San Francisco Chronicle
Writer Stephen Skinner talks about sacred geometry, nature's blueprints and the fine art of feng shui
Monday, March 26, 2007
Did you whine about having to learn algebra and geometry in school? Complain that you'd never have to use this stuff in your real life? Well, as it turns out, advanced math may be more than just exercise for the brain. Some believe you can use math to improve your luck, ensure domestic happiness and come a little closer to understanding the mind of God.
The study of "sacred geometry" -- arithmetic used in spiritual explorations, architecture and feng shui, among other disciplines -- is based on the idea that art, nature and science are linked by mathematical formulas to the basic principles that govern the universe. The most spiritual part of sacred geometry may be in the way that it demonstrates the connections between living things. The golden ratio (phi) is a specific ratio found in the growth patterns of many living things. You can see it in the way the circulatory system of a human strongly resembles that of a tree, or in the curve of a fern and the curl of an animal's horn.
Stephen Skinner has devoted much of his life to studying the magic of math and science. He's written more than 20 books on subjects ranging from feng shui to occult philosophy. His most recent book, "Sacred Geometry: Cracking the Code" (Sterling, November 2006), explores the idea that geometry may reveal how the universe functions. I interviewed him last week by e-mail from his home in Johor Bahru, Malaysia.
What makes geometry sacred?
For the ancient Greeks, all geometry was sacred, as it was the only perfect science. In fact, the geometry of Euclid is just as correct now as it was 2,400 years ago. Very few other areas of man's knowledge can make the same claim consistently.
Also it's "sacred" because it is archetypal -- it is the pattern that lies behind Creation. Precise geometry is seen to be behind much of God's handiwork.
What are some of the patterns in nature that particularly strike you as sacred?
Growth is what resonates with me as sacred: the growth of plants, the extendable double helix of DNA, the shape of a nautilus shell as its occupant builds on new chambers according to a precise mathematical rule.
Why do you think these patterns exist? What is the source? Is that God?
I don't think anyone can say, until all the "dots are joined up" and we can see all of the pattern, not just one tiny corner of it. I will say that if the world grew randomly like a huge spongy mess, then it could all just be accidental evolution. But when living creatures grow in precise patterns that replicate themselves, time and again, then it is hard not to deduce that there must be an intelligent ordering force behind this. It is but a short step from that thought to the sacred and divine.
I've heard sacred geometry described as "the blueprint for the universe." Is that what you believe?
I think the universe is a very complicated place, but the only things that us mortals have been able to really ascertain with precision is some of its geometry or the math, like E=mc2, behind physics. We know these things are true because when we create machines based on these principles, they work. All else is mysticism, revelation, dreams and religion -- all of which depend upon direct experience for a few, but "belief" for the many. I prefer what is demonstrable rather than faith in someone else's revelations. So to answer the question, sacred geometry is the only part of the blueprint of the universe that we can see and prove.
What sparked your interest in sacred geometry?
I got interested in geometry at school because it was the one subject for which the difference between right and wrong was always clear and easy to demonstrate, and I was good at it. Of course, it soon developed into an interest in where things were positioned in relationship to each other. Hence, my interest in maps and geography (my first profession was as a geography lecturer).
Whilst in Hong Kong, I learned that the Chinese word for geography was ti li. But, more interestingly, ti li was also the ancient name for feng shui, the art and science of positioning things in the environment to maximize the influences in one's life.
You've told me you study and write about the "real" feng shui. How does the real practice vary from -- would you say, "popular"? -- feng shui?
Feng shui only became popularized in the West since the 1980s. I know because I wrote the first English-language book on feng shui in 1976. Before that, apart from obscure references by 19th century Christian missionaries, feng shui was unknown in the West. As practiced in China, and later in the Chinese-settled areas in Southeast Asia, feng shui was about the positioning of a house (or a grave) in relation to the surrounding landscape, the mountains, the water, even the drains.
I was also responsible to a large measure in popularizing feng shui in the West by launching the magazine Feng Shui for Modern Living. For this magazine to be accepted on the newsstands, it had to concentrate upon interior decorating and the use of feng shui inside the house, and so this is what popular feng shui has come to mean.
Unfortunately, popular feng shui has become stuck in a form of interior decorating spiced up with Chinese cultural artifacts like kirin, coins, chimes, etc. It hasn't moved on.
"Moved on" in what sense? My understanding is that feng shui is about using various techniques to arrange a space in such a way that the chi, or energy flow, is harmonious. Are these practitioners doing that?
