Space, Sacred

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


One way to investigate the historical and geographical spread of Buddhism in Asia is to focus on the creation, uses, and transformations of sites that religion characterized as sacred. Every Asian country where Buddhism became a major cultural force was remarkably affected by the production of its sacred spaces. While referring to continental examples, this entry will focus on Japan, where such creations and transformations occurred in a massive and profound manner.

Indian Buddhism

The original sacred space acknowledged by all schools of Buddhism is the actual site where the historical Buddha is said to have to have achieved bodhi (awakening), Bodh GayĀ in northeastern India, as is attested by the fact that sculpted depictions of the site in question were made before the Buddha himself was ever represented. The symbolism attached to this site formed a kind of anchor that most subsequent notions and practices referred to, consciously or not. A secondary, early form of sacred space involved pilgrimages undertaken by monastic or lay figures who wished to "follow the footsteps" of the historical Buddha; many of these footsteps are described in a vast number of sūtras, most of which begin with a statement identifying sites where the Buddha would have given his teachings. These sites are still visited by Buddhists from around the world, which seems to indicate that sacred space is not to be separated from practices and ideas linked to salvation (soteriology). One can see throughout Asia, for example, stones in which imprints of the soles of the Buddha's feet have been engraved with a variety of symbols. Borrowed from pre-Buddhist Indian mythology, this feature of footprints left by divine entities stands for the notion that each Buddhist school is a "way" or "path" that is said to be a replica of the process whereby the Buddha reached nirvĀṆa, or, as became fairly common later, that the footprints in question are "traces" that the post-nirvāṇa Buddha would have left on the ground wherever local traditions claimed he would have manifested himself, preached, or performed supernatural deeds.

One of the earliest aspects of the production of Buddhist sacred space in India was, perhaps, the construction of stŪpas, stone monuments that were used as reliquaries and soon became objects of veneration. As time passed and the legend of the Buddha's life took shape, some of these stūpas were adorned with bas-relief representations of important moments presumed to have taken place during the Buddha's life and, later, with events that would have occurred in his former lives. Originally venerated as repositories of relics (physical supports for memories held to be true), stūpas became memorials constructed and adorned in such a way that they would evoke specific recollections of the Buddha's path, elicit intended readings of major experiences in the Buddha's life, and support practices, such as circumambulation (walking clockwise around any Buddhist site of cult). As monks and nuns engaged in austerities and built retreats, cave complexes were dug at the base of cliffs; some were plain cells, others were sanctuaries adorned with paintings or statues. Among the many cave complexes scattered throughout Asia, Ellora and AjaṆṬ in India and Dunhuang in China are, perhaps, the most famous. Monasteries also came to be erected on or near such sites. Their scope, sometimes immense, attests to the patronage Buddhism enjoyed on the part of rulers or wealthy merchants, as can be seen in the stupendous monastery complexes of Pagan and Rangoon in Myanmar (Burma), Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in Kampuchea (Cambodia), Borobudur in Java, Lhasa in Tibet, the various capital cities of China, and many others.


The construction of monasteries (tera, ji, or ji-in) in Japan began shortly after Buddhism was recognized by the court in the mid-sixth century c.e. The layout of these structures shows Chinese and Korean influences, while some aspects of the organization of their space reveals their relation to the cosmology and cosmography described in the abhidharma literature of early Buddhism. Typically, the four corner pillars of a monastery represent the abodes of the Four Heavenly Kings (Japanese, shitennō), who are said to protect the east, south, west, and north corners of Mount Sumeru, the mountain located at the center of the Buddhist cosmos. Toward the back of such a monastery is a platform called shumidan (platform of Mount Sumeru), on which statues of buddhas and bodhisattvas are placed. Some monastery architecture, then, was based on cosmographic principles, but these cultic sites became sacred only after eye-opening rites (Japanese, kaigen shiki, kaigen kuyō), in which a ritualist paints in an iris or otherwise sanctifies the sense of vision—both in the sense that buddhas and bodhisattvas bless devotees by establishing visual contact and in the sense that anyone is blessed by looking at a buddha or bodhisattva.

Furthermore, the transformation of a statue into a living icon required a ritualized exchange of breath between an officiating monk and a statue, and recent discoveries of relics and fashioned replicas of internal organs in statues prove that what was thought to be representations were, by ritual fiat, living entities and sacred spaces par excellence.

Most of Japan's earliest Buddhist monasteries were erected in plains or cities. Starting in the eighth century, however, monasteries were built on the sides of or near the summits of mountains, and concepts of sacred space thereby gained more intricate meanings, as did spatial, ritualized practices. An obvious but perhaps simplistic indication to this effect is the fact that fourteen Japanese mountains bear the name Misen, which refers to Mount Sumeru. Seventeen bear the name Ben[zai]ten, the Buddhist form of the Vedic deity SarasvatĪ. Twenty-two bear the name Fudō, the king of sapience Acala, an important deity in esoteric Buddhism. Twenty-seven bear the name Kyōzuka (sūtra-burial mounds), although many more mountains bearing different names were also sites of sūtra-burial. Twenty-nine bear the name Buddha, either as a title or as the name of the historical Buddha, Śākyamuni. Another twenty-nine bear the name Jizō (Kṣitigarbha bodhisattva). Thirty-one bear the name Dainichi nyorai (Mahāvairocana tathāgata). Thirty-two bear the name Kokuzō (Ākāśagarbha bodhiṣattva). Forty-three bear the name Yakushi (the buddha of medicine, Bhaisajyaguru). Fifty-four bear the name Kannon (the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteṣvara). And 101 mountains are simply named gongen (avatar), a term used to refer to a local native deity that is considered to be a manifestation of a buddha or bodhisattva. Several hundred other such examples of the occupation of striking features of Japan's topography by the Buddhist pantheon attest to the creation of Buddhist sacred landscapes. This naming of mountains on the basis of buddhas, bodhisattvas, various Buddhist or Indian deities, and local Japanese deities should not be given too much weight, however, for it merely suggests certain aspects of topophilia and does not account for the fact that thousands of mountains were the object of more complex sacralization by means of Buddhist rituals, narratives, and other techniques described below.

Ritualized geography

As MahĀyĀna Buddhism evolved around the beginning of the common era, one finds important statements concerning the actual site where the Buddha achieved awakening. In Dazhidu lun (Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom) attributed to NĀgĀrjuna, for example, this site is referred to as bodhimaṇḍa (site of awakening; Japanese, dōjō), and it is described as consisting of an immense diamond protruding at the base of the tree where the Buddha would have sat in meditation. In later writings the term bodhimaṇŚa came to denote not only the physical site where the Buddha reached awakening, but the psychological situation or "mental space" he would have attained or produced through meditation. As a consequence, this term became an important aspect of the properties of sacred space in the context of ritualized practices, in which spiritual or subjective states were always linked to material or objective sites. Indeed, countless manuals detailing how rituals must be conducted contain an important section called "visualization of the site of practice/space of awakening" (dōjōkan), which details how a ritual platform (dan) must be constructed and consecrated, as well as specific steps in the ritualized meditations that are supposed to lead to a visualization of the residence of a given buddha or bodhisattva that is thereby made to occupy the space of the ritual platform, as well as the mind of the ritualists.

In a number of cases in Japan, such ritualized practices and exercises in visualization were projected onto mountains, which were then regarded as the dōjō of a certain buddha or bodhisattva, that is, its site of residence, manifestation, and practice. The oldest Japanese document detailing this process of identification of a mountain with the abode (Pure Land) of a bodhisattva was written by KŪkai (Kōbō Daishi, 774–835) in 814. Kūkai describes therein the first ascent of Mount Futara (today called Nantaizan and located in Nikkō) by the monk Shōdō, who, reaching the summit of its volcanic dome, envisioned it as the abode of Kannon (Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion). Shōdō then sculpted a representation of Kannon, which can be seen today in Chūzenji, located at the foot of that mountain. Kūkai's rationale for identifying Mount Futara with Kannon's residence was the toponym, which allowed an association between the Japanese name of the mountain, Futara, and the Japanized version of Kannon's Pure Land, Fudaraku (Sanskrit, Potalaka). The entire area surrounding this mountain subsequently became a major site of ShugendŌ (Japan's mountain religion), and ever more intricate practices continued, over the centuries, to elaborate the sacred character of the region. Such identifications of pure lands of buddhas and bodhisattvas with Japanese mountains reached full development with the nationwide spread of ShugendŌ, and ultimately led to the notion that Japan, in its entirety, was the actual residence of buddhas and bodhisattvas as well as other deities and their retinues. Kūkai also wrote texts concerning the rituals used in the establishment of sacred grounds where monasteries were built; the term for these grounds, kekkai (bounded realm), refers to a ritually purified area that can range from a ten-foot square hut, as in the tea ceremony, for example, to large geographical areas over which the government or individuals relinquished all control, as in the case of sacred mountains.

Several doctrinal propositions undergirded this geohistorical process. First, a central tenet of Shingon esoteric Buddhism (tōmitsu) held that this world is the manifestation of its central buddha, Mahōvairocana (Japanese, Dainichi). Second, and very closely related to the former proposition although structurally different, the Shingi-Shingon branch of esoteric Buddhism created by Kakuban (1094–1143) held that this world is the Pure Land of buddhas and bodhisattvas (mitsugon jōdo, Pure Land adorned with mysteries). Third, a doctrine issued from Tendai esoteric circles (taimitsu) proposed that this world's flora could achieve buddhahood (sōmoku jōbutsu), and this proposition enjoyed a spectacular success in the medieval period and evolved to the point that, in some cases, the flora was regarded as the Buddha itself (sōmoku zebutsu). Fourth, various Pure Land schools proposed that certain geographical locations were gates to the transcendental Pure Land of the buddha Amida (Sanskrit, AmitĀbha) or of various bodhisattvas, with an emphasis on Kannon. As a consequence, quite a few monastery gardens and buildings were built as physical replicas of various scriptural descriptions of the Pure Lands.

Last but not least, the medieval assumption that many local deities, the indigenous kami of Shintō who were objects of cult in precise locations, were manifestations of buddhas and bodhisattvas became a major social practice. Known as honji suijaku (Buddhist deities leaving their traces in the form of Shintō deities), this assumption and the related set of practices were responsible for a systematic association between Buddhist and non-Buddhist deities and their respective cultic sites, and for the addition of Buddhist notions of sacred space to native sentiments and practices. Nowhere was this system of associations, as well as the former four doctrinal points, more evident than in the development of pilgrimage and the formulation of Shugendō.


An amalgamation of Buddhist, Daoist, and Japanese native notions and practices, Shugendō slowly arose and became a loose institutional system in the eleventh century, by which time official records indicate the presence of its practitioners (called shugenja or yamabushi) in many parts of Japan, including the imperial court, where they served as thaumaturges and healers. Shugendō's dominant features include tenets and practices that are central to both Shingon and Tendai forms of esotericism, as well as longstanding, pre-Buddhist notions of sacred space. Mountains that had been regarded as the abode of gods (many of them, incidentally, female entities), or as gods themselves, became objects of worship on the part of these mountain ascetics, but they also came to be treated as off-limits to all but male ascetics. Women were only allowed up to the point of certain boundaries marked by engraved stones or wooden boards that read nyonin kekkai (limit for women). Some peaks became the object of ritualized ascents, while mountain ranges became the object of highly ritualized peregrinations, the goal of which was to realize buddhahood in this body by becoming one with the land, each and every feature of which was conceived of as a repository or natural form of the Buddha's teachings. Eventually, several hundred mountains became sacred to Shugendō practitioners.

