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Spirit of Asia: Journeys to the Sacred Places of the East

Spirit of Asia: Journeys to the Sacred Places of the East

by Michael Freeman (Photographer), Alistair Shearer (Photographer)
A photographic tour of the greatest natural and manmade spiritual sites in Asia. More than anything else, long-distance travel in the late twentieth century has opened the eyes of millions of people in the West to the rich cultural heritage of the Asian countries, and to the ability of their great belief systems to regenerate, refresh, and renew. Whether the focus is


A photographic tour of the greatest natural and manmade spiritual sites in Asia. More than anything else, long-distance travel in the late twentieth century has opened the eyes of millions of people in the West to the rich cultural heritage of the Asian countries, and to the ability of their great belief systems to regenerate, refresh, and renew. Whether the focus is the original animist beliefs of the far-distant past or the vitality of present-day Hinduism and Buddhism, the sacred site, natural or manmade—mountain, valley, temple, or shrine—is a place of central importance, where heavenly and earthly energies most perfectly intersect. Through the amazing odyssey undertaken by the master photographer Michael Freeman across thousands of miles of the Indian subcontinent and eastern Asia, the extraordinary numinous power of these sacred places is captured with a force that has never been so well expressed. Here are the greatest natural sites, from the Sagaing hills of Myanmar to the sacred mountain, Agung, in Bali. Here, too, are the great temple complexes, Angkor and Borobudur, and the intimate Shintoist shrines of Japan. The photographs are organized as journeys that reflect the historical spread of Eastern religions, yet each will feel to the reader like a personal quest. 200 color photographs.

Editorial Reviews

Frances Lefkowitz
With words and pictures, this book travels from the Himalayas to Japan, to magnificent natural and constructed sites of worship.
New Age
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Shearer, author of The Hindu Vision and The Buddha: The Intelligent Heart, brings a rare level of scholarly integrity to this book, which transcends the showy-but-glib coffee-table format. Shearer wisely expands his focus beyond the "usual suspects" of sacred sites in Asia--famous Shinto temples, Buddhist stupas, and Hindu shrines--to include personal altars and natural phenomena. Such a whirlwind approach flirts with superficiality, but Shearer offers deep textual insights that match the quality of Freeman's stunning full-color photographs. The book's opening chapter, which profiles sacred trees, springs, mountains and other elements of nature, sets the tone by being surprisingly rich in both text and image. We see an ancient Buddha image carved into the base of an enormous Thai tree and learn how trees symbolize life-giving forces in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Throughout, Michael Freeman's photographs show not only the holy sites, but the worshiping people who make them holy: one arresting image depicts a woman in the lotus position meditating before an enormous gilded Buddha who is also in the lotus position, his eyes gazing down on her with great affection. The book is thoughtfully organized as a pilgrim tour, with each chapter presenting a spiritual "journey" to sacred sites arranged by theme. Refreshingly, Shearer assumes that readers have a basic knowledge of Eastern religions and can follow his skillful ruminations on diverse religious traditions, architecture and history. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This attractive, large-format coffee-table book covers about 40 major shrines, temples, monuments, tombs, cities, and mountains found in Asia, from India to Japan. All of these sites are old, and most of them are still active centers of worship. All will likely be of interest to tourists as well, and, indeed, most--such as Borobodur, Varanasi, Angkor Wat, and Miyajima--experience heavy tourist traffic. The photos are lovely and provocative, and the text provides a competent introduction for anyone wanting to understand the significance of these sites. The map and bibliography, on the other hand, are cursory. All in all, this book is pleasing to the eye but offers a mere glimpse into the rich cultures of Asia. Public libraries must weigh the price against buying two or three books that focus on specific sites in which their readership expresses an interest.--Harold M. Otness, formerly with Southern Oregon Univ. Lib., Ashland Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Thames & Hudson
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
10.20(w) x 10.99(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Waters of Life
Sacred Springs

