How do sacred places in nature generate spiritual transformation? This pivotal question and related ones will be explored in a new field research project which is now in the preliminary development stage. The project focuses on a controlled comparison of individual experiences at diverse places in nature that are widely considered sacred and spiritually transformative.

For each sacred site, detailed life histories will be systematically recorded for a sample of individuals who identify themselves as having experienced a spiritual transformation there. In turn, these life histories will be contextualized with geographical, ecological, cultural, religious, and historical background on the sacred place employing standard scientific methods including ethnography. In particular, this interdisciplinary research will seek to identify the factors and conditions that generate spiritual transformation in individuals from diverse religious, cultural, and national backgrounds.

Potential study sites include Uluru (Ayres Rock) in central Australia, Haleakala volcanic crater on the island of Maui in Hawai`i, Mount Shasta in northern California, Sorte Mountain in central Venezuela, and in Thailand Doi Suthep in the north and Sai Khao in the south. The first three sites are considered sacred by indigenous and other individuals from a diversity of religious, cultural, and national backgrounds; Sorte reflects a mixture of Native American, Afroamerican, and Catholic religious influences; and Doi Suthep is sacred to Buddhists while Sai Khao is sacred to Muslims as well as Buddhists. During the summer of 2002 the principal investigator began developing the research protocol and visiting prospective sites (Hawai`i and Thailand).

The primary goal of this research is to compare the similarities and differences among a small sample of diverse sacred places in nature to identify cross-cultural generalizations about factors and conditions which generate spiritual transformation. These generalizations will be formulated and tested as hypotheses with quantitative and qualitative data, analysis, and interpretation.

The principle investigator will recruit through advertisements six members of the research team, one member to focus on each study site. Some of his current and former ecological anthropology graduate students may be available, but there will be an open and fair competition for the advertised positions. The principle investigator will travel to visit each of the six sites to monitor progress and consult with each of the researchers in the field. Each researcher will follow the same research protocol, but in addition may explore their own special disciplinary and other interests in the study of spiritual transformation at the particular sacred site.

An integrated theoretical and methodological framework for this research will be developed from the most relevant literature on comparative religion, anthropology of religion, ecological anthropology, ecopsychology, spiritual ecology, and sacred places. The last three are new multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary arenas of research which developed in the 1990s and are especially relevant to this project. They are linked by the thesis that spirituality is inherent in nature as well as in humans, and that sacred places in nature can be a catalyst in the spiritual transformation of individuals from diverse backgrounds. The literature survey will coincide with teaching courses during fall semesters on ecological anthropology and on the anthropology of religion. Subsequently the framework will be further developed in collaboration with the research team including pretesting of the standard protocol.

The principal investigator has published extensively on ecological anthropology, spiritual ecology, Buddhist ecology, and sacred places. For example, an edited book is under review: Sanctuaries of Culture and Nature: Sacred Places and Biodiversity Conservation. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Harvard University and the Editorial Board of the forthcoming Encyclopedia on Religion and Nature as well as contributing author in publications of each of these two initiatives. Since 1986 he has collaborated with his wife, Dr. Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel of Chaminade University, to visit Thailand regularly in an ongoing project on the relationships among Buddhism, forests, ecology, and sacred places. Since 1981 he has been the Director of the Ecological Anthropology Program at the University of Hawai`i where, among other courses, he regularly teaches ecological anthropology and the anthropology of religion. He is also active in the American Anthropological Association and, if appropriate, would organize and chair a session at the annual convention for the individual researchers in this project to summarize the results of their fieldwork. Revised papers would be edited for publication as a book and/or a special issue of the journal Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion.

It is known in general that certain places in nature have been a catalyst for the spiritual transformation of individuals who became pioneers in natural history and environmentalism from Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold to more recently Gary Snyder, Barrie Lopez, and Julie Butterfly Hill, among many others. Such spiritual transformations not only profoundly affect the particular individuals involved, but also can have broader positive consequences for society and the environment. However, this phenomenon has been sorely neglected and deserves far more scientific attention and rigorous documentation. A major grant in support of the project outlined above wis being sought to advance knowledge and understanding of sacred places in nature as a catalyst for spiritual transformation and the resultant individual, social, and environmental consequences. The project would contribute a new ecological perspective on spiritual transformation.