6. SACRED PLACES
The Shrine of the Mountain and the Waters
It's a long way from the beach to the top of the mountain with a two hundred pound boulder continually slipping out of your hands. I asked myself again and again why on earth we would be doing such a crazy thing. But inside, I knew. We all knew. We were making a shrine.
A shrine-maker? I certainly never saw that in my career plan. So it surprised me as much as everyone else when suddenly last year the urge overcame me and my family.
I couldn't even have told you very clearly what a shrine was. I had no idea how one makes a shrine, or what it should look like. I have always even flinched a bit inside every time I heard the term ''shrine". It somehow seemed to carry with it a connotation of some primitive religious thing with "the meager offerings of the natives to their gods", of spaced-out hippie rituals, or of people playing at something. This edge to the word didn't totally leave me until we had actually founded shrines and had experienced what the act of doing so with a pure heart could do for us.
The past seemed at first to have little help to offer, for we can't wear the clothes of another era. They don't fit our changed bodies and souls. Making a Gothic shrine or a Buddhist temple is about as apt as wearing a suit of armor or a monk's robes to the office. To fit, and to have power, a shrine must come out of what we are and the changes we are making in ourselves - today. But how were we to find what that is?
Shrines have existed in every culture, in every possible configuration, in every age. We can find them anywhere, once we start to look. Atop mountain passes, in the forest, on a city street, tucked between the piers of a church; over a doorway, within a home, in small and great buildings of their own.
They may be found by following the grasses bent in passing to a natural place of power whose image and name is held only in our memories. They may take the form of vast and beautiful buildings acknowledging and celebrating the value of a person, a place, or an idea to a community. They may be merely a pile of pebbles or a straw rope marking a place and our connection with it.
In a stone village in the Spanish Pyrenees, the Christian Virgin appears everywhere - a reflection of the people's prayers, hopes, beliefs, and values. In a town in the Austrian Alps, a statue of the Black Madonna stands in the town center, and small wooden shrines dot the surrounding mountain forests. On an island in Japan, straw ropes with shide distinguish a particular rock, tree, or pool in the forest; bind together huge rocks at the ocean's edge, and adorn a black boulder at the curb of a busy urban intersection.
In India, in Mexico, in Africa, simple yet honored shrines line the sides of roads and paths. In traditional cultures the world around, shrines have festooned busses, trucks, and cars; homes and public places. In Cambodia, the sluice-gates of the Khmer irrigation canals became shrines because of their role in regulating the flow of the chi-filled water throughout the kingdom. In Washington DC, the Vietnam Memorial became a place of poignant emotion for visitors to the capital, serving an important need, while other memorials have stood forgotten.
What shrines show us is what we hold sacred, what we value so greatly as to hold inviolate. They have made visible the depth of feeling and meaning that a place or person has. They have show us the empowerment of our connection with the rest of nature and the breath of life that infuses it.
To me, like most people in our culture, shrines have seemed to be an anachronism from an age of superstition. Yet here I was, preparing to make shrines. Where did such a curious urge begin? And is it so curious once we have learned the power which lies within such an act?
Most deeply, for me, the shrines grew out of a realization that the central disease of our society is a disease of the spirit. That disease of the spirit arises from a lack of self-worth, mutual respect, and being of value to our communities. It results from the unrewarding patterns of relationships we have adopted in a society based on self-centeredness and materialism.
To help cure that disease, I wanted to affirm a giving and healing presence in our surroundings. To have that presence, our surroundings must reflect and be shaped out of the creative force in our lives that gives them meaning and power.
Another root of our shrine-making was tied with the physical impacts of greed and growth encroaching on our mountain. Our community until recently was a forgotten backwater where the excesses of modern culture hadn't reached. It survived on care for each other and love of place. Then a few years ago that changed, as development pressures bent on the exploitation of people and place impinged on our community. The cutting of the forests, blasting of roads, development of subdivisions, and franchising of consumerism are all part of the twisted anger, greed, selfishness and deceit of modern civilization.