Water is the mother of civilization, as fire is its father. Early cultures naturally clustered on the banks of the great Asian arterial waterways — Indus, Ganges, Yangtze, and dozens of others — using the precious substance for drinking, washing, cooking, and irrigation as well as healing and ritual purposes. Thus religion fits into a natural cycle linking human and divine: from rain comes rice, from rice comes wealth, from wealth comes patronage, from patronage comes worship and from worship comes rain. But Mother Nature can withhold as well as give, or give too abundantly, and many of the sites in this book owe their existence to the painstaking engineering necessary to manage water and outwit the vagaries of drought and flood. The ancient civilizations of Sri Lanka and above all, Cambodia, were particularly skilled in creating systems of storage and distribution that have never been bettered.

    Water is life. It has always been seen as a gift of the gods by both sea-faring and landlocked Asia, a necessity that is itself divine. Many rivers are considered sacred to this day, especially in India, where their water is believed to have healing powers. The Sanskrit word for a pilgrimage spot is tirtha, meaning 'ford', and the confluence of two rivers is especially holy. This reverence for water is found throughout Asia: in Thailand a river is called mae ('mother'); in Bhutan streams are used to turn giant prayer wheels; the Tibetans read omens from images in their sacred lakes,while the ancient Khmers had their rivers flowing over images of the gods to empower the water and ensure the health of the crops.

    Water is the supremely feminine element: nourishing, slow, lunar, adaptable, always able to find its own level and imbued with the invincible strength of patience — a single drop repeated often enough will cut through the hardest stone. Flowing downwards from its crystalline source, its purity becoming gradually clouded by the earth it passes through, water is a perfect analogy to the Divine radiance, increasingly obscured by its own material creation. The almost sacramental status afforded water by traditional societies is due to an instinctual affinity we humans feel with the substance. All life originated from the sea; we spend the first nine months of our life floating in water; our bodies are ninety per cent water, and we live on a watery planet. This last is particularly so, of course, for those who live in tropical or semi-tropical climes; no one who has not experienced a monsoon can imagine its primal power. Even today in those parts of the Orient where villagers living on or by water move home with the monsoon tide — perhaps six or seven times a year — it is possible to witness the ancient yet vital relationship our species has always enjoyed with water, in sacred, economic, dangerous and pleasurable ways.

    It is in everyday religious ritual that this intimate relationship with water is most charmingly expressed. Hindu images are lovingly lustrated with sacred water, and other watery liquids — milk, ghee, honey, coconut juice; Buddha images receive bowls of water as offerings, and the naturally adaptable flowing of water is seen as the ideal mode of behaviour for the Taoist sage. The potent combination of racial memory and everyday reality made it inevitable that water would play a central role in the earliest mythologies. In Hinduism, the Golden Egg, seed of all manifestation, emerges from the primal waters to generate cycle after cycle of creation, in Chinese myth the world rests on a giant turtle floating on the heavenly waters, while the Buddhists picture the various universes as fabulous islands rising out of the cosmic sea.

Sacred Stones
Nature's Markers

Stones are the first monuments, marking out the points of holiness on the earth, charting our relationship with the heavens. From neolithic times they stand, mute testaments to our urgent need, beyond any pedestrian measure of effort or money, to state our place in the surrounding enormity. The one creation of nature that abides, stones are magically dependable, optimistically proclaiming stability amidst the constant flux of life.

    Throughout the East, two types of stones predating figurative images have traditionally been the focus of widespread devotion. First come the 'naturally occurring' (swayambhu), single slabs or outcrops of rock that are considered highly numinous. In Japan, the indigenous Shinto faith adorns piles of such stones (otsuka) with sacred straw ropes hung with cloth or paper strips to show their sanctity. The Gardens of Longevity of Chinese Taoism celebrate the permanence of stone, while both Chan and Zen Buddhist monasteries make stones the central feature of meticulously raked sand gardens. Stones may spontaneously resemble a seated Buddha, the head of Ganesha or vulva of the Great Goddess. A special catagory of places where the celestial energies have left their mark on earth is the 'footprint' (pada). These may be associated with the Hindu god Vishnu, or enlightened beings like Buddha, whose 'footprints' are everywhere in south-east Asia.

