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Sacred Spaces And Sacred Places: How The Buddha Of Oakland Is Equal To Sarnath

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In the mid-2000s, the city of Oakland built a traffic median at the corner of 11th avenue and 19th street in an attempt to cease people cutting through the neighborhood to avoid traffic on the main roads. Oakland being Oakland, this meant that the median was promptly treated as an unofficial dumping ground for trash and furniture and whatever else flotsam and jetsam people wanted to get rid of. A local named Dan Stevenson and his wife Lu lived across the street from this new dumping ground and hated seeing all the trash that would be dumped there on a nightly basis. Calls to the city and the waste disposal units yielded no real results, with the newly cleaned off median immediately being used as a dump again. “The corner was constantly being filled up with mattresses and couches and junk, and there was some drug usage, a lot of graffiti, people just standing around doing nothing—just depressing,” said Stevenson. Dan and Lu put their heads together and came up with a plan that they hoped would put an end to the trash dumping. This plan would not only see a successful execution of their plan, it’s implementation would create an entirely different effect that nobody could have predicted.

After their brainstorming, Lu took a trip to the local Ace Hardware and purchased a little Buddha statue that was to be mounted in the median. They landed on the idea of it being Buddha due to the fact that Buddha was the least controversial “deity” they could think of. Dan later said in an interview, “I would have stuck Christ up there if he would have kept the mattresses off, I don’t care who’s doing it.” With this in mind, Dan went out one night an affixed Buddha to the island with some epoxy and cement to ensure that it remained in place.

Over the course of weeks and months, the neighbors and Dan noticed that the plan was successful, but a strange thing happened, not only was there less trash, there were other items being left out by the statue; gifts to the Buddha in the form of apples and pears were being left periodically. In the mornings, Dan sat by his front window enjoying his coffee and looking out at where the Buddha sat, eventually one morning, Dan saw that the Buddha had been painted; not a graffiti tag type of paint, but a well-done white paint over the entire statue. After the painting, things moved suddenly, with people coming every single day to see the statue and to meditate in front of it. It ends up the Vietnamese residents in this neighborhood of Oakland had discovered the Buddha and wanted to take care of it. As a first act, these new caretakers built a little altar and lifted the Buddha up off the ground and then built a little shelter around it. That little shelter ultimately grew to become a shrine to buddha with more statues being added until where we are now with multiple buildings and visitors from all over the world coming to visit the Oakland Buddha.

Learning about the Oakland Buddha and how the shrine sprung up got me to thinking about sacred spaces and how they come into being, especially for a belief system without a central deity to speak of. If there is no deity involved, can a sacred space even happen? Does a belief system require a “god” to deliver the gift of the sacred? I knew that there were stupas and that later on temple complexes that would be built up around them. My driving question started to become more along the lines of what makes these sacred spaces happen when and where they do? How does a street median in Oakland, California, become a sacred space for hundreds, if not thousands, of Vietnamese immigrants? It ends up that the sacred places and spaces in Zen are the areas that we make sacred through various different ways, each of them unique and each of them equal.

All places are potentially ‘sacred’ or, at least, to be treated with some respect. The sun, moon, planets and stars are each considered the homes of deities or spirits and this earth is abundant with them. Throughout the world there are to be found sacred rivers, lanes, rocks, mountains, trees and the rest, even the least of which are the abodes of life. Buddhists readily adopted the prevailing Indian notion of deities charged with the guardianship of the ten directions (the four cardinal and intermediate directions and above and below), and the four Great Kings who rule the north, south, east and west are said, even in the earliest texts, to have presented to the Buddha with offerings.

The three different ways that a sacred space can happen are 1) those spaces that are identified as sacred because there is a presence of the sacred or a supernatural experience, 2) those spaces that are sacred because they have been decided as such by ritual, and lastly 3) spaces that are created sacred because the space itself is an expression of the sacred. This third idea to me is the one that is representative of Zen ideals the most.

