Most of us dream about leading a life of adventure, creativity and noble deeds –- like some of the famous writers and artists of the past.
Martin Gray actually leads such a life. He’s 53 and for decades has roamed the Earth like a pilgrim, often traveling by foot or bicycle, taking photographs of sacred places to inspire others to travel and to help protect these priceless sites.
National Geographic already has showcased some of his work, but Martin is such a visionary that he saw the potential of the Internet in the mid 1990s and wound up delivering much of his best work directly to his fans. His Web site, www.sacredsites.com, has drawn more than 20 million visitors!
Martin also crisscrosses the United States to present shows and talks about his work.
His new book, which ReadTheSpirit is recommending as a perfect holiday gift, is called “Sacred Earth.” It’s a collection of many of his best photographs, maps and descriptions of sites around the world. It’s a sort of “pilgrimage dream book” for those of us who mostly are stuck at home, but who think about this kind of travel in the future. (Click on the title or the cover of the book to jump to our review and to purchase a copy, if you wish.)
But there are a couple of ironies here:
The first is that most of us, after taking a closer look at Martin’s life, would suspect that he has paid dearly for this amazing life. He doesn’t own a house. He doesn’t even own a car. He pours most of his modest income back into his life’s work.
A second irony? Martin says that, after all of his travels, he has learned that people don’t necessarily need to travel to find salvation, inspiration and enlightenment, depending on how we define our spiritual goals.
Sound intriguing? It is! And, the story behind these spiritual twists and turns lies in today’s Conversation With Martin Gray …
DAVID: So, Martin, where is your home at the moment?
MARTIN: Right now, Sedona, Arizona. I rent rooms in people’s houses when I’m passing through this country. I usually stay in rooms about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
DAVID: You’re clearly not doing this for the lavish lifestyle.
You’re pursuing this work as a spiritual vocation. So, I know readers will be curious: How do you describe your religious affiliation to your audiences?
MARTIN: I say that I’m no religion and that I’m all religions. And, people ask me: What do you mean by that? Then, I go into more detail and I say that there’s a root to all religions. I focus on that root.
I call this an enlightened version of religious pluralism. … I was just reading an issue of the Economist magazine and it was saying that people are more and more understanding that, unless we have peace between religions, there’s no hope for peace in the world.
I’m interested in helping to find peace between religions by going to the root of religion.
DAVID: You have seen a lot more of the world’s most deeply rooted religious sites than almost anyone else on the planet. Certainly, you’ve worked in documenting more shrines, temples and sacred places than anyone else in media. So, tell us more about how this has affected you.
On your Web site, you say this: “In the late autumn of 1984, at the sacred site of Izumo Taisha in Japan, I experienced an extraordinary vision that indicated a broad outline of the long-term work I would do with the sacred sites.”
MARTIN: That wasn’t my first experience. I’ve been having visionary experiences since I was about 6 years old. … I’ve had other visionary experiences in different parts of the world. One of those visions told me that I should follow the world’s pilgrimage routes. … I had another vision that suggested to me that I could do this work and that elated me. And I traveled around the world, mostly on my bicycle, photographing the world’s sacred sites.
DAVID: When you use the word “vision,” did you see something like a scene or a person?
MARTIN: Sometimes the visions were words and sometimes they were pictures. This was not a function of my rational mind. These visions just came.
DAVID: It’s amazing to me, and I think it will surprise many readers, that you’ve accomplished all of this beautiful work, you’ve appeared in National Geographic and you have this hugely successful Web site — but you’re not a wealthy man.
MARTIN: That is absolutely correct. … A partner and I set up a travel agency at one point in Florida and, when I left that company, I had about $50,000 and I decided that I would spend the money to go do this work. I decided that, when I got down under $10,000, I would stop and reconsider what I was doing.
Then, I went out and traveled and worked. I did get down under $10,000, but I kept going. … I did get a 501(c)3 tax-exempt status for this project, and I’ve always used the money I get to continue with the work. In 1997, an organization gave me $30,000 more. That money paid for a year of driving down from Flagstaff into southern South America in a Volkswagen van. And, then, I was able to get over to Africa and travel there for a while.
I’ve had times when I’ve gotten down under $500 left. But I live simply. I don’t even want a car. I don’t want a motorcycle. I don’t want to buy any property.
I’ve got more traveling I would like to do. I’d like to take some short cruises along the southern coast of South America. There are some areas there I haven’t been able to photograph yet.
The value in my life is in this work I have been doing.
DAVID: You’ve decided not to even advertise on your Web site.
MARTIN: That’s a very conscious and purposeful decision on my part. If you go into a museum to see a beautiful painting, would you expect to see a beer ad hanging next to it?
In my photographs, I’m showing you the greatest art in the world, these sacred sites. So, should I flash an ad for some consumer product right next to it?
I understand what you’re asking.
The other day I had someone tell me I must be a lousy businessman. I told him, well, I did get to 120 countries and you’re still working in the same gas station. You haven’t moved.
DAVID: I read that you had visited 80 countries and photographed more than 1,000 sacred sites.
MARTIN: I’ve been to 120 countries, but the photographs in my book and on the Web site are from 80 countries. There was a time before I started photographing sacred sites that I traveled to a lot of countries.
There are different strata of sacred sites. There are local ones, then regional, then hemispheric, then global sites. I’m trying to visit all of the global, hemispheric and regional sites.
DAVID: For ReadTheSpirit, I just finished a series of stories about a pilgrimage to Iona, Scotland, that I took with our photographer John Hile. One of the questions people ask me about Iona is whether I think that places — that sites — can be sacred.
