The Visual Beauty of the Location of Sacred Sites
While it is not true in all cases, a large percentage of the world's major holy sites are in locations that are, or once were, places of great visual beauty. Examples are unusually-shaped mountains or rock formations, elevated places with stunning views, waterfalls, colorful mineral springs and geysers, the meeting points of rivers, lakesides, crescent-shaped bays, islands within lakes, luxurious forest groves, and the entrances to caverns and grottos. The rarity and beauty of such places have affected human beings since the dawn of time, arousing in them feelings of awe, reverence, inspiration and peace. Consider the words of the following three poets who were each deeply touched by the beauty of particular places.
The English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), writing in his poem "The Recluse" described the numinous quality of the Cumbrian Mountains and Lake District of northern England.
Tis, but I cannot name it, tis the sense
of majesty, and beauty, and repose
A blended holiness of earth and sky,
Something that makes this individual spot
This small abiding place of many men,
A termination, and a last retreat,
A center, come from whatsoever you will
A whole without dependence or defect,
Made for itself and happy in itself,
Perfect contentment, Unity entire.
One of China’s greatest nature poets was named Han Shan and he lived around the end of the eighth century AD. His poems suggest that he was a scholar-farmer who retired to a place called Han-Shan or Cold Mountain in the T'ien-t'ai mountain range in eastern China. A follower of Ch'an or Zen Buddhism, Han-Shan spent the latter years of his life as a hermit, wandering the forested mountains and writing poetry extolling the virtues of a contemplative life in the great temple of nature.
A thing to be valued - this sacred mountain;
how can the seven treasures compare?
Pines and moonlight, breezy and cool;
clouds and mist, ragged wisps rising.
Clustering around it, how many folds of hills?
Winding back and forth, how many miles of trail?
Valley streams quiet, limpid and clear -
joys and delights that never end. (9)
One thousand years after the time of Han-Shan another Chinese mountain hermit known as Yeh T'ai wrote of his experience of sacred space…
At a true site....there is a touch of magic light. How so, Magic? It can be understood intuitively, but not conveyed in words. The hills are fair, the waters fine, the sun handsome, the breeze mild; and the sky has a new light: another world. Amid confusion, peace; amid peace, a festive air. Upon coming into its presence, one's eyes are opened; if one sits or lies, one's heart is joyful. Here the breath gathers, and the essence collects. Light shines in the middle, and magic goes out on all sides. Above or below, to right or left, it is not thus. No greater than a finger, no more than a spoonful; like a dewdrop, like a pearl, like the moon through a crack, like the reflection in a mirror. Play with it, and it is as if you can catch it; put it off, and it cannot be god rid of. Try to understand! It is hard to describe.
Unusual geographic features, in addition to having an aesthetic influence on the human soul, also have an effect through the power inherent in their symbolic meaning. Geographic space is subject to conceptualization. People have always given various meanings to spectacular features of the land. In ancient times mountain peaks were sanctified as abodes of the gods and as connecting links to the sky, stars and the heavenly realm. To make a pilgrimage to a sacred mountain symbolized a person's yearning for contact with the divine, the luminous and the visionary. Caves and springs, on the other hand, were thought to be gateways to the underworld, and a sojourn to such a place could be a potent symbol of the journey into the hidden realms of the psyche.
A symbol, as defined by Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, is "something that stands for or represents another thing; especially, an object used to represent something abstract." The Oxford American Dictionary defines symbol as "a thing regarded as suggesting something or embodying certain characteristics." There is, however, more to symbols, especially in the domain of the sacred, than these definitions indicate. Symbols are not only representations or suggestions of things; they can also be actual conduits of the essence of those things into the mind, body and soul of a human being. Even more, symbols may be understood to be the thing itself; sacred images do not refer to, rather they are. One author tells us that,
In order to deeply understand a symbol, you must assimilate it; it has to become part of your spiritual geography....The recitation of a myth does not "remind" a tribal member of its truth; the myth exists in timelessness, and its recitation is the myth here and now. A primordial language has a mysterious quality of transmission and is indivisible from the reality it evokes....Those who stand outside these traditional means of invoking, or more accurately, recognizing spiritual reality may think that symbols "stand for" something, but this is not true. Rather, what we are calling symbols are really the spiritual truth embodied, or manifested, before us....By understanding spiritual symbolism in this higher sense - as entry into visionary reality - we come to understand something of the real nature of sacred sites. (5)
Symbols, according to the belief people invest in them, can be enormously effective in catalyzing both psychological and physiological transformation. Thepower of a symbol, therefore, derives both from the archetype of which the symbol is a direct manifestation and, equally, from the exercise of human belief. The practice of belief, of consciously held intention, allows for the evocation of the particular quality indicated by the symbol. Belief is thus a way of "tapping into" and drawing from the realm of the miraculous. Intention is the connecting link with the power of the sacred sites.