Sunday, October 4, 2015

RISE: Conserving Sacred Places of the World

Inaugural Address for R.I.S.E. by Martin Palmer

R.I.S.E. (Research Institute for Spiritual Environments) kicked off its beginnings with a trip to Dangun's Altar and a full-day conference with special guest Martin Palmer, Secretary General of ARC (Alliance of Religion and Conservation), who gave the inaugural address for the conference. Professor Emeritus of Korea University, Sim Woo-kyung is both Founder and President of RISE.

Martin Palmer, key note speaker, presenting the president of RISE, Sim Woo-kyung,
with memorial words scripted by a scholar in China.


Keynote Speech by Martin Palmer

It is a great honour to be asked to present the opening keynote speech at the launch of what is I believe one of the most important new organizations in the world of religion and conservation. When Professor Sim first approached me about this new institute, I was surprised. Surprised that no one had thought of creating such an institute before and frankly surprised that the proposal should come from South Korea.

Then I researched the Chamseongdan Altar and realized that with such a profoundly sacred natural site as this, it was far from surprising that the idea of RISE should come from Korea. Our visit yesterday [to Chamseongdan] only strengthened my belief that any culture that can hold such a wonderful, spiritually and historically charged natural place at its heart would of course understand spiritual environments.

I have had the honour of working on sacred sites around the world for over thirty years in my role as Religious Advisor on Conservation to both HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and to WWF International. From 1995 I have also had the honour of heading the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), an international secular organization created to help broker partnerships and programmes between the major faiths and the conservation/environmental worlds.

When Prince Philip and I started this movement in 1985 which led to the first meeting between the world's major faiths and the main conservation and environmental organizations, no one was paying attention to the ecological significance of sacred sites. At best they were considered of archaeological or historical interest and for many secular organizations such as UNESCO or conservation bodies such as WWF or The Nature Conservancy, they were relics of a fading religious past. They were ignored at best and rejected at worst as irrelevant.

Today the situation has changed radically. Over the last thirty years we have been able to show the environmental significance of sacred sites as well as show that such sites are highlights of the change of mind, of attitudes and values which we need to make if we are to relate to the whole of our natural and human world in a different, a sustainable way.

In conserving the world's sacred places we are not just preserving fascinating, often beautiful and historically important places. We are asking people to look again at the whole world as sacred, as a living miracle of life and of our place within it. Sacred places are like the hubs of meaning which spin out a narrative of meaning throughout all that exists, challenging much of our contemporary modernity as well as drawing us back to older wisdom which we need to rediscover.

Let me start with a horror story.

UNESCO's attitude towards religion in general and sacred sites in particular manifested the worst of the secular attitude to such places of power and meaning. Until very recently it forbad any action which would in any way support religious activities. For example, when communism fell in Mongolia in 1990, UENSCO was involved with the communist government in restoring for tourist reasons, Amarbayasgalant, the second most important Buddhist monastery in the country funded by UNESCO. In 1991 the monastery was handed over to the Buddhist Sangha which had been reconstituted by Sri Kushok Bakula. Immediately UNESCO ended both funding for and work on the site because it was now a functioning religious site and "UNESCO does not support religious activity". Literally they stopped halfway through restoring the marble path to the main shrine.

Amarbayasgalant monastery

In the late 1990s we at ARC in collaboration with WWF International and IUCN were able to persuade UNESCO to extend its definition of sites to cover the term sacred as a functioning place of spiritual activity. This had been hastened by the scandal of Tai Shan in China where UNESCO had approved this most sacred of all sites in China -- where emperors went to sacrifice to heaven from the time of the first emperor in the third century BC -- because the Chinese government had spoken about its religious significance in the past tense only. When UNESCO did its ten-year check-up visit, it found that the local government was planning to demolish a number of major temples to make way for the road to the top. When UNESCO challenged this, they were told that religious activity on the mountain had ceased and that this had been made clear when they spoke about religious activity in the past tense in their application. ARC was asked to undertake a religious activity survey of the mountain and we were able to get UNESCO to renegotiate with the Chinese government to put religious activity into the present tense. This stopped the roadway!

