What is meant by holy or sacred?

The idea of holiness, of there being something beyond the mundane reality of our physical world, is recognised by all religions – can we find it in the pragmatic and experiential sphere of Dharma?

If we follow the logic of impermanence and the emptiness of our materialistic view, we might conclude that nothing of what we know and can name has any reality to it. We might reason that therefore there is no reality, or at least nothing we can know or say about reality. At its most extreme, this line of thought could end in the nihilistic view that if nothing exists, then nothing matters.

Wouldn’t that feel wrong though? Even if we cannot rely upon any object we can conceptualise, at that very moment we know there is not nothing: our experience is vibrant, alive – and real. Of course if we try to say or even think what makes up that experience, we are back to naming, and believing our concepts. Yet we cannot make our experience disappear, we cannot prevent it from changing: we are living experience itself.

To see fully the claustrophobia of believing in our conceptual interpretations, and to let them go, opening into whatever arises without interfering – without there being anything which could interfere – this would be a mystical experience. This would be so distinct from our normal limited horizons we would know it as profound and significant. We’d recognise it as truly real, and our previous complications as deluded. One glimpse even, is sufficient to convince us that this sacred reality exists.

This is the reality which was always there, only obscured by our fixing our spin on it and believing our own deception. Now we know it as real, even when we are absorbed in our everyday life and lose sight of it – because we have seen how we create our difficult and restricting unreality.

In any instant that we realise the hollowness of our delusion-mediated view, it falls away, leaving us as a total ‘knowing-awareness-happening’, and this is truly magical. This ‘magic’ is always the basis of our experience, but now it’s not deadened by the usual concretising of our distorted “knowing” of our experience (which is not truly knowing it). This inspires wonder and awe, in fact some intuition of this is always the source of any wonder or awe we feel.

A taste of this sacred Knowing is realised to be of infinite value compared to our finite mundane view, so we need to remember and maintain this attitude in our unawakened life. Naturally any objects, places or people who connect us to the sacred are imbued with this sacredness as well. This is a practical aid to our lasting Awakening: if we value Awakening, we value and respect the sacredness of such links.

Different spiritual traditions do this in different ways, some even appear to settle for this stage of respecting the sacred as outside the individual adherent, rather than as a path to personal realisation. But perhaps we have to admire those who only come to their religion through a personal intuition of the reality of this sacredness: their confidence is such that faith in the sacred is their guide through life.

Is sacredness something real? What is holy in a person, place or object? Our explorations of our experience are the best answer to this important question.

3 thoughts on “What is meant by holy or sacred?

  1. My problem with “holy” and “sacred” lies in its definition (Shorter Oxford Dictionary SOD) as being inviolate from ordinary use and set apart for religious use or observance. Inviolate implies to me beyond the realms of criticism or investigation and hence exempt from both scientific method and Buddhas advice to test for ourselves.

    I think you have given a good practical definition of “sacred” here as someone or something that helps us towards awakening.


    1. Thanks, I hope I have given a fuller picture of the sacred than you would expect from a dictionary. But to me, religious “use or observance” seems separate from debate and investigation. Anyway we don’t need a dictionary to tell us whether we can test Dharma for ourselves!


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