I realized that if our surroundings showed only the scars and ravages of greed, that value would become the heart of our community. But if we ensured that in some way our surroundings showed and kept alive the reverence for all Creation in the midst of the onslaught, our community would have an alternate basis upon which to chart its future.
A final root was my growing knowledge of the role that chi, or life energy, plays in generating and sustaining the power of people and places. Important to that power of chi is the role of focal places, such as shrines, to concentrate that energy and increase our ability to connect with it.
When the spiritual core of a religion is clear and strong in a society, conventions exist for the making of a shrine. At times when we are reforging the spiritual dimensions of our lives, we have also to fashion anew the expression of that spiritual nature. This is particularly true when we want a place to be accessible to all people without blockage by religious symbolism which is adverse to them.
Where does one begin when we want to do something like this which has no precedent? In our case, our family began by talking together and discussing with our friends about where, or what, in our community could become an affirmation of sacredness. What could express our holding inviolate the health and well-being of people, place, and things? Two things came repeatedly to our minds - the mountain and the waters by which we live.
The mountain upon which we live has been a sacred one from time immemorial. Its spoken name itself - Neahkahnie - means 'place of the gods'. It has been honored and held sacred by hundreds of generations of those who have lived within its compass. It rises directly from the Pacific Ocean, and at its foot lies the bay of the Nehalem River, channeling the hundred inches of rain we receive every year back to the ocean. The Mountain and the Waters. The relationship we have lived with them led eventually to a plan for a double shrine - to honor both the mountain and the waters, and the complementary forces of nature which they represent.
What we decided to do was to take a rock from the beach, worn and rounded by the waves, and place it on top of the mountain. We then would take a rock from the mountain itself and place it by the waters of the bay. Like the yin/yang symbol, each rock connected to and was a seed of its opposite. These rocks would form the nucleus of the shrines, and link them together.
Why a rock? We wanted something lasting, something without cost, and something natural. But more than that, rocks had come to have special meaning. Our bodies are made of rock that has been fragmented into soil, organized into plants, and become mobile as animals. The rocks that constitute the mantle of our planet are the ashes of long dead stars. The stars of today are in fact our cousins, and rocks under our feet are our geological grandparents and our genealogical link with the canopy of stars over our heads. So what better could we use in making a shrine than the rocks that stand as our historical connection with the rest of life?
The form a shrine takes comes in part from its specific chosen location. In this case, the knife-edge summit of the mountain was out as a location, as it was intensively used by hikers, and recently desecrated by the park's installation of commercial, for-profit cellular phone apparatus. There was a grove of trees though, on the saddle of the mountain, which did have a special feel and power to it - on top, yet closed in by ancient sitka spruce, survivors of winds sometimes reaching 110-120 mph. It focused inward on the mountain, not out at the view.
The site for the shrine of the waters came more slowly, out of more options. We finally found a place on the bay side of the sand spit between the river and the ocean that was accessible, yet rarely visited, and which held a special beauty and peacefulness. Between the high, tree covered dune and the bay itself was a wonderful area of giant driftwood logs, sculpted tree roots, birds, elk, water and sky. Nearby were the almost vanished remains of an old Indian village, whose spirit seemed to still protect the area. At the edge where the dune met the beach and the marsh grasses, there it was - a remarkable enclosure of driftwood, living branches, and wild roses. They said, "Here is the place!"
Both the grove of trees on the mountain and the enclosure by the bay had power and beauty of their own. Both could accommodate individuals or small groups. Neither needed to be "gussied up". The shrine-making required only the seed rocks and some fine-tuning to create memorable and potent places.
We found the rocks - a boulder from the beach and a rock from a rockfall high on the mountain. And now we had homes for them. I felt the need to mark the rocks in some way - to have them clearly express our intention. It seemed they needed to be the product of human as well as other natural process, and to convey a measures of the meaning we felt and acknowledged in our world. What we decided to carve in the rocks was a spiral. Not just any spiral, but the specific fibonacci spiral of growth found in the development patterns of pine cones, cabbage, sunflowers, and tree branches. It is a geometry unique to the linkage through which life ties into and uses the energy fields in our surroundings.