We had a similar problem with environmental groups. For example, IUCN -- the International Union for Conservation of Nature -- refused to speak of any sites as sacred or religious until we in partnership with WWF International published "Beyond Belief". The subtitle of this publication launched in 2005 is "linking faiths and protected areas to support biodiversity conservation" and it was the first scientific study of the conservation significance of sacred sites. In the endorsement of the Chair of the World Commission on Protected Area, he said the the links between sacred sites and conservation were now clear for all to see and offered a direct means of helping us all "to co-exist with the rest of nature." The research world undertaken for this publication revealed that 70% of all national parks exist because they are founded upon sacred landscapes. These sacred landscapes have survived to become national parks because the environment within sacred landscapes has been better preserved than anywhere else. As the report said, "Sacred areas are probably the oldest form of habitat protection on the planet."

In a similar way the World Bank programme between 2000 and 2005 on Faiths and the Environment created a number of case studies from across Asia -- from Cambodia through Mongolia to Indonesia as well as in Latin America and Africa -- which proved the environmental importance of sacred sites from sacred forests through sacred cities to sacred mountains and rivers.

In my own country, the United Kingdom, ARC in partnership with WWF UK launched the Sacred Land project in 1997 to "re-establish the long tradition of valuing the natural world as an expression of God's love." Its success in both restoring sacred sites such as holy wells,, pilgrimage paths and awareness of sacred cities such as Bristol and Canterbury was so great it sparked similar sacred land projects around the world, not least in China, where our long-term partnership with the Daoists has led to the protection of sacred mountains and landscapes across the country and has been instrumental in the historic stance taken by the Daoists against the illegal wildlife trade and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Traditional Chinese Medicine ... and endangered animals - Journal of Chinese Medicine
One criticism of the interest in sacred sites has been that it was nostalgia and romantic rather than contemporary and challenging. That is a danger. There is a great deal of frankly superficial nonsense about sacred sties which owe more to projection of wishful thinking than to any serious understanding of their role. In my country the great neolithic site of Stonehenge which is over 4000 years old, is a classic example. It has become a playground for every crackpot idea around about who built it, from spacemen to giants, yet we know almost nothing about why it was built and for almost two thousand years it even ceased to be viewed as sacred.

What I hope the new institute will explore is how sacred sites can challenge the current mindset of the world which sees economics as the only criteria for success: beliefs that "progress" is the answer to all our problems and has elevated humanity to the position of the whole reason for evolution.

Let me take you on a journey through what I mean about the relevance of sacred sites to our whole world view.

Sacred sites remind us that we are not the centre of the universe. In contemporary environmental speak, what you and I might call Nature or, depending upon our religious/spiritual beliefs, Creation, is often now simply called 'eco-system deliverables'. What this dreadful term means is that the whole of evolution, the sole purpose of the creation and the justification for protecting elements of the natural world is that they are economically useful to us as a species. For example, in much of the discussion around the Copenhagen Climate Change meeting in 2009 and now around the Paris meeting in December this year, the role of the great forests of the Amazon and Central Africa is as "carbon sinks". In other words the key justification for protecting these great natural wonders, home to over 60% of all species, is that they absorb the CO2 we produce from our modern ways of living -- cars, planes, industry, air-conditioning, etc. Frankly as both a Christian and an ecologist I do not believe that God through evolution spent the last ten million years creating these great wonders just so we could continue to drive cars!

So a sacred site such as Chamseongdan, or Tai Shan in China, the Bogd Khan mountain in Mongolia, Mount Sinai in Egypt or Mt Ararat in Turkey links us to heaven and earth simultaneously. They remind us that we are special but that we are also just part of a much greater story of the whole of creation, of life both on earth and in heaven. They ask us to revere not ourselves but the creative forces of heaven and earth or as the Dao De Jing compiled around 400 BC puts it in chapter 24:

Humanity is schooled by the Earth;
Earth is taught by Heaven
And Heaven is guided by the Dao
And the Dao goes with what is absolutely natural.

Confucianism expresses this clearly. Wang Yangming (1472-1529) wrote in his Inquiry on the Great Learning:

The great man regards Heaven and Earth and the myriad things as one body. He regards the world as one family and the country as one person. As to those who make a cleavage between objects and distinguish between self and others, they are small men. That the great man can regard Heaven, Earth and the myriad things as one body is not because he deliberately wants to do so, but because it is natural to the humane nature of his mind that he do so.

