Secularized Sacred Experiences
Just as the woman is putting the candles carrying her wish and worship on to the rack, the other two temple staff are cleaning up the other candles and throwing them into baskets for recycling. What is the exact moment when the candles transform from sacred to secular and secular back to sacred?
This is a special window in this Buddhist temple on Mount Emei. The temple offers stamps carved with prayers and spells onto banners brought by the pilgrims. These banners will, as explained by one of the pilgrims, be burned with the deceased so that their journey to the celestial is blessed by the Buddhas from all the temple they have traveled to in their lifetime. This custom is no longer in the area where the temple is located; however, the temple is still providing this service for those pilgrims from other geographical areas who are keeping the practice.
“What is this?” I asked. “It will get cremated along with my body when I pass away in the future,” she answered, folding this cloth covered with stamps collected from temples she traveled to all over China. Later, she pulled out another three. “What are those for?” “They are for my husband and my parents-in-law. I’m traveling for them because they can’t come themselves. We all need Buddha’s blessing when we die.”
A member of an elderly pilgrimage group organized by a tourism company looking back at the temple.
“How do we make sense of the seemingly clear divisions between the institutional and the popular, the collective and the person, the physical and the spiritual, the secular and the sacred? Why do we still hold on to these categorizations when none of them exist in any degree of purity in reality? Why do we still analyze, question and deny these mixed yet beautiful human experiences when we can just be right there with them, live and celebrate the remarkably messy and messily remarkable world?”—Boheng Zhang
An image from “Pilgrimage and Tourism: Secularized Sacred Experiences” was published in The Gallatin Review, volume 34, for which Boheng Zhang was awarded a prize.