When I was in the process of writing a collection of essays for my college senior capstone, I came across the idea of third space for the first time. Third space aims to describe the places that we spend time with one another when we aren’t at home or at work. This includes pubs, parks, theaters, and more. One subsection of third space, where many people spend this time, is called sacred space. Of course, these include traditional locations of spiritual practice, such as churches, mosques and temples. Exploring the concept of third space is a great way to understand how people and cultures spend their free time, whether in your own region or on the other side of the world.
Currently in the last leg of a four month journey through Southeast Asia, I’ve been able to see some of the ways that people spend that free time. Some of my most interesting days were spent in sacred spaces. I’m realizing the range of sacred spaces to be much more broad than I previously thought, and their importance in our lives to be much more impactful than we may think.
My first look into these spaces was during the first week of my trip, in the capital city of Bangkok, Thailand. While home to one of Asia’s most vibrant night life and culinary scenes, Bangkok touts heaps of grand Buddhist temples. With the huge majority of Thais being Buddhist, these temples are the most sacred spaces in the country. Stepping inside, one instantly forgets the bustle of the streets around. Instead, you feel a sense of awe as you’re surrounded by the colorful and elegant pagodas, imposing temple buildings and finely manicured shrubs that all somehow align themselves in whatever direction you look.
What one feels even more is a deep sense of peace throughout the temple grounds. Soft winds cause the clappers of small hanging bells to dance. In front of a large golden statue of Buddha, beneath painted scenes of Buddha’s life, his path to enlightenment, and Thai folk scenes, dozens of Thais kneel in deep prayer. I know little of Buddhism and meditation. I can tell, however, how deeply important a place like this is. Visitors and monks there were visibly calm and meditative, and just being surrounded by all of it soaks some of the spiritual importance into your own bones. It is the most obvious example of a sacred space but as I would learn later, certainly not the only kind.
Almost two months later, I found myself at the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. At this site and at dozens more throughout the country, millions of Cambodians were slaughtered by the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. I toured the site with an audio tour, narrated by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge. I learned of the horrors committed on this site and across the country. I heard personal stories of terror, anguish and guilt. It is an incredibly sobering place.
I felt anger, distress, anguish and guilt. Sometimes I had a thousand questions to ask. How could people do this to one another? How do we continue to let this happen in our world? At other moments, my mind went blank, like listening to folk music that was blared through the grounds to cover the screams of the slaughtered.
The last stop of the tour was a tall memorial pagoda, housing neatly arranged bones and skulls of those found in the open graves here. For a time, it’s very discomforting to be staring into the empty, blank eyes of the skulls. The sight sent a shiver through my body, and as I exited, amongst the questions and confusions, I felt deeply moved in spirit and a certain sense of closure.
Through this site, the dead are given a chance to tell the story of their cruel fate and an opportunity to connect with those who have never known about it, like myself. This sacred space memorializes the many killing sites around the country that have never been discovered, and the millions of voices and stories that remain silent and unheard.
A few weeks later placed me in northern Luzon, the northernmost island in the Philippines. In the small mountain town of Sagada there are regular cemeteries that you and I would see back home. Past one of these cemeteries, a winding dirt path leads to the face of cliff, covered in coffins of different sizes and shapes, supported by iron bars that have been driven into the rock. These are the most recent iterations of the regions’s famous hanging coffins.
There are many reasons why minority groups have buried some of their dead in such a manner. Being closer to heaven, as well as protection from water seeping into the coffin and rotting the body are just two reasons for the practice. The bodies are placed in the fetal position, exiting the world in the same way they entered it.
This gravesite is an odd site to behold; fundamentally different than any other cemetery I’ve seen. They demand attention in a way that being buried in the ground does not. Perhaps part of that is the thought that this practice has existed for centuries. There is an undeniable serenity as well, being surrounded by towering pine trees and an orchestra of birdsong. The prevalence of this practice is diminishing as the younger generations in the region embrace Christianity, making this dying tradition even more mesmerizing and special.
Sacred spaces often seem to be overlooked. “There are precious few times and spaces left in our society in which people quietly speak to one another in a sustained, intimate conversation,” says psychologist Anna Fels. Granted, she is referring to appointments with psychologists, but I believe opportunities for intimate and meditative conversation with ourselves are something we neglect. Sacred spaces are a wonderful place to do so, allowing us to address, examine and question our own lives.
Additionally, even for those who aren’t religious, these spaces allow us to try to connect with larger themes that are omnipresent in all our lives and appreciate the spirit of others. The spiritual in these places can enrich our lives, perspectives and emotions, and deserve a little more attention.
What are the sacred spaces in your life? Comment below and let us know.