or prostrate ourselves, opening body and mind to the subtle communication that takes place when we orient ourselves in the direction of wholeness. Functioning in and through sacred space, the language of sacredness centers us within that borderless circumference. It locates us within infinite spacetime, so that through the single point of now, connection and presence can move inward and outward in the act of creation. Because ultimately, we live life through presence, not absence. We live it through connection, not separation.

Knowing this, we stand at the very edge of what we know, at the threshold of a zendo or a shrine room, a church, a mosque, or a temple, and ready ourselves to enter into sacred space. Maybe we place our hands palm to palm in a gesture of reverence and vow to abide in reality. We vow to make something with love and clarity, out of the deepest part of ourselves present everywhere and nowhere—out of desperation perhaps, out of hunger, but also with the recognition that we can do nothing but create.

Standing at the limit of our mortality, we pause and then we bow. And in that instant, everything in that sacred space bows with us.

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