In Judaism and thus also in Christianity, the temptation to place human beings at the centre of the universe is strongly rebutted by, for example, the Psalms but also in the powerful words in chapter 38 of the Book of Job written sometime in the 5th century BC:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me, since you are so well informed!
Who decided the dimensions of it, do you know?
Or who stretched the measuring line across it?
What supports its pillars at the base?
Who laid the cornerstone
When all the stars of the morning sang for joy?

Sacred sites which remind us that we are just parts of a much greater cosmic story help us to appreciate that the rest of life on earth is as important as us. This is something we urgently need to recover because our human centric world view is one of the powerful forces pushing us into abusing the rest of life on earth. Sacred sites are also about the value of other life forms. Sacred groves emphasize the vital and thus sacred role that trees pay for all life. The association in so many traditions with deities highlights this.

For example the sacred groves of Vrindavan in India where Krishna roamed and played with the gopis. These sacred groves had been almost wiped out twenty years ago through urbanization, soil erosion and population pressures. Then a sacred land tradition emerged within the Hare Krishna movement which of course holds Krishna at the centre of their devotions. This led to a restoration programme and that led to a waste disposal programme for the city of Vrindavan as a sacred city. From this the movement went on to tackle issues related to the Yumana river which flows through Delhi before reaching Vrindavan. Sacred legends about Krishna fighting an evil demon who polluted the river in mythology led to yet more efforts to force the state into protecting the water humans use but also for the use of all wildlife.

Help Sri Vrindavan Dham Become a Cultural Heritage
One problem we have in contemporary culture is that we have so shrunk the notion of the role and scale of the sacred and made it so private that we only think of the sacred as being a specific building -- a church or temple or mosque, for example. We forget that such buildings were just one part and often not the most important part of a sacred landscape which tells a vastly greater story and involves so much more than just a humanly constructed place of worship. We need therefore the emphasis implicit in RISE of exploring entire landscapes, complete environments, not just beautiful buildings which have become divorced from their wider context.

Even traditions, such as Islam which struggles with the notion of sacred as being too close to worship of nature itself, have traditions which tell us to look beyond what humans need. For example the Prophet Mohammad said in one of his Hadiths (teachings) that whoever plants a tree performs an act of zakat (charity) for it provides shelter and food for birds, insects and animals as well as human beings.

Sacred rivers are vital because they are spaces we cannot build upon. This might seem like a statement of the obvious but it is true. A broad river, a lake or a waterfall defy our desire to control, and even when we do try to control rivers, they often break beyond our control. In the Abrahamic traditions water is the only element of creation that rebels against even God's control. This is to be seen in Day Two of the Biblical creation story where God does not say at the end of the day that what has been created that day is good. The reason is that that day God separated the waters into those above and those below and a fight broke out between them and thus envy, pride, anger, etc entered the world.

Rivers also flow past us. Everything else in nature with the exception of the wind, is static and thus rivers challenge our sense of space and belonging because they never rest but flow on into the oceans and seas and then again up to heaven and back again as rain. They are the cycle of life and we have to acknowledge that we have no control ultimately over that cycle, try as we may.

Help Save India's Most Sacred River
The Ganges. One of the world's great rivers, mythical in stature and mighty in size,
flowing steadily past me in a rush, fresh from the Himalayas and full of vigor.

Once again this challenges our sense of control and to be frank a great deal of the angst around climate change is that the weather, but especially the waters, are beyond our control and will not do what we want or expect. And that threatens a technocratic, control obsessed, human centred world view.

Sacred fields are also of great importance. The relationship between use and abuse of the land is one of the critical issues of contemporary sustainable agriculture worldwide. Hence the rise of, for example, Farming God's Way -- a Christian based agricultural system now extensively used in Sub-Saharan Africa and moving into Latin America -- and Islamic Farming, also strong in Africa and now in Indonesia and Malaysia. This is based on the notion or the statement that God was the first farmer and that therefore agriculture, which in so many cultures today is seen as the bottom of the ladder, should now be seen as godly work, divinely created and honoured. The sacred fields for example of the Shinto -- especially the Ise shrine fields which produce the sacred rice for the ritual offerings -- remind us of the proper relationship between human activity and the gifts of nature itself, or in the case of many sacred fields, the deities.

