Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, the pyramids of Egypt, Jerusalem, Banaras, and Mt. Fuji. Since prehistoric times, these and other sacred places have exerted a mysterious attraction for millions of people around the world. Ancient legends and modern-day reports tell of extraordinary experiences that people have had while visiting these magical places. Sacred sites have the power to heal the body, enlighten the mind, increase creativity, develop psychic abilities, and awaken the soul to an awareness of its true purpose in life. These power places are found all across the planet in the form of sacred mountains, healing springs, enchanted caves, and sites of divine apparitions.
After several months of research in Washington, D.C., at the Library of Congress and the map division of the Smithsonian, I began my long pilgrimage. Traveling as a solitary pilgrim for the next 20 years (the first five by bicycle) I visited, studied and photographed 1000 sacred sites and power places in more than 100 countries around the world. Living and meditating at the sacred sites, I continued to have experiences of visionary revelation, miraculous apparitions, and communication with the elemental forces of the sacred sites. Based on these mystical experiences and on my studies of mythology, archaeology, ancient religions, and shamanism, I developed a fascinating (and highly controversial) explanation to account for the mysterious powers of the sacred sites.
What is the key to the mystery of the sacred sites, and how are we to explain their power? Why do millions of people flock to these holy and magical places every year?
I have had a keen interest in exploring sacred sites for most of my life. Since 1984, I have traveled extensively in more than 100 countries to visit, study, and photograph more than 1,000 sacred places. On this rambling, global pilgrimage, I discovered many fascinating things about the holy sites, their spiritual magnetism, and their legendary powers.
It is a curious fact that while sacred sites represent the most visited category of places on the Earth (compared to cities where people live full time), there has been little scholarly study of the sites or the great pilgrimages to them. Only recently have cultural geographers, social anthropologists, and religious historians begun to study the ancient and enduring phenomena of people making pilgrimages to sacred sites. While it's certainly true that religion and tourism result in many people visiting the sacred sites, a fundamental question remains unanswered: How are we to account for the initial development of the ancient pilgrimage traditions? What started them? Why did human beings originally visit and venerate certain places on Earth?
A Personal Pilgrimage
My own search for answers to these questions began in a most unexpected way in the autumn of 1983. After spending 12 years in a disciplined practice of Hindu and Buddhist meditation techniques, I had begun to have unusual visionary experiences in which I was directed to travel to Easter Island, in the remote southern Pacific Ocean. Visiting Easter Island, and also the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, I had two more visions that directed me to “follow the pilgrimage routes of the ancient religions” and to begin those travels in Japan. These visionary experiences were both auditory and visual, and of surprising clarity.
The visions were so compelling that I left my successful travel agency business in the United States and journeyed to Japan. Bicycling around that country for eight months, I photographed dozens of sacred mountains and ancient temples. Near the end of my pilgrimage, at the Shinto sacred site of Izumo Taisha, I had another vision. During this extraordinary experience of revelation, I was directed to continue my explorations of sacred sites all around the world.
From this vision, I learned that during the upcoming 25 years large numbers of people—from outside of the major religious traditions—would feel compelled to visit the sacred sites. However, these people would not know where the sites were located or the appropriate response to their attraction. I realized that my photographs and the information I would gather would assist people in responding to and finding the power places.
I believe that there is a presence or numinosity (a spiritual elevation) at the sacred sites that accounts for the extraordinary - and often miraculous - experiences that human beings have on pilgrimage. This presence may be described as a field of energy, a spiritual ambiance, or a density of holiness that saturates and surrounds the sacred sites. When humans enter into these fields, they may experience a variety of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual effects. Which of course begs the question: How may we explain or account for these mysterious energy fields? What factors contribute to their presence and powers?