But a spiral alone wasn't right - it didn't have the right balance. Suddenly a pair of spirals leapt to mind - coiling or uncoiling around each other in balance. Here again the dual nature of the shrine manifested itself - double spirals uncoiling to the left on one rock, and mirrored, uncoiling to the right on the other one. Duality again in that the spirals sometimes appear to be coiling inward - in the inner-focusing of mediation and centering, and sometimes uncoiling outward - in the ancient pattern of growth and becoming. Breathe in, breathe out. It felt right in the head, in the heart, and in the stone.
And so they were carved.
Then another question arose. The carved rock felt somehow too intrusive, too visible, on the mountain. So I said to myself, half joking, "Well, let's bury it!". And suddenly that felt terribly right. It dealt well with the issue of intrusiveness. But it felt even more right for a totally different reason.
Visualizing the rock with its spiral in contact with the chi of the earth had much more rightness and power than as just a visible "sculpture" to be looked at. Knowing of its unseen presence rather than seeing its face, we could feel the difference between inner and outer qualities and the importance of those oft hidden inner ones.
We would open the rock to the air every year in a ceremony of renewal. Thus we could acknowledge its presence, honor it, bring it into touch with the world above the ground, and then return it again to its placement connected inward to the earth for another year. At the same time we could renew our connection with it and the meaning it held in our hearts. It's odd the tortuous paths by which right-feeling decisions wend their way into existence.
The rightness of this revealed itself in the reaction of people who saw the rock before we placed it, or who were at the placing ceremony and didn't know our plans to face it into the earth. Everyone seemed to agree the rock was beautiful and powerful. But to a one their faces transformed as they learned we were placing it into the ground. Somehow it stopped being a crazy prank, and became something which was true, right, and powerful. It truly affirmed our belief in chi, and that this shrine was important enough to go to a lot of effort to make, and that it would influence our lives.
Even though an access road was temporarily open at that time, we decided we were going to carry the rock to the top of the mountain. This project wasn't about the world of machines. It was about the changes in us and in our surroundings that come about through the process of doing it. It wasn't a question of macho, it was a question of community, of accomplishing something together we were unable to do alone. So we improvised a sling to carry the rock, and invited our friends to join us. On the evening of the full moon and the new moon we planned to move the rocks into place.
Would anyone help? You could see it on some faces - "It's a wonderful idea, but I don't think I could get myself to the top of the mountain, to say nothing of dragging a two hundred pound rock with me." Or, "Yeah, it would be fun to get together and do something, but no way am I going out into public doing such a crazy thing."
Yes, that is what it was about - going public about loving and holding sacred our selves, our neighbors, our world. About doing, not talking about. About making it okay for others to do both. About making visible an alternative to letting fear and deceit come to rule our entire lives.
A few did come. Enough to get the rock two-thirds of the way to the top of the mountain the first evening. (Even with four people carrying at a time, it was heavy.) And to the top the next weekend, and to the other shrine the third. So it did happen, with drums and Oreos and kids and barking dogs, with the sacred and the mundane mingling as they do. And our individual doubts as to our ability to accomplish the job were replaced by a real knowing in every sinew of our bodies that together we could accomplish handily and with joy what we hardly dared dream of alone.
Once at the site, there was one final step to the process of founding the shrines. That was installing the rocks in their new homes, and with that the installation in our hearts of new meaning. This ritual was something we both looked forward to and dreaded. Was it going to work - physically and ritually? Was it going to feel, again, like playing at something - or would it have the depth and power of meaning we sensed lay in wait? Founding something new is always awkward, like a new colt struggling to its feet for the first time. Later, in our memories, it may become smooth and powerful. The things that didn't quite work are easily forgotten in the strength of the memories of those that did. But it's rarely that way at the time.