When thinking about the first type of sacred space, those spaces that are identified as sacred because there is a presence of the sacred or a supernatural experience, you can see that Shinto and even pre-Shinto traditions help to shape and affect how these are brought into the world. With Shinto being a nature-based religion, they have a veneration of the spirits of nature and think of “nature as essentially sanctified.” Through this belief of a reverence of nature, the Japanese created sacred places out of rivers and forests and mountains, all because these sites are special to the world around them. Very similar to Japanese Shinto is the Chinese belief in Daoism, or The Way, which is the indigenous religion of China and “is closely associated with the worship of nature, which is personified. Mountains, for example, are regarded as possessing a living spirit.” This adoration of nature that is shared by both Shinto and Daoism is an outlook that a lot of cultures have and is a way in “which a people sees its land as the centre of the world and, in this case, as intrinsically sacred.”In both Japanese and Chinese beliefs, areas also might be considered sacred due to some sort of non-human event or presence on the area. Even Chinese folk tales speak of the power in certain areas from supernatural beings that chose to appear in a specific spot. So, we have deities and supernatural creatures along with just the majesty of a specific feature such as a mountain or river that deliver a hallowed sensation and create in the space a feeling that it is sacred and special.

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The uniqueness of Buddhism is that it can work alongside indigenous religions in a harmonious way that many other belief systems are not be able to. Christianity and Hinduism cannot be followed by the same person due to their specific belief structures, simplest is the monotheism versus polytheism difference, but Buddhism and Shinto or Daosim work together as compatriots instead of combatants. Buddhism and Daoism share this naturalistic view of the world together, and just like in Daoism, ‘there are four sacred mountains in the Chinese Buddhist tradition; each has sacred force associated with the earth itself, known as dragon current. Dragon currents of two kinds, yin and yang; mountains embody yang, or male, force.”] Just like how in China Daoism and Buddhism are united, so to in Japan have Shinto and Buddhism become a symbiotic pair. “There are more than 80,000 Shinto shrines in Japan. Each marks a site where a divinity has manifested itself and made its dwelling,” with these sites in Japan and China already established as being sacred, as Buddhism gained a foothold in east Asia, sites that have already been establish as being sacred and having a key to the divine then make perfect sites to add a Chan or Zen Buddhist temple to.

The second type of sacred space that I found, those spaces that are sacred because they have been decided as such by ritual, is a bit of an offshoot from the first type. An area that has become a sacred space, through supernatural or divine ways, or just because it made a beautiful site for a temple structure, might then become a pilgrimage site for those looking for a path to enlightenment. These pilgrimage sites might also have the areas that are around them structured in such as way as to have a mandala built up. These mandalas, “or representation of the residence of the Buddha,” allow a pilgrim to the area to walk the path in a set pattern that duplicates the shape of that mandala. In medieval Japan, pilgrimages would gain in popularity, with the pilgrims themselves being regarded as having touched the sacred. The pilgrims “brought back to the lower world elements of the sacred space: a stone, a protection (o- mamori), anything taken from the site. They bore elements of the sacred back into the profane world.” These pilgrims, having followed the path of the mandala and brought the sacred home, will then hopefully have had the perspective of their world change in the doing, and the ability to change other’s perception as well.

In Buddhism, all of these activities and ritual that are taking place at the various sites can and oftentimes are deemed to induce the sacred. By conjuring the sacred, then these same rituals will create a sacred space and a sacred presence to the area where there might not have been one before. These spaces then will change the understanding of the pilgrim visiting and deliver to them a now sacred experience. What is especially unique about these experiences is that they are localized experiences that are being brought to those from outside the area to experience. The mandala of a sacred site in northern Japan will not have the same feeling or presence as one that exists in southern Japan, which means that pilgrims will look at visiting many sites to experience as much of the world around them as possible.

These acts of ritual from pilgrims are then transferred into the third type of sacred space in Zen Buddhism, spaces that are created as such because the space itself is an expression of the sacred. This third space doesn’t need a presence of the divine or supernatural to create a unique and special place, instead it holds that we create these sacred spaces by our own actions and meditations. This isn’t unique to Zen or Chan, of course; Buddhism in India has had locations that are considered sacred to this day. Buddha’s birthplace, Lumbini Grove, or Sarnath where he gave his first sermon, are only sacred because of the actions of the Buddha in them and they still draw thousands of visitors and pilgrims every year. The use of Shinto and Daoist spaces might have created an initial set of locations for Buddhism, but as Chan and Zen came into their own, they would then develop their own places that are held as sacred. These now unique to Zen and Chan spaces revolve around events that were exclusive to the tradition itself. This is how the cave structure and rock itself where Bodhidharma sat in silent meditation for nine years became a sacred site in Buddhism, drawing visitors to the shaolin Wugulun Kung Fu Academy to see where Buddhism was brought to China. The rock where Huineng is said to have placed his bowl and robe for his pursuers is also considered to be sacred, even holding a mummy of Huineng in spite of the fact that it is widely believed that Huineng never existed.