In Christian Europe, the old agricultural system was based on one of the books of the Old Testament, the Book of Ruth, and on the laws laid down in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These books taught that while landowners could take the bulk of the crops from their fields, the fields themselves needed to be laid out in a special way. There should be a wide boundary of crops which were left at the edge of the fields so that the poor and wildlife could share in the bounty of the field and of nature. The laws and the story of Ruth also spelt out the sacred duty to leave areas of woodland, tree cover, streams and rivers which were safe zones for all life to use. This is echoed in the hima and harim, legal codes which forbad any hunting near water sources to that animals could drink safely, because the waters were a gift from God and not just a human use.

In Europe this led to field systems which we mourn the passing of today because they supported a vast array of wildlife and protected biodiversity. They were gradually replaced by the enclosures which turned the matrix of fields, woods, grazing lands and open spaces -- the commons -- into regulated squares cut off by thorn bush hedges and devoid of much of the natural growth of woods and forests. This has been exacerbated by the rise of mega fields where even these somewhat barren hedges have gone removing all places for wildlife.

Sacred fields -- be these fields for growing food for the gods, fields dedicated to protecting and feeding not just human beings, sacred fields which are there to provide income and resources for the temple as for example the sacred fields and gardens associated with Hindu temples or the newly recreated sacred gardens and fields producing organic TCM crops run by the Daoists of China -- these are all vital reminders that we can only sustain the role of feeding the people, something the faiths do on a vast scale, if we respect and honor the original farmer gardener, God or the gods.

Sacred cities offer a very different set of values which are missing from most of contemporary discussion about the environment.

Once again they present a cosmic story within which humanity has a place but not the unique or dominate place. Sacred cities manifest belief in a central force, sacred object or deity from whom or around whom the city spreads out and which often symbolizes not just the earth but also the sun, moon and stars. As such, the human element is contained within a universal view of all creation and while human activity is of course honoured through this, what lies at the heart of such sacred cities is recognition of the greater picture.

Thus for example the Hindu sacred city of Varanasi is focused around the sacred tree site where Shiva once sat and around the sacred river Ganges which itself links heaven and earth, this life and the next. The city thus acts as a vehicle for relationship to divine power to reincarnation, and we must always remember that reincarnation is not just for human beings but for all forms of life, even the lesser deities.

Varanasi - the city of living and leaving
The classic Asian city design -- derived primarily but not exclusively from China -- is of the sacred directions and planets. North is the direction of danger while south is the direction of auspicious powers. Hills to the north to protect and rivers to the south to ensure a smooth flow of qi, the energy of life. The sun to the east and the moon to the west, the north honouring the earth and the south heaven. The central area reserved for the son of heaven, the earthly representative of the power of heaven and thus having the right to rule.

Today in much of Asia this original design has been swamped by the huge explosion of cities across Asia. But interestingly, the Confucians of China are working on designing Confucian sacred towns and cities which would return to this cosmic model and ensure that the cities were built to honour the real scale needed for people to feel at home rather than be overwhelmed by corporate manifestations such as high-rise offices or the dominant status given to the car at the expense of human beings.

In South Korea, the reopening of the river flowing through the centre of Seoul which involved removing the motorway over the river and opening up the walkways, where previously only cars drove overhead, is a clear sign of how a sacred site can be restored or even created to alter adverse development of an urban nature.

In Europe, the rediscovery of the cosmic plan of most old towns and cities based on Christian models involving auspicious directions (east and south) and cosmic symbols such as the circle of God's love or the cross at the centre of cities symbolizing the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has led to radical new understandings of how scale, symbolism and narrative can shape a city to make it more human but also more open to co-existence with nature and with wildlife. This in particular relates to uncovering buried rivers and streams in the way that Seoul has done.

Sacred landscapes are of course also why pilgrimage takes place. The number of pilgrims per year world-wide is estimated at nearly 400 million and ARC along with the UN, R20 and other organizations have been working on greening pilgrimage. In particular we have been successful in greening the Hajj. In 2011 one hundred million plastic bottles were left behind after the Hajj. Our aim with the Saudi government and with sending countries such as Nigeria and Indonesia is to have pilgrim flasks which are refilled and to end the use of plastic by 2020. As interest in sacred sites grows, so does pilgrimage and the move to green pilgrimage cities and routes is one one which is growing, In November we will launch a major new network called Faithful Cities: Pilgrims for a Living Planet.