The dogs underfoot made sure we kept a balance of humor and seriousness, of laughing at ourselves at the same time we were doing something deep and profound. One tiny dog not only made it to the top of the mountain, but appointed herself to dig the hole for us to set the rock in! If we thought we were running the show, they straightened us out right away.
I started the ceremony by explaining why we had wanted to make the shrines. I said we had no idea what was the right way to do so. "Lacking experience," I said, "we are doing the only thing we can do - following our hearts." We welcomed anyone to contribute, and to participate as they wished. If they felt uncomfortable taking part, we were thankful just for their presence and witnessing. That seemed to make us all feel more at ease.
Then we spread out in a circle around the shrine, and stood gently absorbing the silence, aligning our own energy with its abundance. We smudged ourselves and the site, and placed Japanese folded paper prayers (shide) around the perimeter, leaving a circle of small temporary markers.
We were surprised and pleased that many people had brought something personal they wanted to leave as part of the shrine. That let us know that the idea of the shrine had found deep-rooted meaning and value to them - enough that they wanted to give something into it. They were there in the same spirit as we were, which brought a new level of power to the ceremony. Somehow, we had created a safe and sacred space where intimacy could happen with a group of people. They shared with us - sometimes with tears - the meaning of their gifts. As they did so, the significance of the shrine to all of us expanded and deepened.
We each talked about our dreams, our fears, our love, our thankfulness for what each had been given by the others. In silence we meditated on the trees, the water, the power of the places. We sang. Individually and together, we blessed the place and the rocks. We avowed our intention to have a place which showed the love we held for our community and our surroundings. We cleansed our minds and the energy of the rocks with fresh spring water from the mountain. Again the duality brought together - the rock and the water, the resistant and the yielding.
We focused and connected our chi together and to the rock and the place, and through it to the other shrine. At the end, I passed out small carved rocks and prayers, as a momento of the occasion. As we walked away, we looked back, and saw something that wasn't there before, and carried it with us in our memory.
It did work. It worked because we knew in our hearts that it was right and that it would succeed. It worked because our spirits were clear and focused on creating something that was true, not on our own aggrandizement. It worked because we spoke from our deepest feelings, and felt our way humbly toward what would work. It worked because we were there open and vulnerable in our desire to take a vital step to heal the wrongness in our way of living that was destroying the world on both sides of our skin.
Looking back towards the sources, everything was borrowed. Native American customs, Shinto prayers, Chinese feng-shui, Christian song, Buddhist meditation, "fake petroglyphs", and Hindu kundalini - there was a little of everything. Yet together, those pieces had come together into two shrines, unprecedented and potent.
The only thing that really mattered in all that hodge-podge was, "Is it whole, does it fit, is what it creates right?" If it fit, we used it. If something else worked better, we used that. This is a period of cross-fertilization, of growing, borrowing, adapting, and intuiting of powerful new things that fit specific and unprecedented contexts. It is the final rightness that matters, not the source of the pieces.
It was done. Two shrines. One a vigorous mountaintop grove, the other a serene enclosure nested at the edge of the waters of the bay. Both with their seed rocks establishing, affirming, and linking their purposes. We stood in the silence, awestruck at the power of the places and the changes that we had created within us.
The shrines were made, but had yet to unfold and reveal themselves to us in their fullness.
That has happened and continues, as always, in unexpected and wonderful ways. The Shrine of the Mountain immediately expanded from the rock itself to the tree, to the whole grove which surrounded it. A double "guardian" tree to the north became a part. Other trees ringing the rock's tree offered sitting places among their roots which people have begun to use. The wildflower understory within this ring became a part of the setting, as well as the wonderful silence of the place. The wind and fog streaming through seem to carry the energy of the place outward to the other shrine and to our community below.
