Friday, November 12, 2010

Sacred Space

Berliner Currywurst at Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche
Berliner Currywurst at Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, Berlin, 2010

I had an interesting conversation with my wife the other day. "Doesn't it bother you that the forms of Zen are so Japanese?" she asked. It doesn't. One reason is that I've always had a liking for Japanese esthetics. There are other reasons, though, and they're what led to the conversation.

Human beings are rather a peculiar species in many ways. We're at the same time extremely social, and extremely territorial. We spend an incredible amount of effort on dividing space into zones. Some zones are designated "public." Others are designated "private" to any of a near-infinity of levels, from spaces like movie theaters or malls at one end of the continuum to bedrooms and missile defense bunkers at the other. Some of the dividing lines are physical and visible; others are subtler cues that we just agree to respect. What we think of as space is very much an artifact of this process of division and re-division.

One of these artifacts of division is sacred space. I think the need for sacred space is very deeply rooted in the structures that define us as human beings. I don't think any culture, anywhere, ever, has existed without some form of sacred space. Lenin's Mausoleum on the Red Square is all the more striking for being an artifact of an antireligious polity—yet anyone who has silently filed past the dimly-lit glass casket containing the peacefully resting embalmed cadaver of the great revolutionary would recognize it as sacred space.

Each religious tradition—each culture, even—has its ways of creating sacred space. If you're born to them, you might not even consciously notice them. The effects of the sacred space will be all the stronger for that. If you're new to a religion or a culture, one of the first things you will encounter are the markers and rituals that create sacred space.

In the Zen tradition in which I practice, these markers and rituals come from Japan, although they still bear many signs of their millennia-long voyage through China and India. With them, we mark out a parcel of space and time, and declare that within that parcel, nothing is more important than Zen. While in principle any markers or rituals would work, I do think that they're particularly effective because they carry cultural features that distinguish them from their surroundings. I have no desire to turn my home into another zendo, or bow, gashho, wear robes, or chant outside the confines of that space; that would seem as much out of place as checking Facebook while leaning on the altar at the zendo.

One particularly interesting thing about our Zen retreats is the way we actively create and dismantle sacred space. When we pack up the zendo and take it away, it becomes just another room, albeit one with a rather a nice floor made from unpainted Siberian larch. What used to be the classroom at the former school where we had the retreat became a zendo, and then it became a dining room, and then a classroom again.

Physical artifacts are a part of this process. We set up burlap partition walls. We find a table, put an embroidered cloth on it, and a bronze Buddha on a stand on that, and add a few flowers and an incense bowl. We arrange mats and cushions in it in a specific pattern. We hang a wooden clapper outside the door, and a big bronze bell a bit further. Even if you've never been closer to Buddhism than a Bruce Lee film, you'll immediately recognize the space as something special, just from these physical markers.

More important, though, are the behaviors we bring to it. We use separate mops and dustrags for cleaning the zendo. We bow when entering and leaving it. We don't speak in it, except designated people at designated times. We walk with our hands clasped across the chest when within that space. The activities that go on in it proceed in a certain, defined order, which we mark out by ringing bells and beating clappers.

This is more or less the same thing that goes on in, say, a Roman Catholic church; only the specific markers and behaviors are different. My wife dips her fingers in the font and makes the sign of the Cross when entering or leaving a church, kneels on a bench made for that purpose, or lights a taper to St. Francis or St. Anthony of Padova; Mass proceeds in its stately, orderly fashion with prescribed roles and phrases for everybody.

Together, this marking of space and time has a powerful and primal effect. The only thing I can compare it to are certain kinds of performance art, the main difference being that in sacred space, there is no division between the public and the performers. There are only participants.

It is easy to dismiss the creation of sacred space as meaningless cultural baggage or simple superstition. That is a mistake. Something more fundamental is going on. It is not easy to put that something into words, but it is real—as real as any of the imaginary constructs that make up the world we live in.


  1. It's about power. Unfortunately. About submitting to power, in deference to it.

    Yes, you could argue that there is more to it. But the essence is in deference to power, about giving up yourself.

  2. It can be, but it doesn't have to be.

  3. Of course it doesn't have to be, but in most religions, at almost any time in history, in most sacred spaces, it is ultimately about power.

    The subjugation of the will of another.

    This is why Zen has always intrigued me; at its core it seems to lack this desire for power. However, I'm not sure what to make of the rituals and traditions.

  4. Do you have to make anything in particular of them? Why not just go with them and observe what happens?

  5. Rupert Sheldrake talks a lot about the effects and meaning of rituals repeated over and over for hundreds and thousands of years, but I suspect you might be allergic to his theory as a whole bunch of woo. :-)

  6. On giving up yourself. I'd think this is what all we human beings want to do deep down. To be in the presence of something greater the ourselves, to give ourselves and merge into a kind of "mystical" unity. This is what religious surroundings usually do (a nice wide scenery too), they give us an experience of the sublime. Disappearance of the self is the sublimation of spirit. And yes, it's about power, but not necessarily in the negative sense.

  7. Just wanted to say your point of view is missed at the Watch ...

    Pladio :)

  8. Thanks, Pladio. Who knows, perhaps I'll swing by there one of these days.

  9. Just to be a bit more of an active participant, even though I wouldn't be able to reply for a week after this.

    Having a sacred space is part of basic human needs. It's part of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Church, Temple, Synagogue, Mosque ... Whatever, they actually fulfill two of the five needs, and so yes, a sacred space (whether, literally sacred, or just a private and/or communal space) is a basic need that most people try to fulfill.

    It is more real than you can imagine and its basis is in human psyche more than religion. Many religions however do try to fulfill some of the basic human needs.'s_hierarchy_of_needs