May 17, 2011

Creating Sacred Space: The Birthplace of the Buddha

See also, from the current issue of Tricycle: An illustrated timeline of Lumbini, Nepal

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.


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Dharma Sanctuary's picture

Sacred Form – Sacred Space – Sacred Place

Sam - I was reflecting on the meaning of the term, “Sacred Space”, and what it meant in your article. It led to my questioning the meaning of the similar phrases: “Sacred Form” and “Sacred Place”. Looking closely, each of them seems to have a different meaning, although they could be used interchangeably. The way I have been thinking is based on my building of stupas as a sacred form and the resulting sacred spaces created around them, leading to the overall sensation of a place, in it being a whole unit, an outdoor temple set apart from a nearby residential area or town. Stupas, and the zung placed inside them, in the form of tsa tsa and other objects, is to me the perfect expression of sacred form. So too is harmonious architectural detail in pavilions and shrines. Also fitting are rupas or statues of Buddhas and deities.

Flowers have a sacred form too, but for my spirit brain, it’s man-made stupas and their spiritual meaning in helping humans wake up.

When a number of stupas are in close proximity, along with deity shrines and prayer walls, spaces are created between them. You feel something when you walk by or around these attractive sacred objects, as in picking up a vibe, something we might call the feeling of sacred space. Whether it is something that emanates from the ritual empowerment of these objects, or the accumulation of worship in these areas, is an interesting question.

Maybe it’s a tingle up our spine, or perhaps an intellectual appreciation. We know we’re in a special space, both in our head and in our body walking around the temple compound. This came home to me earlier this year in a visit to the Angkor temple complexes in Cambodia, wandering around the ruins and feeling elevated by the proximity of all the stone structures and carvings. Was I also picking up on the accumulated worship in this place? It wasn’t from current day worship, as these places are mostly tourist havens now.

It seems to me that sacred spaces mainly refer to inner places, and reflect a certain kind of intimacy. This inside feeling seems part of it - inside a building, or amongst sacred objects. I suppose it could also be outside in a small pavilion by a Bodhi tree. This fits the description for intimacy as we feel the sacred association of the tree and our unique experience there. Sometimes we might need to be told when we are in a sacred space, cognizing it more as a place than a feeling experience.

We may be more comfortable with places than spaces, because we like the security of the physical form and the boundaries of a place. Spaces aren’t easily defined. I love spaces because they are ephemeral and the stuff of magic. Many of us appreciate the mystery – our romantic swoons with the ineffable.

I close out with the notion of a sacred place: Lumbini is a sacred place because Buddha was born there. The stupa park I built on Kauai is also a sacred place because people come there and feel its sacred space amongst its sacred forms. And equally so, as you said in your title, the whole place can be a sacred space, though your article questions whether Lumbini or the experience of being in Lumbini is up to the meaning of this term.

I just came back from a month in Burma, a most amazing Theravada country that has much to offer us budding American Buddhists. Another video, “Stupafied in South East Asia” :


Sam Mowe's picture


You've given us a lot to chew on. This distinction between "place" and "space" is an important one. One of my favorite books on the topic is Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience by Yi-Fu Tuan, a Chinese geographer.

Stupas themselves have never served as potent symbols for me personally. Of course, I've read about their significance and I've been moved by some of the stories surrounding specific stupas, but gazing upon their shape has never truly stirred my heart. Watching other people who ARE moved by the shape of a stupa, well, watching that happen provides nourishment for me.

Glad to hear of your trip to Burma.


Dharma Sanctuary's picture

Thanks for the book referral Sam, will check it out...

Stupas represent such an abstraction that it's sometimes hard to wrap our head around, particularly when they are out of context and apart from active Dharma practice.