Attuned to the sacredness of place, our eyes began to see the entire mountain differently. We rediscovered a tree we had found on the mountain long ago, part way up the trail to the top. Ancient and massive, this tree stood with limbs spread wide and covered with moss, within a forest of lesser trees standing shoulder to shoulder straining skyward in competition for the sun. It was a survivor from the past - from days when the first local tribes burned the south face of the mountain to provide pasturage for the elk. It must have stood solitary then in this great and windblown mountain meadow, with limbs spread unencumbered reaching for sunlight. Now the mother tree which spawned the entire surrounding forest, it deserved to be honored in its own right.
At the Shrine of the Waters, it took several adjustments of the location of the rock and the driftwood around it before things felt right. There the waters in the bay and marsh are strongly present. The waters come silently twice each day, in their rhythm tied to the sun and the moon, covering even the rock itself at flood stage. Then they recede again, allowing us, for a short period, presence in this special place. Sometimes, going to the shrine, we find that the huge driftwood logs surrounding it on the water side have been silently raised by the waters and rearranged in our absence.
The chi of the mountain shrine seems to be a vertical chi - a power plunging down through the heart of the mountain to the center of the earth, and up the trees to the stars above. It is the energy of becoming, of creating new material manifestations of the energy of life.
The chi of the water shrine feels, in balancing contrast, to be a horizontal one. It spreads ever outward on the waters, encompassing and embracing all things on the interface between the earth, the waters, and the air. The mountain rock invites our touch and direct connection to its chi. The water rock draws us to the bay and the water-filled sand upon which the rock rests rather than to itself.
The Shrine of the Waters feels connected with life, fecundity, death, and rebirth. The dead trees hold nests, new tree sprouts, shelter for the birds and animals. Deer sleep in the shrine. Grouse - the birds of the spiral dance of rebirth - send their haunting, thrumming hoot from the woods behind. The mud flats teem with growth and dying; and out of that death, the arising of new life.
The Shrine of the Mountain feels connected with the emergence of the unforeseen and totally new. It seems to bond us again with the dynamism of the primal energy of life.
As when we plant a garden, the shape that the whole would become was initially unknown. It has been exciting to see the shrines take their own life and express things we were at best only dimly aware of at the time of their founding.
We've gone to the shrines at sunrise, in full moon, in fog, rain and snow. From them, we've watched the moon rise over the bay in full eclipse, and seen a comet in the night sky. We've gone there alone, and together; for comfort and inspiration and thanksgiving. With each visit, the gift that they have given us increases and deepens, and what they represent to us becomes more encompassing.
Two very different, yet accessible, places have been created where people can go - for silence, to rest, to meditate or pray, or merely to be in the presence of an act of holding sacred. Their image, and the knowledge of their existence, surface in my mind with a deep and warm feeling even when I am far away. People keep discovering them. We're stopped on the street with tears and thanks by strangers who have been deeply touched by the shrines' existence. They are becoming touchstones - in our hearts and our community - of the sacred and of the power of the breath of life.
What does the future hold for these shrines? I don't know. They may be forgotten, they may give impetus to all sorts of change. It really doesn't matter. They have changed us. Anything more is bonus.
The shrines have let us become conscious of ourselves as part of a wonderful process of creation. They have confirmed to us that loving and holding inviolate all of Creation is essential for healing us and our world. They have shown us that the act of holding sacred is a vehicle for restoring our connectedness with all of that Creation. We now carry this with us out into our lives and our future.
Done again, or in a different place, the shrines would emerge in a different form. This was a small community in a rural area, with its own unique conditions. Yet in the most crowded urban area there are niches and places within access of everyone which can become shrines.
It is the act of frankly affirming and acknowledging sacredness, and opening ourselves to the connectedness which that sacredness engenders, which becomes enshrined. It is that which empowers and transforms us and our communities.
The prayer from the founding of the shrines said it another way:
Our stars, our sun,
our rocks, our dreams
are all stardust -
the ashes of stars before.
The chi of life permeates, joins,
and sustains all.
Open our hearts.
Purify us, heal us, sustain us.
Honor and celebrate all creation.
We are one.
We are One!
38755 Reed Rd.
Nehalem OR 97131 USA
© March 1997