The main organizational characteristic of the Shugendō practitioners' ascents and peregrinations was to associate a given trek through mountain ranges with the ritual acts and meditations monks of esoteric Buddhism engaged in when using maṆḌalas. Two main maṇḍalas were used in both Tendai and Shingon esoteric branches: the Adamantine maṇḍala (kongō-kai mandara), which was drawn as geometric elements containing iconographic representations as well as symbols in order to represent the essential character of the absolute knowledge of the buddha Mahāvairocana (Dainichi nyorai), and the Matrix maṇḍala (taizō-kai mandara), which represented the various objects of that knowledge. There were many other maṇḍalas, dedicated to single deities and known as besson mandara, many of which were also used in Shugendō. Elaborate rituals led to the achievement of mystic identification with the deities shown in these maṇḍalas: Following a specific course through a given maṇḍala, ritualists engaged in the practice of the triple mystery of the body, speech, and mind. Buddhahood was supposed to be reached when distinctions between the knower and the known (subject and object) were annihilated. In Shugendō, this ritual process was projected over fairly large geographical areas: One mountain range would be considered the natural form of one maṇḍala, and a nearby range was considered the natural form of the other maṇḍala. Each peak rising in these ranges, as well as some of the boulders, springs, waterfalls, and other topographic features, were regarded as the residence of one of the many deities represented in the maṇḍalas, and the practitioners would spend several weeks peregrinating through such "natural maṇḍalas" while dedicating rituals to these deities. Practitioners usually followed one maṇḍala course through a given range in spring, the other maṇḍala course through a nearby range in autumn, and a summer retreat in the central mountain. Sacred space, then, encompassed vast areas that were to be crossed ritually, and stood as guarantor of physical and spiritual salvation. Such "mandalized" areas were established along several ranges, from the northernmost part of Honshū Island to the southernmost part of Kyushu Island, and they ranged from relatively small areas to the entirety of Japan. Related mandalization processes also occurred in Tibet; further research should indicate whether other countries engaged in similar processes of sacralization.

Another major technique used in Shugendō to produce sacred space was to consider individual mountains or entire mountain ranges as the natural embodiments of Buddhist scriptures. The Katsuragi range in the Kansai area, for example, was crossed by practitioners who stopped at twenty-eight caves adorned with statues or where scriptures had been interred; each cave was supposed to symbolically represent one of the twenty-eight chapters of the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪkasŪtra). On Kyushu Island, the Kunisaki peninsula was regarded as the lotus pedestal on which the Buddha preached the Lotus Sūtra; eventually, twenty-eight monasteries, each corresponding to a chapter of the scripture, were built on the slopes of the peninsula, and there too peregrinations leading to these monasteries were held to enable one to grasp the multiple meanings of the sūtra (this peregrination is still performed once every twelve years). Also in northern Kyushu, Mount Hiko was regarded as the site where Maitreya (Japanese, Miroku), the next Buddha, would achieve buddhahood. Scriptures describe the palace where Maitreya awaits this moment as being composed of forty-nine chambers, and on and around Mount Hiko forty-nine caves were made to correspond to these chambers. As time passed, two mountains ranges extending north and northwest from Mount Hiko were treated as natural maṇḍalas. Furthermore, Mount Hiko itself was regarded as the natural embodiment of a Tendai doctrine known as the Four Lands (shido kekkai), which were progressive spiritual stages reached in a ritualized meditation on the Lotus Sūtra. In this case, the mountain was divided into four superimposed zones, each separated by a sacred gate (torii), and life was strictly regulated therein. In the lowest zone, ascetics and laypeople could commingle and reside; in the second zone, only ascetics could reside; in the third zone, which consisted of a variety of caves and sites for austerities, neither residences nor women were allowed.

The fourth zone, which encompassed the triple summit of the mountain, could be visited only by ascetics who had completed fifteen maṇḍala courses through the mountain ranges, but even they could not stay for long, for no bodily fluid, of any kind, was to defile the sacred space in question. The study of Shugendō has barely begun in Western countries, but it is obvious that this unique system was instrumental in the formation of concepts and practices related to the notion that sacred space is, in fact, the entirety of the natural world. These features illustrate a historical process whereby reverence for discrete "sites of cult" was enhanced by Shugendō rituals and concepts, and evolved into a "cult of sites" that is representative of premodern Japanese culture.

