As I enter one of the sacred sites dedicated to Kannon (Kuan Yin) on Japan’s ancient pilgrimage route, it feels as though I am walking through an energy veil, a kind of force field that separates this space from the mundane world around it – I am stepping onto sacred earth, imbued with a special energy that I can feel permeate my physical body. What makes this energy flow? What makes me feel it? What is a sacred place?
Is it because over the course of hundreds of years, thousands of pilgrims have stepped here before me, all offering their prayers and opening their hearts. Or is it because the wisest of sages, hundreds of holy men and women have trodden this path and offered their deep wisdom and compassion to be shared by all who follow in their footsteps. Or is it the very ground I tread on, percolated with a special earth energy that permeates the ageless rocks and stones and sand of this sacred place and then imbues every footstep as I tread on this ancient path. Is it my own response of awe to this place, which is named as “sacred,” that brings my awareness to the potency of all the sacred signs in the statues, carvings, paintings, architecture, and priests in robes, and incense, and flowers, and the beams of soft light penetrating the mysterious darkened alcoves of the temple. Perhaps it is the sum of all these elements that casts its sacred spell upon my mind and all my senses, all at the moment of crossing the threshold of the great gates at the temple’s entrance.
Yet, today I felt that sacred energy once again – right here where I live. This morning, I walked my usual route, starting and ending at a local indigenous sacred place called Warrungup Spring. This site is a sacred women’s place, where women came to give birth on the edge of a great estuary, at the junction of three water courses, where there is fresh water. I looked out over the estuary: the sun, as it rose, splashed the water with sparkles of golden pink, a white egret in the reeds paused to share the view, a flock of black swans elegantly glided out from the shore, pelicans were scooping up fish in their huge bills, and raucous galahs cut through the soft whispers of the sheoaks. And in the western sky, the crescent moon hung languidly pale in the still dark blue. As I stood in this timeless vision, I imagined countless generations of women who, in the peaceful dawn after their long painful night of labour, holding their baby in their arms, also looked upon this same view. I was filled with a sense of profound awe at the resilience of these women and the expression of sacred beauty all around me. I felt the sacred presence of the Wargyl, the ancient Creator of the water courses that fed and nurtured the people and animals who passed through this sacred place. I felt humbled and full of gratitude for this gift.
When I returned home, back to the profane world and the mundane everyday chores of housework, I felt as though I left that sacred world behind me. And then, while I was in the midst of doing the dishes, I happened to glance out the window and saw the crescent moon, so pale and fleeting, and in an instant I was suddenly reconnected to the scene of the early morning, reconnected with the awe I had felt. And in that moment, I realised that the sacredness of the Warrungup Spring was carried home within me: I was a container for its sacred energy – my body was imbued with its sacred beauty and meaning by having simply been there and breathed the air and touched the earth. I had born witness to its sacred nature with my body and had honoured that sacredness by the act of remembering.
A sacred place exists as a geographical location, but also as the living breath of the place that is carried away by anyone who visits, and as the breath is expelled, so the sacred energy is passed on to other living beings and other places. This is the healing nature of sacredness and the way that any place, anywhere and at any time, can be made “sacred.” We all “know” that the whole of the earth itself is sacred, and so everywhere and at any time we should be able to feel the same awe of the sacred that these special places bring. But we forget to recognise its sacred signs. It is our spiritual practice to not only connect with awe and gratitude to the sacredness imbued in the beauty and wonder of our world, but to remember.