Although many practitioners are now using deeper levels of traditional Chinese feng shui, there are still a large number of Western practitioners that feel that they can use their intuition or rely upon "blessings," rather than using a lo p'an -- or, a compass -- and observing and acting upon the traditional calculations. Any feng shui practitioner who does not take directions in detail (preferably using a proper lo p'an) is like an architect who designs a whole building on the back of a tatty scrap of paper, or an astronomer who does not bother to use a telescope. The calculations of real feng shui are every bit as complex as those other two subjects.
How did you learn feng shui?
I learned the practice hands-on by working in Hong Kong alongside an old feng shui hsien-sheng (a practitioner, not a theoretician). My contribution was my knowledge of surveying and his was the rules of practical feng shui. Only later was I able to read the Chinese classics of feng shui, and came to understand the theory.
Have you learned anything new about feng shui recently that really resonates with you?
Recently, I have been translating and publishing never before seen Chinese feng shui classics in English. The first four date from 1739 and were written by an imperial feng shui master. As a result, a lot of the confusion present today (even in Chinese books from the 20th century) has fallen away, leaving me with a much greater degree of clarity. So far, I have translated four such classics.
Are sacred geometry and feng shui on their own an everyday spiritual practice, or are they an adjunct to a spiritual practice?
Neither is strictly a spiritual practice. Feng shui is very practical: It is concerned with improving one's situation in life and, in the broadest sense, one's luck. (In this context, luck means "availability of opportunity.") It is only spiritual in the sense that it deals with energies not currently measurable by Western science, exactly in the same sense that acupuncture does.
It is a common misconception in the West to label anything mysterious, or beyond the easy reach of science, as "spiritual." Even yoga or kung fu are seen in the West in this light. Certainly, there is a spiritual dimension to both, but it is not the main thrust. If a Chinese wants his luck improved, he will go to a feng shui practitioner. If he wants his home blessed or a troublesome spirit removed, he will go to a Taoist or Buddhist priest. A few practitioners combine both skills, but that is not usual. Blessing or prayers are not a part of feng shui.
How would you describe your own spiritual practice?
I was born a Christian, but I find that I am no longer comfortable with that religion's claims of having an exclusive route to God, and feel more comfortable with the much more tolerant polytheistic religions which surround me here. Probably the least tolerant are the nouveau-Christian sects which are making so many converts in this part of the world, and which require their Chinese converts to cease being involved with any part of their own rich cultural heritage, including, of course, feng shui and honoring their ancestors.
I often explain that feng shui is a technique that does not require belief in order to work, any more than acupuncture requires belief to work. But the new converts are still warned not to get involved by their pastors, in case they imperil their souls!
I know "The Da Vinci Code" sparked a huge interest in sacred geometry as a sort of code used by Da Vinci. Did you believe the book presented accurate information on sacred geometry?
The book was very entertaining and creatively wove together various strands of other people's research, notably the research of Michael Baigent, who I knew at the time he was doing that research, mostly in the British Museum library. The book just uses sacred geometry as a plotline, and is not really the source that I would go to for a clear exposition of that subject. But hopefully it has increased people's awareness of the subject.
Sacred geometry is also used in music, correct? How is it used in the composition of hymns and chants and other music that we would classify as spiritual?
A good example. In fact, it was Pythagoras who showed that sounds (vibrations, if you like) that are in harmonic ratios one to another are much more powerful than the noise which does not have these geometric relationships. By powerful, I mean power to enthrall, to alter emotions and to lead to spiritual uplift.
Have other artists used sacred geometry to add layers of meaning to their work? If so, can the untrained eye perceive these meanings?
It takes a bit of practice to spot it, but once you do, then it's obvious where an artist has used geometry, sacred or otherwise, to design a work of art. Sadly, a lot of New Age thought now sees sacred geometry where there is none.
How else is sacred geometry used? What can we learn from it in our everyday lives?
In art, where proportion creates beauty. It would be wonderful if modern architects ceased to just build concrete boxes with arbitrary measurements and went back to using ratios which unconsciously please the eye. Even things as diverse as river flow -- sacred geometry can be used to decrease the likelihood of flooding (something very relevant in my part of the world, where the last few months have seen the worst floods in Jakarta and Johor in living memory).
You've been studying these subjects -- sacred geometry, feng shui -- for a long time. How have they shaped your life for the better?
To give you one example: I chose my present home using the principles of feng shui and have been very happy here as a result. It sounds strange, but many problems in life have their roots in living in a house that does not have a feng shui configuration suitable for the person living there. Either it needs adjusting, or in the long term the person would be better moving to a house more conducive to their happiness. It is easy to calculate this.
I know that this might be explained away as coincidence, but I have seen too many examples over the last 31 years of the quality of life improving in tandem with improvements in feng shui, to doubt its efficacy. Interestingly, I have also seen severe reversals of luck brought about by the incorrect or unknowing application of feng shui.