Pilgrimage routes

Eventually, many of these sites became pilgrimage stops for both priests and laity. Pilgrimages are structurally different from the mandalized peregrinations Shugendō practitioners performed, however, and a single case will serve to illustrate this important difference. In central Japan's Kii peninsula, Shugendō practitioners went through two mandalized courses, one leading from Yoshino, located in the north, to Kumano, located in the southernmost part of the peninsula, and one leading from Kumano to Yoshino. Only male ascetics could engage in these mandalized peregrinations. But there was also a pilgrimage to Kumano, which emperors, aristocrats, warriors, and commoners alike engaged in. Its course, however, was radically different: It entailed following the western coast of the peninsula in a southerly direction, and then entering the mountainous ranges of the southern part of the peninsula to eventually reach Kumano. This pilgrimage course was marked by ninety-nine sites dedicated to protectors of various deities. In other words, Kumano was considered a sacred space by all, but it could be reached only by different roads, one "professional" (the mandalized peregrination), and the other, "common" (the pilgrimage). Furthermore, since Kumano came to be regarded as the Pure Land on earth of Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, it was placed at the head of yet another pilgrimage, dedicated to Kannon's thirty-three manifestations, each worshiped in different monasteries connected by pilgrimage roads in central Japan. This pilgrimage was so popular that it was duplicated in many areas of Japan: Today there are at least fifty-four different pilgrimage courses dedicated to these thirty-three forms of Kannon.

Starting in the medieval period, religious narratives detailing the origins, supernatural events, and the topography of Japan's famed sacred sites were elaborated and written down. This fairly large body of literature indicates that sacred space cannot be separated from sacred time, that the history of these cultic sites is an intrinsic feature of their sacredness, and that local

topography, natural features (in particular, sources of water), Buddhist monasteries, shrines to local gods, and narratives formed a single coherent whole. In other words, sacred spaces were fundamentally associated with postulated recollections of the past and ritualized practices, all tied up in attitudes and acts of devotion or piety that have been collectively referred to as geopiety by the human geographer J. K. Wright and topophilia by Yi-Fu Tuan.

In contemporary Japan, about one hundred different pilgrimage courses linking more than five hundred monasteries in all parts of the country attest to the complexity of sacred space and exemplify the equally complex nature of the Japanese people's spiritual and emotional attachments to their land. Shikoku Island, for instance, boasts of several mountains that were objects of Shugendō practices, and it is also the site of Japan's most famous pilgrimage. Kūkai, the founder of the Shingon school of esoteric Buddhism, was born there in the late-eighth century and he practiced austerities in some of these mountains. During the medieval period, Kūkai became the object of a nationwide cult, and a pilgrimage dedicated to him was established around Shikoku Island; it consists of a course linking eighty-eight monasteries, and is still quite popular. Each monastery is sacred, obviously, but so is the entire course, and many pilgrims consider Shikoku Island itself to be sacred.

Historical, social, and economic aspects

Sacred spaces, however, have a history. To take one example, Japan's highest mountain, Mount Fuji, was originally regarded as the abode of one local god; when Buddhism took charge of the cult around the twelfth century, the mountain came to be viewed as the abode of three buddhas and bodhisattvas and of that god as well, and it became a center of Shugendō. By the seventeenth century, however, Shugendō's influence waned (for political reasons), and Mount Fuji became the object of mass pilgrimages on the part of laypeople, as a consequence of which the understandings of the mountain's sacred character radically changed. Another example of major historical changes is the Ise Shrine, located on the eastern coast of the Kii peninsula. It is composed of an Inner Shrine dedicated to the ancestral god of the imperial house, and of an Outer Shrine dedicated to a god of food. During the medieval period, these sanctuaries became the object of complex associations with esoteric Buddhism, which viewed them as yet another manifestation of the Adamantine and Matrix maṇḍalas. Ise subsequently became the object of mass pilgrimages, and for several centuries pilgrims were escorted by professional religious guides (onshi, or oshi), who gave instructions concerning the varied features of these sites of cult's sacred features, ranging from trees, rivers, and waterfalls, to caves, monasteries, and shrines. In the early modern period, however, Buddhism became the object of critiques that led, ultimately, to the separation of theretofore unified Shintō-Buddhist cults throughout Japan. The thirty-seven Buddhist monasteries of Ise were destroyed at the end of the nineteenth century, and today Ise is regarded as a Shintō cultic site, with no trace of Buddhism whatsoever.