Burma's thousands of stupas really opened my eyes, and got me out of my Himalayan groove. They have stupa temples, stupa castles, bell shapes, hemispheres, impossibly tall pointy things, solid stupas, hollow stupas, you name it. It is a stupa lover's paradise. The Burmese are obsessed. It helped me broaden the definition of what a stupa is. Most of the time, the stupa is just the central architectural object - it's really about the experience surrounding the stupa with its many sub-shrines. Once again it's that ineffable sacred space that is either there for us or not.


Dominic Gomez's picture

Re: What is necessary for a Buddhist place to become marked as sacred?

The commentary "Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra" says, “Since the Law is wonderful, the person is worthy of respect; since the person is worthy of respect, the land is sacred.” In other words, what is necessary for a place to become marked as "sacred" is the people practicing Buddhism who live there. In this light, a "sacred" place can potentially be any place on Earth.

Sam Mowe's picture

Dominic, You're right on. That's one this that's missing from Lumbini at the moment: serious practitioners. There are some, to be sure, like Bhadda Monika and Venerable Metteyya, but I think that more need to take residence there for it to reach it's potential as a significant place of pilgrimage.

But perhaps what you are saying is that we don't need to create specific sacred places, because they will exist wherever there are serious practitioners.


Dominic Gomez's picture

Re: "we don't need to create specific sacred places, because they will exist wherever there are serious practitioners."
In a letter to one of his followers entitled "On Attaining Buddhahood in this Lifetime", Nichiren Daishonin cites from the Vimalakirti Sutra that "when one seeks the Buddhas’ emancipation in the minds of ordinary beings, one finds that ordinary beings are the entities of enlightenment, and that the sufferings of birth and death are nirvana. The Vimalakirti Sutra also states that, if the minds of living beings are impure, their land is also impure, but if their minds are pure, so is their land. There are not two lands, pure or impure in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of our minds."
From this we see non-dualism at work. Viewed as a duality, the sacred (divine) and the profane (mortal) are mutually exclusive. "Sacredness" is believed to be separate from human life (and our earthly environments) and therefore must be conjured (created) in divine circumstances by divine beings.
But non-dualism understands the dharma (the Law, sacredness, etc.) to be part and parcel of everything that exists, including human beings and their social environments. In this case, when people wake up to their own (and others') buddhahood, their lands simultaneously become buddha lands, or pure lands.

Sam Mowe's picture

Dharma Sanctuary, thanks so much for watching the film and taking the time to comment. I think you're right; there isn't a formula to create sacred space, and a number of different factors can make a place sacred for people. Indeed, it is the people that are spiritually nourished somehow by a place, that resonate with the place, who have the power to mark it as sacred.

It sounds like you're organically building a place that resonates with people in that way. I watched the video and it looks like it's really coming along. Good luck to you as it continues to grow!

Dharma Sanctuary's picture

Nice job, Sam. The article/video begs the question of what it takes to create sacred space. Does a place have to have history, does it need a pleasant ambiance, beautiful nature, refined architectural statements, orderly layout? My thinking is that all sacred places are different. Lumbini has its own challenges. When I went there in 2005 I was a little taken back by the grand buildings being built by different foreign quasi-government organizations, the reuslt feeling like a permament Asian Buddhist World's Fair. It's a great one for the masses, but wasn't a cozy affair when I visited. Maybe it has more spirit today.

I am involved in creating sacred space with Tibetan marble stupas and prayer wheel walls as part of my Tibetan Peace Park project in the U.S., modeled on a completed Peace Park on Kauai. The stupa site didn't have any sanctified history, but it has emerged as sacred ground with people visiting on a daily basis. It has beautiful nature, great architecture, traditionally empowered structures, and the kinetic entertainment of 84 spinning mani wheels. I'm still breaking down what makes it work and happy that it's possible to create in the West. You can hear more at my web site:

I'd love to hear from people about sacred space, and what they think is necessary to create it. What are the necessary component parts? It's something we all treasure and need desperately in the West to counteract our commercial, materialist culture.

Paste this URL to see the evolution of The Dharma Sanctuary's stupa park on Kauai: