Making Sacred Space in the Smokies

For a week during August, I spent time in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, building a stone shrine to house a statue of the Divine Mother. The shrine was constructed at the top of a small mountain, on land looked after by the Milarepa Osel Cho Dzong retreat center, using a statue donated by Joe Wall, and labor/resources contributed by a team that came from all over the world.

The idea for building this shrine was sparked through conversations in summer 2015 between myself and my old friend Justin Wall (aka Lama Karma). When Justin put the call out that we planned to build a shrine to the Divine Mother in August 2016, a whole team showed up to volunteer their time and help with its construction. And it was some devotion! It turned out to be back-breaking labor – hauling nearly 4 tons of stone on our backs up a mountain in the 90-degree, 100% humidity of the smoky mountain summer heat. The fact that I was the only member of the team that was a baptised Catholic is a real testament to the Divine Mother’s appeal across conventional religious and ideological boundaries.

To tie in a wider community to the shrine-building process, I collected sacred items from my father, my mother, and my grandmother. For example, my father provided me the cross and rosary that his late father used to pray. My mother and grandmother provided me some of their own precious holy items, along with several Catholic icons that my late grandfather used to keep. Before capping the shrine’s altar (see photos), we filled it with these various items that had been provided by our families. Also included in the base of the shrine were several miniature buddhist stoopas cast from plaster molds (coloured red and yellow, see photos). The making of these little stoopas, each of which contains a little roll of prayer mantra, forms an essential part of many buddhist practices. The idea of including these holy items and little stoopas was that the shrine would literally contain the prayers of a wider community, ensuring that the spiritual devotion dedicated to divine mother’s radiance was delocalized even further afield.

Everybody involved in the shrine had their own reasons for contributing. However, we all seemed to be aligned in our devotion and respect for what we started referring to as the “divine feminine”. This is a notion which is powerfully embodied in the figure of the Divine Mother, whose ‘immaculate conception’ gave rise to God himself. My co-builders, for example, noted the similarities betweenCatholic manifestation of the Divine Mother and the tantric manifestation of White Tārā, (Sitatara).

My reason? I’ve become interested in exploring how to construct sacred spaces of energy and intentionality. This seems particularly important right now, when our planet is being desecrated by the seemingly relentless pace of globablized market capitalism. A shrine operates as a non-commodified focal point of energy and intentionality, which has the power to consecrate (i.e., to make sacred) the space around it. The ability to build spaces like this is something that I have been thinking about a lot ever since I visited Éméi Shān (峨眉山) in Sichuan Province last year. The ancient temples and shrines embedded into the landscape along the path up Éméi Shān were clear focal points of energy and intentionality – a result of the artisans and communities who created the structures, the monks who have tended to these holy places over the years, and the people who make journeys to honour these sites through their prayers, offerings, and respect. The intention lavished on these holy places results in a sort of radiant energy which then spreads over and blesses the entire mountain.

To my mind, market capitalism is particularly ill-suited to creating sacred space – because it tends to try and commodify anything which attracts interest in order to exploit the merest hint of earnings potential. And once that happens, the discourse shifts from one of reverence to one of consumption. In many respects, “the sacred” (almost by definition) implies objects, practices, communities, and places which cannot be commodified. Over the years, I’ve come to the realisation that scientific enquiry – as powerful as it might be – cannot by itself reshape our attitudes toward our environment.

Science has done pretty much all it can be expected to do: it has shown us the cause of the problem, and it has also hinted at the dramatic realignment required if we are to reshape our relationship with the environment from which our species has arisen. However, it will require other forces to actually enact these changes; science itself is not well equipped to guide us in making progress toward the realignment in values we so urgently require. At this stage, I cannot but wonder whether rediscovery of the sacred itself is key to enacting the realignment of values required to curb the onslaught of those market forces which might otherwise consume the earth.

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