It is important, therefore, to stress that the term sacred space is sometimes misleading because its oft-found emphasis on spirituality tends to generate an avoidance of the universally present material features of its historical production, as well as an avoidance of the many conflicts it caused or witnessed in the course of history. That is, the sacredness of certain sites or regions was instituted or maintained through various forms of an occupation of land (one of which was control over the people who lived there), and this sociohistorical fact suggests that studies of the term sacred space need to include historical, social, and economic aspects. Japan's (and other countries') shrines and monasteries were established on pieces of land that used to belong to an individual or the government. Measured on the basis of a technique called, in Japanese, shiichi (four corners), the area where they were to be erected was ritually cleansed and propitiated, and the individual or ruling entity that entrusted that area to religious authorities thereby gave up all and any control over it, especially taxes. In order to meet the monasteries' needs for regular maintenance and repair, as well as in order to enhance their visibility and prestige, individuals or rulers commended land estates to them, and cultic sites became powerful economic entities. During the medieval period this estate system eroded and fell apart, and religious authorities had to look for different funding sources and traveled across the land in search of financial assistance while chanting the sacred character of their sites of cult and encouraging people to engage in pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage, then, arose in a specific social and economic climate, and the narratives mentioned earlier played a great part in this development. Still today, pilgrimages have an important economic dimension that is all too often ignored in the analysis of sacred space, and the long but sometimes violent history of the sacred sites visited by pilgrims should be critically assessed in light (or shadow) of the stable myths that are often attached to the notion of sacred space.

See also:Cave Sanctuaries; Consecration; Kailāśa (Kailash); Monasticism; Relics and Relics Cults


Grapard, Allan G. "Flying Mountains and Walkers of Emptiness." History of Religions 21, no. 3 (1982): 191–221.

Grapard, Allan G. "Japan's Ignored Cultural Revolution: The Separation of Shintō and Buddhist Divinities in Meiji (shimbutsu bunri) and a Case Study: Tonomine." History of Religions 23, no. 3 (1984): 240–265.

Grapard, Allan G. "Lotus in the Mountain, Mountain in the Lotus: Rokugo Kaizan Nimmon Daibosatsu Hongi." Monumenta Nipponica (Tokyo) 41, no. 1 (1986): 21–50.

Grapard, Allan G. "The Textualized Mountain–Enmountained Text: The Lotus Sūtra in Kunisaki." In The Lotus Sūtra in Japanese Culture, ed. George J. Tanabe, Jr., and Willa Jane Tanabe. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.

Grapard, Allan G. The Protocol of the Gods: A Study of the Kasuga Cult in Japanese History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Grapard, Allan G. "Geosophia, Geognosis, and Geopiety: Orders of Significance in Japanese Representations of Space." In NowHere: Space, Time and Modernity, ed. Roger Friedland and Deirdre Boden. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Grapard, Allan G. "Geotyping Sacred Space: The Case of Mount Hiko in Japan." In Sacred Space: Shrine, City, Land, ed. Benjamin Z. Kedar and R. J. Zwi Werblowsky. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Higuchi, Tadahiko. The Visual and Spatial Structure of Landscapes, tr. Charles Terry. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988.

Huber, Toni. The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain: Popular Pilgrimage and Visionary Landscapes in Southeast Tibet. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Miksic, John. Borobudur: Golden Tale of the Buddhas. Singapore: Periplus, 1990.

Statler, Oliver. Japanese Pilgrimage. New York: Morrow, 1983.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974.

Allan G. Grapard