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Art and the Sacred

We've all seen it somewhere: a serene Buddha in a garden or entryway, creating a sense of sanctity even if we know nothing of the Buddha or his teachings. Some part of us recognizes sacred space, even if we're not interested in it.

In some art forms - music, sculpture, dance, ceremonial garb, or imagery, just to name a few - our senses are changed and thus change our behavior. There is a kind of impression that alters our attention in a positive way. We are quiet, entering a house of worship. We feel calmed by the still waters of a reflection pool. We stop our busy-ness when greeted with the toll of a Tibetan bell.

Consider this: In 2009, a citizen of the Eastlake neighborhood in Oakland, CA decided to make a gesture towards his community - troubled as it was by crime, graffiti, garbage dumping violence, and overall turbulence. He went to the local Ace Hardware and purchased a two-foot-tall stone Buddha and placed it on a corner that had been the scene of accidents and violence: 11th Avenue and 19th Street. He was stunned to discover the effects: garbage dumping stopped. Graffiti stopped. Prostitution moved away. Drug dealers moved away. In their place, neighbors began to gather, and contribute to the site - they brought flowers, fruits, candles, and sacred texts. Some Vietnamese ladies began to dress in full robes and pray at the site. And now, every morning at 7 people gather to chant prayers and meditate at the site. Investigations revealed that five years later, in the block radius around the site, crime dropped by 82 percent. Robberies went from 14 to 3. Assaults: 5 to zero. Narcotics, 3 to zero. You get the picture. Moreover, the Buddha-donor, Dan Stevenson, who is not Buddhist, was discovered and so people now also pay tribute at his doorstep, with gifts of food, fruit, and flowers. (SF Gate, 09/15/14).

Creating sacred space is an under-discussed art form. Voicing prayers, chanting "Om," lighting candles with a heavenly figure in mind, such as Mary or Saint Michael, or the Buddha -- these are all practices that change even most basic home environment. Or, in this case, neighborhood environment.

Sacred arts constitute a vast and multifaceted array of activities, but it's worth asking, what constitutes a sacred art, as opposed to any other kind of art? In my view, there are three basic kinds: one, i call, "elbow grease sanctification," and this comes as an expression of dedication to both craft and object, in which the very quality of the artwork is a transmission of the artist's very nature. The more they have loved on it and doted and polished, the more it takes on that light, and begins to really carry a certain kind of power simply due to the effort. I think of certain kinds of wooden furnishings, sometimes the way men love their boats, polishing and rubbing the edges constantly; or the glow of leather boots, long-owned, that have been tended to over the years.

The second kind is more ceremonial in nature, in which the artist creates sounds, images, movements and writings that are the expression of a very focused intention - to bless a space, to heal a wound, to invoke an angel, to weave energy, to uplift and inspire through consecrated focus. The more one knows what one is doing, the more each word, movement and image takes on power through its clarity. Pictured below is the result of the annual Beltane "Dressing of the Wells," here at Chalice Well, one of the most sacred sites of Glastonbury, UK.

The third kind I call the "imprimateur" - and this is the qualitative signature revealed about the artist through less formalized artworks. Improvised song, collage, and poetry are good examples. When people do not have time to render a finely crafted finished piece, both their process and their style emerge more clearly in the raw, unpolished version. This is sacred because it comes very close to the heart of identity.

In the first category, "Elbow Grease" sacred, the life glows forth from the effort. In the second category, "Ceremony," the intention behind the action imbues it with holiness. And in the third category, "Imprimateur," we see a stylistic fingerprint of the maker, who doesn't have time to cover his tracks with a more formalized rendering. Loving attention and focused dedication uplift our experience of life. We all know and appreciate that one employee who steadfastly and diligently completes each task, doesn't gossip, and goes home at the end of the day fulfilled. Or we know that lady who leaves her flowers for sale in a beautiful, weathered box, bouquets propped up on tin cans of varying heights so that each flower is shown to its best advantage. And we know the reverence that elevates the experience of being in a holy place. When we witness reverence, our hearts are touched, whether we are religious, or not. Did you know that simply witnessing an act of kindness elevates your immune system?

So go ahead. Light that incense. Burn that candle. Bring in that one perfect flower. Water that one thirsty plant. Polish that one dusty table, and see what happens.

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