The temple as metaphor for the mystical experience

Inner space as sacred space: the temple as metaphor for the mystical experience

George Wolfe

Amidst graceful pines and dried cow turds there is a shrine atop a steep sloping hill. I go there to make offerings on its sacrificial alter. To begin I offer the sacrifice of time, then the dimensions of space–of height, breadth and width. Next comes the offering of speech, followed by breath, individual will, ego and craving. Lastly I lay down the sacrifice of thought.

Sukumar Deva

Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them.

from Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Since the dawn of civilization, humans have had a need for sacred gathering places–spaces designated for worshiping the omnipotent force or forces to which we all inevitably succumb. Originally, such gathering places were unconfined, open and integrated into the natural world. Often set in relation to the movement of the sun, moon, and stars, they were left subject to the elements with which the devotee was to seek harmony. Two noted examples are Stonehenge in England and the configuration of mounds built by Native Americans near Anderson, Indiana. Both designs are said to be aligned with movement of the sun to mark the changing seasons, a feature important to agrarian and hunter-gatherer tribes. (1) Another example is the well-known Serpent Mound in Ohio, perhaps built to represent the regenerative force in what was perceived to be a cyclical Creation, undergoing continual death and renewal. In addition, the sacrificial altars mentioned in the oldest scriptures, the Rig Veda, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the five books of Moses, are generally thought to be open-air altars. (2)

As time went on and cultures developed masonry skills, sacred spaces were enclosed and became increasingly more ornate. While this may be seen as an outgrowth of sophistication in architecture, it also reflects the belief that humans became separated from God through either ignorance (as asserted in Eastern philosophy) or the transgression of Divine Law as depicted in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It therefore became necessary to prepare appropriate, holy, and protected places for people to again draw near to the Divine. The problem inherent to this development is that sacred buildings and their adornments run the risk of becoming distractions along a person’s spiritual path. This occurs if, in the eyes of the devotee, the shrine and its religious artifacts become more valued than the spiritual essence they represent.

Revivals in spirituality, particularly when they are grounded in the experience of spiritual enlightenment, include views that run counter to the notion of sacred adornments and confined sacred space. Buddha’s enlightenment took place under the Bo tree, not in a sacred temple filled with decorative icons. The Christian book of Acts asserts: “The God who made the world and everything in it…does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything….” (Acts 17:24,25 RSV). In the Hindu faith, a series of texts known as the Upanishads were written in an effort to shift the attention away from physical representations of the sacred and return the emphasis to inner experience; i.e., the realization that the divine is omnipresent and beyond limits, dwelling everywhere including within us. Thus from the perspective of the mystical experience, the temple that is closest to us is our own body in which the Spirit of God, the spark or light of divinity, dwells. Or as the Chris tian Apostle Paul writes: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you…?” (1st Cor. 6:19 RSV).

A tangible application of this ancient concept still exists in India today where Hindu temples are said to symbolize both the body of God on a macrocosmic plane, and the human body on a microcosmic plane–the parts of the temple being designated with names used to refer to parts of the human body (Harshananada, 1992). The image on the following page shows the human body superimposed over the layout of a typical South Indian temple. In this diagram, the placement of deities corresponds to the navel, heart, forehead, and other key centers deemed spiritually significant in Indian philosophy.

I will now explore the concept of temple as a metaphor for the mystical experience. In addition, I will propose ways sacred space can be designed so as to minimize the risk of it becoming a material attachment that retards, rather than advances, spiritual growth.

The Inner Sanctuary

The sanctuary is the part of any shrine in which one finds refuge from the world. The equivalent within the “temple of the body” is our “inner sanctuary.” There are several ways we can enter and experience our own inner sanctuary. Most of these spiritual practices fall into the category of “meditation.” Here I am referring to a very specific genre of meditation procedures that enable a person to experience “awareness by itself.” “Pure awareness,” as it is sometimes called, is the unmanifest status of the mind, the source of thought and all mental activity, referred to in the Upanishads as “Pure consciousness.” One such method in which I give instruction, that comes to us through the discipline of music, applies an ancient form of East Indian singing. Certain Sanskrit texts set to a tonal melody on the backdrop of a properly configured drone and listened to for the correct length of time, enable a person to effortlessly enter meditation and attain a heightened state of awareness along with a deep state of rela xation. This particular technique, derived from a musical tradition in India by the same name, is called Gandharva Meditation. During the practice of this and other comparable forms of meditation, four experiences become apparent that relate to the temple metaphor.