    The spiritual energy of stone may announce itself in the recondite forms of ammonite fossils (shalagrama) found in India's holy Narmada river and deemed sacred to Vishnu, or spin the swirling spirals in agate, tiger's eye or sea-shells, to create a natural mandala, a microcosmic indicator of the cosmic rhythms of involution and evolution. Many of the principal images in the most important Hindu temples are simple unworked lumps of stone or rock, too holy to carve or alter, and all over the East, smaller stones of many types serve as amulets and talismans, portable power-seeds invested with the subtle strength of faith.

    Then there are the man-made, but still abstract representations. Most widespread is the Hindu lingam ('emblem') that stands for the unmanifest power of Shiva who, as Lord of Transformation, is the embodiment of the invincible evolutionary energy. Sometimes the lingam is shaped as a phallus, erect and stable, potent with unshed seed; often it is grasped by the yoni ('womb' or 'vagina') of the great goddess Shakti, the enduring material energy. Together, they represent the eternally complementary principles of masculine and feminine, spirit and matter, and they are found wherever Hinduism spread. A similar archetype is expressed in the Buddhist relic mound (stupa).

The Sacred Tree
Linking Heaven and Earth

It stands unmoving at the centre of the universe, joining earth and heaven, yet keeping each in its rightful, preordained place. As the eternal axis mundi it is the stable pillar around which the myriad ever-changing worlds revolve. Its branches, stretching to all infinity, offer impartial protection to beings without number, while its prehensile roots, binding the fertile each in place, draw from the inexhaustible freshness of life itself.

    It is the Sacred Tree, oldest and deepest of archetypes, found in all cultures at all times. As the symbol of life itself, our covenant with the Divine, the Sacred Tree takes many forms — as Tree of Life, Tree of Wisdom, Tree of Knowledge — its ancient rhizome sprouting in countless axes linking heaven and earth, from totem pole to church spire. So universal is this symbol, may it not embody a species memory of that fateful day some six million years ago when, somewhere on the African savannah, our primate ancestors swung down from the branches and began to walk as upright as the tree itself? And, much later, it was the forest, its clearings fed by twisting paths, that was the blueprint of our cities with streets and alleys leading to open squares and green spaces, alongside which the vaulted ceilings of assembly rooms and cathedrals harked back to overarching boughs

    To be linked to the invisible worlds each village had its sacred tree in which the presiding spirit lived, a shrine set up in its shade. The village headman, local representative of cosmic order, would sit under the tree to dispense justice and favour, and when he moved it moved with him, in the form of a protective parasol carried by an attendant. Tree and parasol became intertwined as symbols of royalty and divinity, as they still are all over the East today: ceremonial parasols protect offerings as they are carried to the temple in Bali, they shelter senior monks in Japan and pontiffs in India, while in Thailand they rise in ascending tiers above the thrones of both Buddha and king.

    Each of the liberated saints (tirthankaras) of Jainism is associated with his tree, and the four cardinal points of the Buddha's life — his birth, nirvana, first teaching and death — all take place under the sacred tree. Long before Buddhism, the archetypal ascetic Shiva sat under the holy ashwattha to teach yoga, his long tresses as tangled as its serpentine aerial roots. And serpents are very much part of the story, for where trees are found termites will build their conical nests in the shade, and where termites are found, hungry snakes will gather. This combination of snake and tree, actual and symbolic, is again universal. Long ago the Semitic desert world mythologized it in a distant oasis called Eden, but all over tropical Asia it is still found as a vital part of a folk awareness which worships trees as living beings and homes of spirits — hanging them with coloured threads and garlands, daubing them with paint and powder, lustrating them with holy water.

