Multifaith Mashup: Circumambulation

by Vicki Garlock on October 22, 2014

Crop Circles (oil painting)
Wikimedia Commons

Metaphorically-speaking, going around in circles is viewed as less than desirable in the worlds I inhabit. It denotes a lack of progress. A waste of time. An interminable revisiting of the same issue along with a notable absence of new ideas. We’ve all been there – with spouses, kids, colleagues, and fellow committee members – although most people seem to have a higher tolerance for it than I do. Honestly, going around in circles makes me fantasize about resurrecting that cigarette-smoking habit I once had.

Spiritually-speaking, however, going around in circles is all the rage. Nearly all major faith traditions incorporate some version of it in their practices. The official term for it is “circumambulation.” Tibetan Buddhists walk around their temples. Jews circle round the Torah on Hoshanah Rabbah. Muslims circuit the Kaaba. Zen Buddhists practice kinhin, and Hindus practice parikarma. It gives one the impression that there might be something beneficial about going around in circles.

One fundamental question you might ask before circumambulating is: in which direction should I go? As it turns out, that varies with tradition. In the Asian traditions, clockwise seems to be the norm. Hindus, for example, sometimes start near the outside edges of the sanctuary space, working their way — in the clockwise direction — toward a deity enshrined in the center. Both Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists also walk clockwise when circumambulating around the outside of shrines, temples, or other sacred sites. A Hindu center near Asheville requests that everyone perform pradakshina — which involves walking around the outside of the temple three times in the clockwise direction — before entering the temple itself. The Zen Buddhist tradition involves a lot of sitting meditation, known as zazen; however, they do occasionally engage in walking meditation, and when they do, it is also in a clockwise direction. Traditionally, one hand is held in a fist while the other hand covers the fist during kinhin. In addition, the steps, which can vary greatly in terms of pace, are often coordinated either with the breath or with sound.

In the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism and Islam), counter-clockwise is the norm. On Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh and final day of Sukkot, worshipers walk around the bimah holding the Four Species. The bimah is a raised platform equipped with a reading desk that holds the Torah scrolls while they are read. The Four Species are the lulav (consisting of a palm branch surrounded by willow and myrtle) and the etrog (a citrus fruit). An important part of the ceremony is walking around the bimah seven times in a counter-clockwise direction while reciting prayers. Muslims also circumambulate seven times in the counter-clockwise direction, but they walk around the Kaaba in a ritual known as tawaf. The Kaaba, located in Mecca, is the most sacred site in all of Islam, and all Muslims, regardless of where they are in the world, face the Kaaba when they pray. The number of circumambulations — seven — is clearly derived from verses in the Qur’an in which Hagar, Abraham’s wife and the mother of Ishmael, ran back and forth between two hills seven times in search of water for herself and her son after they were left alone in the desert.

In at least one Buddhist tradition, you might be wise to think about distance, as well. Most circumambulation practices make use of pretty well-defined boundaries. Hindu and Zen rituals usually involve walking around a courtyard space or the perimeter of a shrine/temple. The Kaaba is located in the courtyard of a huge mosque, so circumambulations are limited to that space, and during Hoshanah Rabbah, one is simply circling the bimah. However, if you’re following a Tibetan Buddhist path, you might be signing up for several miles. The walking paths surrounding those sacred sites are called koras. They can be found around nearly all temples and monasteries, and Tibetan Buddhists walk them regularly. While many sites and their accompanying koras are located in towns or villages, some can be found up in the mountains, making the circumambulations more like a hike. There is even a kora that surrounds the entire city of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region. With a population of over 500,000 people, walking that kora constitutes a 5-mile adventure, assuming you can stick to the sometimes hard-to-find path. For those who prefer something more well-defined, Borobudur might be an option. Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple/monument in the world. Located on the island of Java, Indonesia, it is a step pyramid made up of three circular platforms sitting atop six square platforms. If you start walking at the bottom, working your way around and up, it’s about 3 miles.

So what about Christianity? I’m not aware of any widespread circumambulation rituals, although I think labyrinths might be relevant here. Unlike mazes, labyrinths contain a single path that leads toward the center and back out. If you walk one, you’ll find yourself turning to the right and the left, which means you’re not really circumambulating, you’re perambulating. Labyrinths and/or images of labyrinths have been found all over the world dating from as early as 2500 BCE. They have apparently been used for ritual dances and for protection from evil winds/spirits. The earliest Christian labyrinth is in an Algerian church and dates to the 4th century CE. Several others can be found in gothic cathedrals throughout Europe. Those labyrinths apparently represented the (sometimes difficult) path to God or the Church. They may also have served as symbolic pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Nowadays, however, modern church-associated labyrinths offer opportunities for prayer, reflection, healing, and meditation.

When certain practices have been around for centuries, it suggests that they’re worth paying attention to. When certain practices show up in a variety of faith traditions, it also suggests that they’re worth paying attention to. Circumambulation qualifies on both accounts – which is a bit surprising since, before this week, I never actually used the word in a sentence. Going around in circles, in one form or another, clearly resonates with our human psyches. Maybe it’s because getting started is so easy. Beginnings and endings don’t matter in circles, so you can just jump in. Maybe it’s because going around in a circle is safe. It’s hard to get lost going around in a circle, especially when others are circling with you. Maybe it’s because circles help us to connect with nature. All planets, stars, and moons are spherical – or are approaching sphericity over time — as a result of gravitational forces. Or, maybe it’s because circles allow us to focus on the center – whatever that might mean. In any case, the next time I feel like a discussion is “going around in circles,” I’m going to try viewing it in a new way. After all, “going around in circles” just might be an important part of a process that leads to something new or different or maybe even something downright spectacular.

[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]

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