First, there is the experience of inner quietude. The silence deep within the mind comes to the foreground of our experience while mental activity recedes into the background and can even subside altogether. It is a psycho-physiological experience, the wakeful settling of the mind being accompanied by a profound and enjoyable state of relaxation.

Second, one experiences what is referred to as the state of non-desire. This condition of non-desire is not an exercise in desire repression. Rather, the mind settles into a state of such inner contentment and tranquillity in desires simply are no longer present. To use my own analogy, “sitting in the sunlight, we do not find ourselves desiring a candle.” It is not that we have to keep ourselves from desiring a candle. The need for a candle simply does not arise due to the fulfillment provided by the sunlight.

Third, there is the experience of transcendence or “awareness by itself.” In mystical literature, awareness is equated with light, because it is prerequisite to experiencing and knowing. “Pure consciousness” as it is referred to in the Upanishads, is said to be “beyond thought” but “not beyond the meditation of the sage” (Prabhavananda, 1948). It is “that which cannot be seen by the eye but by which the eye sees” or “that which cannot be heard by the ear, but by which the ear hears” or “that which cannot be comprehended by the mind but by which the mind comprehends” (Prabhavananda, 1948). It is the “screen” onto which all thought and sensory images are cast. Conversely, ignorance traditionally has been equated with darkness. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says. “I destroy the darkness born of ignorance by the shining light of wisdom” (Deutsch, 1968). Similarly, the Gospel of John quotes Jesus as saying, “he who follows me will not walk in darkness but have the light of life” (John 8:12 RSV). In the context of the mystical experience, this “light of life” or “light of wisdom” is that inner pristine awareness which, when experienced by itself, free from the boundaries and limitations of thought, awakens the mental faculties that make possible the realization of the Divine.

Finally, experiencing pure awareness places the practitioner in a state of inner reflection. In the state of non-desire, the voluntary individual will temporarily has been disengaged and one is left to “witness” the involuntary stream of subtle, non-directed thoughts and feelings flowing within. This involuntary stream of mental activity is the fertile ground of creative inner flow from which realizations are spontaneously born. Through the regular practice of meditation one becomes increasingly aware of this wellspring within, and more receptive to the realizations that arise from this unfathomable reservoir of creativity.

Confined sacred spaces such as we have in a temple, church, synagogue, or mosque include features which represent the four experiences common to contemplative practice enumerated above. First, regardless of the religious context, sacred spaces are treated with reverence, and respecting the silence present in the space is an important means of honoring and preserving the space’s sanctity. This outer silence is conducive to removing sensory distractions and objects of desire so the mind can begin to settle and focus in preparation for spiritual practice. Second, the decor within the space, with its emphasis on virtue and sacrifice, facilitates the presence of an inward-looking frame of mind in the state of non-desire. In ages where the vast majority of the public was illiterate, temple artwork became a means through which the epic stories of heroism, virtue, and self-sacrifice, important to a religious tradition, were taught and passed on to succeeding generations. The nature of these stories inspires devotees to realize and be guided by their higher and virtuous spiritual nature rather than their lower, selfish animal nature. (3) Third, there is a noticeable light source, a strategically placed window or flame, symbolizing the power the light of realization has over ignorance. Finally, any rituals that take place in the sacred space, whether they be in the form of personal devotions or group ceremonies, carry rich symbolic meaning revealed as one reflects on the imagery within the ceremonial rites and, where permitted. temple artwork.

But while sacred space contains features related to meditative practice, from the perspective of mysticism and the experience of spiritual enlightenment, the outer temple is but a pale reflection of the unbounded inner space which, when experienced, is far more meaningful than finite representations set within the built environment. In the final chapter to his masterpiece Walden, mystic Henry Thoreau offers a nineteenth-century reflection on the boundless experience of inner space. He challenges each person to “be a Columbus to whole new worlds and continents within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. . .” and to “explore the private seas, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans of one’s being alone” (Shanley, 1973).

Once a person is awakened through the meditative experience, a process begins whereby one internalizes the meaning within sacred stories and ceremonies. In Indian philosophy, this process of internalization becomes important in the third stage of life known as vanaprashtha or aranyaka. In this stage, a person has become a forest dweller, and one’s spiritual practice consists of meditation and symbolic worship rather than participation in temple rituals. The fourth and final stage of life in Indian philosophy is known as sannyasa. In this stage, the aspirant lives free from worldly attachments and becomes engaged in uninterrupted contemplation of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality. According to Swami Nikhilananda, for a sannyasin:

It was no longer necessary to worship God by means of material articles or even mental symbols. One experienced directly the non-duality of God, the soul, and the universe–Spirit communing immediately with Spirit. The Sannyasin took the vow of dedicating his life to Truth and to the service of humanity, and was honored as a spiritual leader of society. And it was for him that the Upanishads . . .were written. (Nikhilananda, 1949)