These locations that are key components of the evolution of Zen and Chan might be sacred and be important, but they do not hold a monopoly on sacrality in Zen. Buddhism believes that all sentient beings have the Buddha-nature, therefore all activities, no matter their significance or lack thereof, has the possibility of to take on the quality of ritual itself and then to express sacredness. Buddha-nature is basically the elementary make-up of all beings in this world and that those beings can all realize enlightenment. Much like in the Mu Koan where “a monk asked Zhaozhou, Great Master Zhenji, ‘Does a dog have Buddha-nautre,” to which the master replied “mu,” meaning no, Dogen says that Buddha-nature isn’t something that we possess, it isn’t some external holding that we all have; instead, Buddha-nature is something that all sentient beings just naturally are. Practice will never deliver a person to enlightenment, instead, practice is an activity that an enlightened being already does, meaning that the act of practicing is an offshoot of enlightenment that will then lead to realization of enlightenment. We all have Buddha-nature, we just need to strive to allow it to fully encompass us. This activity is where the third sacred space comes from, as we practice and attempt to attain enlightenment, our very being, inside and out, holds the possibility of becoming sacred. If this holds true, then this third type of sacred space is something that occurs ceaselessly and that it will be revealed when the understanding occurs that we all have the Buddha-nature. No longer must a person go to a temple or a shrine to experience the divine, instead we all have a fully universal sacred space inside each and every one of us, all we must do is understand that it possible. A belief in the harmonious unity of each and every sentient being can then pave the way to the pervading sense of calm that a sacred space can evoke in all of us.

Looking at Buddhism, if there are “no gods, deities or supernatural powers (all similar figures are ultimately aspects and manifestations of our mind),” can there be any sacred spaces? Since sacred space is the place that reveals itself to those that are willing and able to see it, then Buddhism feels like it absolutely has them. In Zen and Chan, no one sacred place is any more or less significant or special than any other space. Lumbini grove might be where the Buddha stood, but a meandering river that flows through the misty forest has as much of a pull of the sacred. There might be a temple that draws thousands of pilgrims in an old grove where a Kami made their presence felt, but this location is still only as significant as the practitioners that come to it to meditate and bring the sacred with them in their actions.

It is due to this very nature in Buddhism, that spaces where a supernatural being inspired a shrine, or where visitors to that shrine walk in a mandala and find an inner peace, are still no more or less sacred than a location somewhere of no significance where the expression of sacrality has happened. This is why a little Ace Hardware concrete Buddha statue on a traffic easement in Oakland, California, has transformed into a shrine that manifested in the area a sense of community for a displaced Vietnamese populace, leading to those who visit it from all over the world to experience the sacred.


  1. Dōgen . The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master. Edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt. Boston: Shambhala, 2013.
  2. Grapard, Allan G. “Flying Mountains and Walkers of Emptiness: Toward a Definition of Sacred Space in Japanese Religions.” History of Religions 21, no. 3 (1982): 195–221.
  3. Holm, Jean, and John Bowker. Sacred Writings. London (etc.): Pinter, 1994.
  4. Lewis, Craig. “The ‘Buddha of Oakland’ Transforms California Neighborhood.” Buddhistdoor Global, December 20, 2017.
  5. Nilkolova, Antoaneta. “Sacred Places in Buddhism or the Place of the Sacred in Buddhism.” Raphisa: Review of Anthropology and Philosophy of the Sacrum 2,
  6. Simmins, Geoffrey. Sacred Spaces and Sacred Places: A Comparative Approach. Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2008.

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Sacred Spaces And Sacred Places: How The Buddha Of Oakland Is Equal To Sarnath. (2022, February 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from
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