Walls Around Sacred Places

I just spent ten days in Japan. I’d forgotten how enlightening it is to see the places, people, and practices of a totally foreign culture, then reflect those observations back onto your own culture. In Japan, small Shinto shrines dot the urban landscape. In particular, I came across a small shrine connected to a long shopping mall in the heart of Kyoto’s shopping district. Ancient and modern, side by side.

The mall was a half-mile long street with stores, shops, and restaurants, covered high overhead to give some shade and keep out some of the humid heat of central Japan in August. At the north end of the mall was a large Shinto shrine covering perhaps half a city block with two entrances off the mall. But at the far south end was a much smaller shrine. It was accessed down a narrow corridor right off the main mall walkway, barely shoulder width — you might not even see it when strolling by. The corridor opened to a small square courtyard perhaps twelve feet on a side. There were offerings at the small statue set up on a table (flowers, ribbons, coins) and several stone statues standing within the courtyard. Here’s what was striking: the walls of adjacent buildings going up three stories ringed the courtyard, walling off the open space of the shrine. Once, it was no doubt an open-air shrine visible to locals passing by. Now it is submerged by development, physically walled off (and symbolically marginalized) by commercial buildings that have grown up around it. But not quite forgotten. The option of simply razing the shrine and incorporating that 150 square feet into one of the adjoining buildings occurs to the Western visitor, perhaps, but that is simply not done in secular but still ancestrally reverent Japan.

Walls Around Our Temples

There are similar developments in urban places in the United States, where a downtown church that might once have dominated its location is now dwarfed by neighboring skyscrapers. Joseph Campbell famously remarked on the same phenomenon in Salt Lake City, where the LDS temple once towered over other buildings, but was eclipsed by the capitol building to the north, then later by LDS administrative buildings to the east. Campbell analogized that physical progression to a social progression of religion being displaced first by government, then again by capitalist development and commercial busyness. Modern, efficient, rationalizing secular society doesn’t have much use for the sacred spaces of an earlier worldview.

Apart from the granite walls defining the physical space of the LDS temple, there is a high solid wall surrounding the entire perimeter of Temple Square. Where the buildings that grew up around the small Shinto shrine in Kyoto walled that sacred space in (kind of like how a body might build a wall around a tumor to isolate it), the wall around Temple Square belongs to the temple site. That wall is walling off the world, protecting that sacred space within rather than the other way around. Other LDS temples I’m familiar with feature large iron fences, which at least afford a view of the temple within. Are there any LDS temples without surrounding walls? The Hawaii temple?

Perhaps some readers have other perspectives on how different cultures treat ancient or modern sacred places, or even how different cities within one country or culture treat such places. Scholars tend to focus on ancient texts and documents, but artifacts and sites convey meaning as well. Spending time in such a foreign landscape where you notice everything around you reminded me of this. Historical places and sacred sites convey their own message simply by persisting through time to be viewed in our day. Societies may exalt or protect or isolate sacred places, but they are rarely just eliminated.

An Encounter

Early one morning in Tokyo I took a walk in the area around our hotel. It was an upscale residential neighborhood: I saw my first McLaren dealership. I came across a small park with walking paths and statues that covered maybe half a small city block. No walls. In one corner were ten steps leading to the top of a small mound. A life-size statue of a robed scholar-monk was set on the mound. Unlike Western statues where the figure is standing high on a pedestal, gazing off into the distance, this Japanese scholar was seated and looking straight ahead … at you, the viewer. He had a scroll in his left hand and a stylus and inkwell in his right. No doubt he wrote poems and narratives for the benefit of students and apprentice monks, but no text or characters could now be read on his scroll. He looks right at you, a friendly smile spanning the centuries, making eye contact, a strangely intimate encounter. Scholars then, scholars now. His writings, our writings. It’s good we keep these ancient places. We visit and ponder and stare at these religious relics. Once in a while they stare back.


Walls Around Sacred Places — 3 Comments

  1. Lovely post, Dave, and very interesting observations. What’s the citation on that Joseph Campbell statement?

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with neosecularization theory, but I think your post makes a useful spatial metaphor for the basic premise of that theory, which is that in modern, bureaucratic, highly-specialized societies, religion cedes many of its functions to other institutions such as governments, hospitals, psychiatrists, and political parties. As a result, it gets relegated to a more and more narrowly-prescribed social role. However narrow its role, however, it never goes away. Demand for its core service—sacred meaning—always remains.

  2. Thanks, Dave, for your insight. I recall hearing news of a former high school acquiantance. She has had a very successful career in marketing and management. She has been successful by most measures. But she has paid a price for her success. She recently confided in a friend that her success has undermined her life. She has been so focused on what people expect of her at her job, that she claims she has lost herself. She does not know who she is. I suspect that one of the functions of sacred space is to uncover part of who we are. If that is true, the economic encroachment on sacred spaces will mean an enchroachment not only on social identity, but on self identity.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Chris, the Joseph Campbell comments were made in one of the Power of Myth episodes he recorded with Bill Moyers. There was a book as well, but it was based on the PBS interviews.

    Mark, sacred spaces have a powerful attraction for some people, but not everyone. One often hears stories or testimonies of Mormons who are deeply moved by visits to an LDS temple, for example — this has become such an expected reaction that to express any less moving experience is likely to be seen as critical, cynical, or doubting, however sincere. It’s not unlike John Williams’ account of how returned missionaries are expected to praise missions, regardless of their actual mission experiences.

    At least temples provide an LDS sacred space for those who are so attuned (as opposed to those, say, who are spiritually attuned to reading LDS history). I’m not sure many other Christian denominations have equivalently sacred spaces for their members to enjoy.