The Upanishads are a series of texts included in the sixth system of Indian philosophy known as Vedanta. Their focus is primarily on the experience of Spiritual Enlightenment–understanding Brahman not as a theoretical construct but through direct experience, and realizing the forces of nature not as objects of worship but as expressions of the universal “Self.” But the process of internalizing religious precepts to validate inner experience is not restricted to Hinduism. It is found in all the major religious traditions and is strikingly apparent m writings of the Apostle Paul. In addition to the temple metaphor, the Apostle Paul internalizes the concept of veil (II Cor. 3:15 RSV) describing the veil that lies over the mind. He also uses the crucifixion as a metaphor for the sacrifice of his lower nature that is bound by the law, saying that he has been “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20 RSV). By internalizing teachings and rituals, one understands their meaning in the context of the “inner temple.” This giv es stories and rituals much more personal and practical meaning.

The process of internalization also gives sacred rituals and stories a validity that transcends their historical context. One can then appreciate the stories more for their mythological meaning. By mythological meaning I refer to meaning that is valid irrespective of whether a story is historically true. Myth transcends time and place and speaks to us on a deep intuitive level, revealing to us something about our own psychological make-up. When we extract mythological meaning, the events, persons, or objects a story contains are recognized to be metaphors for aspects of our own subjective nature.

Two excellent examples of sacred stories that pertain to the temple metaphor, considered for their mythological or internalized meaning, are found in the Christian and Jewish traditions. The first I will consider here comes from the Christian gospels where Jesus chases the moneychangers out of the temple. On the level of myth, this story becomes a parable pertaining to the purifying experience of meditation. The temple is the body, filled with selfish desire and craving for the material world, which is cleansed by the “light of life within,” recognized through meditation to awaken us to more profound realizations and wisdom. Each time we sit to meditate, the moneychangers are cast out of our own bodily temple as the mind settles into the state of inner contentment, the condition of non-desire.

A similar rendering can be made of the Hanukkah story from the Jewish tradition in which, following a battle for religious freedom, it is said the lamp within the temple, having oil for only one day, burned miraculously for eight days. Again, on the level of myth, the temple becomes the body, the temple of the soul. Over time, as one experiences the “light of life within,” it is realized that this light is eternally “burning” within regardless of the battles one may be engaged in outside the bodily temple. In mystical language this is the state of liberation or spiritual freedom. A person permanently established in the “light of life” has attained enlightenment or become “illumined.” The veil of ignorance is removed, leaving the faculties of realization fully and permanently awakened. (5)

Designing Sacred Space

My primary point in this article is that the internalization of religious stories and teachings is of utmost importance in a person’s spiritual journey. When we appreciate religion as myth, we are able to extract its timeless, cross-cultural and universal meaning; timeless in that the meaning appeals to many generations, cross-cultural in that the symbols are shared between cultures, and universal in that it speaks to human nature at a depth that is independent of historical accuracy and ethnic background.

The problem with built temples is that they can, in all their grandeur, be a distraction from the inner essence of the spiritual experience and risk misleading the devotee into thinking that Truth is to be found in dogma, design, symbolism or geographical location. In Vedic mythology, Martanda, the ancestor of the human race, was stillborn and thrown aside by his mother, the goddess Aditi (O’Flathery, 1981). In the book of Genesis, Adam is formed from dust, lifeless material that is typically swept aside and discarded. In Christianity, this idea is conveyed using the temple metaphor. Christ, the second or “last Adam” (I Corinthians 15:45) is depicted as “the stone which the builders rejected” that becomes the cornerstone of the new temple (Matt. 21:42). In our preoccupation with dogma and sensory icons, we often discard or kill the spiritual essence, but it is out of this discarded essence that a new and meaningful expression of spirituality is eventually revived and “rebuilt.” Given the trappings of the ego, intellect and senses, one might therefore rebelliously conclude that the best design for a sacred shrine is no design at all!

In actuality though, there is a role for designated sacred gathering places if they are built to call attention to the infinite spiritual dimension of life, initially experienced by looking within. Spirituality unfolds through a growth process that begins in infancy. The teachings and myths of the great world religions are meant to be appreciated on different levels as one proceeds along life’s path. The meaning apparent to a long time adult devotee may not be the meaning appropriate for a child. As an example, let us consider the well-known Christian nativity story.