In this picture taken Thursday, Sept. 24, 2014, bodies of people crushed in Mina, Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj pilgrimage, are seen amongst belongings and empty water bottles. Hundreds were killed and injured, Saudi authorities said. The crush happened in Mina, a large valley about five kilometers (three miles) from the holy city of Mecca that has been the site of hajj stampedes in years past. SOURCE

I want to end with the definition that we in ARC and WWF came up with when we were asked in the late 1990s what we meant by a sacred site. We gave and, to this day, still give four answers and I think when we think about sacred landscapes these are powerful. The Sacred Sites project of Martin Gray provides wonderful illustrations of three of these types of places.

Firstly, there are places where the sheer power of nature makes us stop and stand in awed silence or mediation aware of how tiny we are and insignificant. That is the role of great sacred mountains, rivers, seas and panoramas.

Secondly, there are places which have become sacred because of some event in the past which has marked the land. This could be the adventures of a saint or guru such as Assisi in Italy associated with St. Frances; the Kaba in Makkah associated with Haggar and Abraham; Lumbini in Nepal associated with the birthplace of the Buddha or, as in Korea, Chamseongdan and the exploits of Dangun. These are charged places made sacred by history or legend and not always good actions. For example in Israel one of the most sacred places where new recruits to the Israeli army go to take their vows of obedience is Masada where in 70 AD 150 Jews committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Romans.

Thirdly, there are places that communities have decided will be sacred. Wherever a community decides to build a sacred building as part usually of a wider sacred landscape, they have decided to set aside that space for communal sacred acts and rites of passage. Thus the most ordinary plot of land can become a truly sacred place through such activities. It is beautifully captured in the poet T.S. Eliot's phrase when describing visiting an ancient church in his poem "Little Gidding":

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or to carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
Nine Sacred Sites You Won't Believe Exist
Finally, there are the sacred places we each have that will probably never appear on any index of sacred sites. Sites of meaning for us or links with people we loved or events in our own life as well as places where we have personally been touched by the vastness of creation. These private sacred maps are what help us understand the three other kinds of sacred places.

So, as RISE sets off on its journey of exploration, discovery and transformation, let's keep these four in mind and, perhaps inspired by what we do to help revive the sacred in the first three, we can also bring that to bear on our own personal sacred journeys through this wonderful and complex world.

Launching the O’RISE Academy (2016 plan)


1) Earth Environment I
Kim Myung-ja [Former Minister of Environments, Professor of Sookmyong Women’s University]
2) Presentation I
Na Hyun [Oxford University graduated artist]
3) Folk Cultures I
Choi Gwang-sik [Former Minister of Culture & Tourism, Professor of Korea University]
4) Religions and Environment I
Tucker, M.E. [Professor of Religious Studies, Yale University]
5) Conservation Strategy for Spiritual Environments I
Sim Woo-kyung [Founder and President of RISE, Professor Emeritus of Korea University]
6) Environmental Planning I
Zoh Kyung-jin [Professor Seoul National University, Graduate School of Environments]
7) Poongsujiri [Fenshui] I
Park Si-ik [Poongsu Master & Architect, PhD]
8) Landscape Planting II
Sim Woo-kyung [Founder and President of RISE, Professor Emeritus of Korea University]
9) Hard Landscape Design II
Niall Kirkwood [Professor of Landscape Architecture, GSD, Harvard University]
10) Globe Planning II
Kwaak YoungHoon [Founder/President, World Citizens Organization, WCO/Chairman, Silk Road Cities Forum-Urumqi]
11) Asian Cultures II
Emanuel Pastreich [Director of The Asia Institute, Professor of Kyunghee University]
12) Sacred Earth II
Martin Gray [Author of Sacred Earth]
13) Entrance & Commencement Ceremony [Welcome Speeches]
Choi Byung-ju [President, Go-un International Exchange Foundation]

The team / key participants in the inauguration celebration of RISE.

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