    The Sacred Tree is preeminently the life-giver. In India its branches are strung with red cords or miniature cradles by women who long for children. After her wish has been granted the grateful mother will return to place a little cloth bundle containing the placenta on a branch. Stones carved with snakes are set up among tree roots — infertility in this life is deemed the result of having killed a snake in a previous one — and trees, particularly the banyan and peepul (two species of inedible fig), are often 'married': planted in a walled shrine where they grow to intertwine as the embodiments of Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi, or Radha and her divine lover Krishna. In China the medicinal ginko tree — a 'silver apricot' — was cultivated in temples and monasteries and believed to protect the buildings from fire.

    The Sacred Tree as kalpa vrisksha, 'Granter of all Treasures' (unconsciously celebrated in the pagan Christmas tree ritual of the West), was majestically depicted in the stone reliefs of the great Javanese temples — Hindu Prambanan, Buddhist Borobodur — over twelve hundred years ago; it is enlivened to this day in the 'money trees', branches hung with banknotes, offered at Chinese and Tibetan altars. In the esoteric teachings of yoga, kalpa vriksha is internalized, to symbolize the many-branched human nervous system. It is this model of subtle physiology on which Oriental systems of healing, such as acupuncture, are based. Now the spiritual energy (kundalini) lies coiled like a snake at the base of the spine; as she uncoils and rises through the sushumna nerve embedded in the core of the spinal cord, she purifies the entire subtle body. When fully purified, the nervous system is able to dispense the greatest of all treasures — Enlightenment.

The Sacred Mountain
Axis Mundi

Mountains are especially holy. As the point where mother earth stretches up to eagerly to meet father sky, and the celestial energies reach languorously down to bless the human realm, they are the fertile ground of high and low, where human meets Divine. As such they are the preferred dwelling place of the deities, where they hold their courts and grant audience, dispensing favour and punishment alike.

    To take but one example, China, From the Zhou dynasty of 1000 B.C. right through until the end of the Ching Dynasty in A.D. 1912, the Emperor always prayed to the sacred mountains at special altars to ensure the well-being and prosperity of the state. Shunning such centralized authority, the anarchic sages of Taoism, a potent spiritual force from at least A.D. 200 onwards, envisaged the sacred mountain as the abode of the Immortals, and thus the place most favourable to the discovery of the elusive elixir of immortality. More soberly, patriarchal Confucian scholars saw the lofty peaks as paradigms of world order, far removed from the disorderly conduct of man. Such themes are drawn from our common imagination — Sinai, Olympus and Athos tell the same story in the West — and ancient architectural texts the world over consistently cite the mountain as the most auspicious place to build shrine, temple or monastery.

    Other more abstract and universal levels of symbolic resonance derive from the very physicality of the mountain. Vertical, it is the axis mundi, established as the stable pivot around which the universe revolves. Massive and unmoving, it represents that which transcends change, the still point at the very centre of the evolving universe. This adamantine stability — the word achala means both 'mountain' and 'unmoving' in Sanskrit — is the very essence of the Absolute ground of life, the unmoving mover of all fleeting phenomena, and as such aligns the mountain to the sacred centre from which all manifestation emerges, and into which it eventually returns. As the navel of creation inverted, the mountain is also the horizontal axis, grounding the gathered creative cosmic energy and radiating it out in all directions.

    Remote and rugged, the mountain is always a place of existential intensity. It stands as a challenge to test the bold or the foolhardy, whose achievements may be glorious but whose hubris is mocked and punished, sometimes by death. As such, the mountain is an apt metaphor for the spiritual quest as a journey from the humdrum valley of everyday life to the rarified heights of liberation. Each traveller on the climb will have a different view according to how far towards the summit he has progressed, and in the ascending hierarchy of wisdom each teaching is provisional, a perspective from whichever stage has so far been reached. This is why the Sanskrit for 'philosophy' is darshana ('a point of view') and one of the commonest epithets for the elevated status of the Enlightened is kutashtha: 'he who is established on the peak'.

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