For the person who has reflected upon the concept of incarnate divinity, the virgin birth serves as metaphor for the First Cause, articulating the mystery of how the divine reveals itself without anticipation through the process of realization. It is an experience that appropriately lends itself to the birth metaphor. The timing of a woman’s water breaking and the emergence of the baby during natural childbirth invariably eludes anticipation. So, too, does the realization experience consistently contain an element of surprise as the idea is suddenly born and grows to maturity. At another stage, the nativity of Christ becomes understood for its Zen-like teaching of value inversion–the supreme omnipotent Creator of the universe entering Creation in humble and even somewhat scandalous circumstances, born in a “barn” as an illegitimate child, with the announcement of the birth given not to kings and clergy, but to those who were among the lowest in the social order of the day, the shepherds! For the literalist, the nativity may be viewed primarily as an incomprehensible miracle, but for a small sexually unawakened child, it is a story idealizing motherhood and birth, depicting God’s love as it is found within the cold unwelcome domain of the human world.

As a father of two children, I can observe and assist my children as they progress through some of the stages I have mentioned. Unfortunately, many of the established religions, and here I include the popular expression of all faiths, do not adequately guide a person towards appreciating the internalized, mythological meaning of scripture. One way to address this deficiency is to design sacred space so as to present various interpretations of the stories important to a given religious tradition. Temple art and design could serve to educate believers to multiple interpretations of sacred stories so as to encourage the process of internalizing religious teachings.

A second approach to encourage a broader view of religion is to employ design to call attention to stories, themes, and metaphors that the great world religions share in common. Today, there is a very active interfaith movement spreading in the United States and throughout the world. Future architects will undoubtedly be called upon to design spaces for interfaith gatherings and ceremonies. Successful designs could help counter the provincialism inherent to popular religion. In addition to the Christian nativity story, for example, there are several other miraculous birth images present in the various religious traditions. There is the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus in Greek mythology. In this mythological image, wisdom (Athena) is portrayed as feminine, symbolic of intuition, the faculty of insight. Athena is born within each of us every time we are struck with a startling and transforming realization. The book of Genesis tells the story of Sarah, the wife of Abraham whose womb was barren. Sarah mirac ulously gives birth to Isaac while in her nineties, conveying the message that the Divine can reveal itself through anyone, regardless of age. And there is the myth of Buddha being born from the side for his mother and immediately walking upright (MacQuitty, 1969). Walking upright (as opposed to crawling on all fours like an animal) represents living according to one’s higher spiritual nature. This birth image suggests Buddha was guided by his divine nature from birth, and was never ruled by his lower animal nature. Such myths, when studied in parallel for their internalized meaning, render a more complete message and serve as a lens to gain deeper insight into the Divine.

The same cross-cultural approach can be taken to teach the myth of the great flood, versions of which can be found in Greek, Indian, and Babylonian epics in addition to the Biblical story in the book of Genesis. The concept of death and resurrection in three days is a prominent theme in the Christian gospels, but it is also present in the story of Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad from the Hindu tradition. Nachiketa is a young man who spends three days in the house of the King of Death and is subsequently granted three boons, the third of which is the secret of immortality (Wolfe, 1995).

Stories about consuming sacred food are perhaps more pervasive than any other ancient religious theme and speak symbolically to the importance of internalizing sacred teachings. For when food is eaten, it becomes part of one’s body, absorbed into one’s being. Similarly, a religious teaching fully internalized is lived spontaneously rather than followed intellectually as in a written code or law. There are numerous examples of the eating metaphor in the scriptures of the world’s great religions. These include the Soma sacrifice in the Rig Veda, the manna given to the Israelites during their forty years in the wilderness, the Zoroastrian drink of immortality, the well-known Christian communion rite, the story in the Mahabharata of Krishna dispelling the hunger of Durvasa and his 10,000 disciples (Rajagopalachari, 1990), and Jesus feeding the multitude of 5,000 people in the Christian gospels. In addition, the elimination of thirst as a metaphor for life without craving is found in the Chandogya Upanishad where it speaks of “the knowledge of Brahman, having drunk of which one will never thirst,” (Prabhavananda 1948:65), the teachings of Buddha (Nirvana is also known by the term tanhakkayha which means “extinction of thirst”–see Ruhula 1959), and in the Gospel of John where Jesus says: “He who drinks the water I shall give him shall never thirst” (John 4:13 RSV). The question inevitably arises, were these great spiritual teachers talking about the same thirst?

A third approach to challenge people to consider alternative interpretations is to design temples and churches with the intent of reconnecting the devotee to the natural world and encouraging the integration of science into theology. Envision, for example, a sacred shrine devoted to the infinite power of the Almighty at work in the universe. Rather than having a mural depicting the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, there could be a wall-size photo of a supernova; rather than God separating the light from the darkness, a gaseous dark nebula wherein lies the birthplace of stars; rather than the rainbow arching across the sky after the great flood, the aurora borealis gracing the northern night sky.

