My sacred place

For an introspective wanderer, a two-room flat in a generic Japanese suburb offers all the possibilities of a traditional shrine.

Pico Iyer
June 19, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

My sacred place is a makeshift, modern, entirely generic suburb in the
middle of Japan, which looks, alas, like a (badly translated) version of a
sitcom set from the San Fernando Valley. There are no temples in the
vicinity, no priests; there is almost nothing in sight that would remind a
typical visitor of Japan. A new McDonald's sits just down the road from me,
and a line of convenience stores stands across the street. A four-story
department store called Life has just replaced some empty fields, and a
health club nearby offers aerobics classes behind an entrance guarded
inscrutably by some Easter Island statues.

Yet what the place affords me is almost everything I associate with
sacredness: the chance to be still, and perfectly alone; people all around who
are always going places and doing something, but with an air of quiet self-
containment; and complete freedom from the TV or newspapers that would only
bring me down. A lifetime of traveling has brought home to me, perhaps, that
it makes little sense to go all the way to Jerusalem or Cuzco if you're still
carrying Sherman Oaks inside you; take an angry person to Nepal, and he'll
only find new things to be angry about.


Yet conversely, I think, you can go anywhere and find a shrine of sorts if
you can leave Sherman Oaks (or modern Japan, or anywhere) behind; a sacred
place for me is a place where you can find a silent clearing within, an open
space that the best part of you respects. And though this is something any of
us can (and must) do anywhere, it's easiest, I find, in a very foreign place
where I can't speak the language or import any of the trappings of my usual
self. The reason we go to Varanasi or Isfahan, after all, is to step outside a
dailiness that gets in the way of eternity.

I practice my own forms of sacredness, then, in a two-room flat in the
Memphis apartment building: For grace I can read Emerson or Thoreau; for daily
communion, I can take walks through the rectilinear streets, to where the maples (in autumn, as I write this)
are turning in the park; for hymns, I have Van Morrison. And if I
really crave actual temples, I can activate the memories of Tibet or Big Sur
that I keep inside my head. Some people go to the woods for this, some go to
Antarctica to flee Monica Lewinsky and TNT; I just come to a place which
baffles me on the surface, and so offers me the chance to find a shrine

My "sacred place," I recognize, is not necessarily sacred for the Japanese
all around me, especially because for them it is familiarity, and not
the opposite; and it's probably not very sacred for a foreigner who speaks
Japanese, or finds his sense of anchor in community. But for me it offers a
solitude that is where my sense of sacredness is rooted, and a chance to make
a life at some level deeper even than the Hindu rites of my grandparents, the
Christian hymns I learned at school or the Buddhist-Shinto practices all
around. Sacredness, which is the beauty of the soul, is -- as much as any
beauty -- in the eye of the beholder.


On those occasions when I hanker after a more formal kind of worship, I can
travel to Kyoto, 90 minutes away by train, and visit 2,000 shrines and
temples, often lit on autumn nights with lanterns leading up into the
hills; or I can take my daily walk a little farther, down a slope and up
another hill, to where a small traditional farmer's shrine sits among the
condominia. I can go to Osaka nearby, and listen to Eric Clapton's riffs, or
visit full-moon rites commemorating long-gone empresses. I can even just savor
the everyday rites -- the softball games in the park, the post office
chatter -- of a culture that finds its religion in its social harmonies. But I
can also not do so. I can see no monks or prayers, read no books or
catechisms, and feel no pulse of history or romance; and still -- in the light
on my desk -- find everything transformed.

The great danger of going around the world in search of Paradise, for me, is
that, too often, we forget that Eden is the place where the serpent haunts the
garden; and anywhere with many angels in evidence (I've found in Lhasa, in
Bali and Cambodia) is likely to have some demons too. So I make my sacred
place in the middle of the fallen (though sheltered from distraction), and
take a sacred place, at heart, to be the place where one can trust oneself
(and rise, perhaps, towards a higher sense of self). Others, I know, find this
in the mountains or a lover's arms, in yoga class or church; I find it here,
in an unremarkable room near the KFC parlor, where the full moon shines and
the leaves fall and fall.

Pico Iyer

Salon Travel Contributing Editor Pico Iyer is the author of "Video Night in Kathmandu," "The Lady and the Monk," "Falling off the Map," "Cuba and the Night" and "Tropical Classical."


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