It, of course, would be impractical and certainly undesirable to incorporate all these themes into one piece of sacred architecture. Rather, a single theme should be the focus of a given design. As when temples were dedicated to a particular god or goddess, or a medieval church was dedicated to a particular saint, so too sacred space in the new millennium could focus on multiple interpretations of a specific religious concept or shared inter-religious theme, or draw upon science and the natural world as a means of gaining insight into our spiritual nature.

Clapping with One Hand

Architects, painters, sculptors, and musicians have had a great deal of influence on the development of popular religion. It is important though that artists and designers guard against having a material representation of a religious concept become a distraction from the spiritual essence the concept represents. For as sacred representations become more developed and complex, there is a great risk of attachment. An example of great beauty and complexity in Tibetan Buddhism is a sand mandala created as a spiritual exercise by Tibetan monks. But to minimize the risk of attachment to the outer form, the mandala is destroyed shortly after completion. This is what we must do daily with our temples.

Metaphorically speaking, meditation is a means of destroying ego attachment within the temple of the body. When experiencing transcendence or “awareness by itself,” all thought and individuality are dissolved and become unmanifest in preparation for its renewal as we arise from meditation and begin activity. Or to use the temple analogy attributed to Jesus, we must “destroy this temple” and raise it up again (John 2:19-21). This is the ongoing process of death and renewal we witness day after day in Creation, operating within us, transforming our consciousness until duality dissolves and we recognize the inner and the outer as one. Then we come to know what is referred to in Zen Buddhist philosophy as “the sound of one hand clapping”–the Creator applauding to express His joy when that Oneness is realized by the earnest seeker. And because the Creator is beyond duality, He only has one hand to clap with. (6)


(1.) For more information on this theory of Stonehenge, see Carl Newham (1972), The Astronomical Significance of Stonehenge, Wales: Moon Publications.

(2.) According to Swami Harshananada (1992), built temples did not yet exist in India during the Vedic age. Also, consider the soma sacrifice as described in the Rig Veda, and the description of the burnt offering made after the great flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh and in the Hebrew book of Genesis.

(3.) An exception is the sculptures that adorn many Hindu temples in India which Westerners might consider erotic. Harshananada (1992) explains them as connected to fertility rites and as representations of the bipolar nature of the created world wherein nature (prakriti) and spirit (purusha) are united. According to Singh (1991), such sculptures may be considered a test for the devotee; i.e., if you are aroused by the artworks your mind is not pure enough to enter the temple.

(4.) The four stages of life in Indian philosophy apply to those who follow the householder path. The first stage of life is the student phase called bra brahmacharya. The second stage is known as garhasthya during which one marries, raises a family, develops a career and attends to household duties. Stage three, vanaprashtha or aranyaka begins when one’s hair turns gray and the children have grown so they can assume responsibility for the home. The householder and his wife retire to the forest. During the final stage, sannyasa, one becomes a renunciate, free from worldly obligations.

(5.) Veils were part of ancient Jewish temples where one was used to shroud the entrance to the most holy part of the shrine. Indian philosophy speaks of the veil of maya (maya meaning literally “That which is not”) which shrouds the soul leaving one in ignorance (Nikhilananda, 1949).

(6.) The “sound of one hand clapping” in Zen Buddhism is related to the concept of the “unstruck sound” in Indian philosophy as when one hand claps, there is nothing for it to strike against. The “unstruck sound” is the aural equivalent to primal waves arising on the ocean of the Unmanifest in preparation for bringing forth Creation. In East Indian music, the unstruck sound is represented by the continuous, undulating drone which serves as the backdrop for all formal performances of Indian classical music.


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Newham, C.W. (1972). The Astronomical Significance of Stonehenge. Gwent Wales: Moon Publications (pp. 12-32).

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Singh, D. (1991). Hinduism: An Introduction. New Delhi: Shree Baidyanath Ayurved Bhawan Ltd.

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Wolfe, G. (1995). Parallel Teachings in Hinduism and Christianity. Austin: Jomar Press (pp.7-8).

George Wolfe is Professor of Music and Director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Ball State University. He was awarded the Eli Lilly Open Fellowship in 1992 and more recently received the faculty Outstanding Creative Endeavors Award at Ball State for his compact disk Lifting the Veil. He is the author of Parallel Teachings in Hinduism and Christianity, and Common Themes in the World’s Great Religions.

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