You’ve written a lot about that question. In one place, you’ve written: “Since prehistoric times they have exerted a mysterious attraction on billions of pilgrims from every region and religion. These holy places have the power to heal the body, enlighten the mind and awaken the soul.”
And, in another place, you wrote: “I believe that there is a presence of power, a field of subtle energies at the sacred sites and that these energies assist in the awakening and amplification of spiritual consciousness.”
Those are just a couple of excerpts. You’ve thought a lot about this, so tell us more.
MARTIN: The subtitle of my book says: “Places of Peace and Power.” …
There’s a number of primary reasons that places become sacred sites. Some of the sites are located on places in the planet that seem to be energetically related to other sites. Scientists say that’s impossible. But I say here’s the archaeological and anthropological evidence that people thought this over many, many years.
These earlier people couldn’t say objectively what these forces were but they felt something and over thousands of years they visited these places. And, when you get enough people visiting a place, there’s a deposit of people’s energy there.
DAVID: As you say, scientists would say that’s impossible.
MARTIN: Well, have you ever thought about photography?
If you’re using film, a little piece of remanufactured earth is deposited there on the film. It’s exposed to the light, sometimes for just 1,000th of a second. But that’s enough for that little piece of film and earth to remember that place.
And think what happens with the film. I don’t even consider these things on my site to be photographs. They’re windows. People can look through them and have a visual experience of the site. All of that and the film was exposed to the light there for only 1,000th of a second.
Now think about the people who come to these sites. They’re not there for just 1,000th of a second. They spend much longer at the site. Isn’t it possible that there is a mysterious gathering of energy, devotion and love from all of those people who’ve come to a site that manifests itself there. Isn’t it possible that this emerges and extends over time?
DAVID: I like the way you talk about these principles. One of the things we discovered in Iona among our group of pilgrims is that people didn’t all have the same experience.
They had different experiences in a sacred place that people have been visiting for 1,400 years. I like your description of looking at images of the sites as windows, because people can have very different experiences even looking through a window.
MARTIN: Right. There’s this arrogant viewpoint about these places where people will tell you this is precisely what this place should mean — and this is how the experience should go.
And I say: No, this place is what it is. If you can’t see the other possibilities, then and you only came and experienced one viewpoint, one facet of it.
It’s like going to a movie at a theater. Some people come out of the theater loving the movie, others hating it, others were touched by the movie in a completely different way. It made them remember something. It made them react because of something else they had experienced.
If we understand that about going to the movies, then why are we surprised if it happens with sacred places.
DAVID: I think a lot of us would like to know how — after your decades of experience — you approach a sacred site. What do you do in a typical visit that you make?
MARTIN: First, you have to take off the sunglasses.
A really good analogy is, if there’s a beautiful view out there in the mountains, then you need to be sure that you take off your sunglasses. If you take them off, you’re removing this filter between you and the full beauty.
And, before you go, you need to study about the site and understand the layers of things that happened there. Then, when you reach the place, you need to really see what’s there.
You need to wait.
You need to wait for the light there. You need to wait for what you will see and hear and feel. I’ll sometimes take a nap in a cathedral because I want to be there long enough to see the whole movement of the light around the structure. I’m not in a hurry.
Wait. People need to wait.
DAVID: That’s tough when we’re often following tight itineraries. And we’ve got a lot of things to take care of when we travel. Getting our luggage around with us, among other things.
MARTIN: Travel light. Cut away a lot of the baggage we carry with us. That helps. I say to people: Put it all on your back and carry it. You should cut away enough so you can do that.
DAVID: That’s tough to do.
MARTIN: I do it and I carry 30 to 40 pounds of camera equipment: 2 cameras, 10 lenses, a tripod and a flash unit.
So, beyond that, I wear 1 pear of pants and I take 1 other pair of pants. I buy these very high-quality pants that you can wash in the sink and they dry quickly.
Do not wear blue jeans. They’re impossible to wash in a sink somewhere in Ethiopia and then dry again. Blue jeans are totally ridiculous for travel. Too thick.
And, I only travel with khaki or light gray. I never wear polka dots or stripes or red fabric. I’m going because I want to see the people and how they are. I don’t want the people to all be looking at me. I’m not wearing camouflage; that looks militaristic to people.
I’m always clean, always neat. But you can hardly see me in a crowd. I never ever wear the clothing of the country. It looks so ridiculous to the people there. Just wear modest clothing in colors like khaki and light gray.
DAVID: I like your discipline as a photo journalist.
And I like the way that you encourage your readers to actually visit some of these places. You remind people that their faith should lead them outward. I think that’s how I would put it: You remind people of the great religious traditions that are out there all around the world.
In this era, when local news is the major focus in news media, you remind people of the larger, sacred shape of the Earth and the importance of going out there to see places beyond our hometowns.
MARTIN: I have a disagreement with the New Age movement that says: We create our own reality.
To that, I say: No, you create your own responses to the greater reality that’s already there. You may have some nice notions and nice responses — but I think it’s foolish to say that I’ve got this emerging spiritual consciousness that means I am creating my own reality.
When people say that to me, I say: OK, so grow a sixth finger. Let me see that.
DAVID: I imagine that can become quite a spirited conversation.
MARTIN: Well, I very sincerely believe that we should try to be more precise in the way we talk about life.
I was in a mall the other day buying a present for a friend and I heard this girl saying: Oh, it totally changed my life!
She had just seen some movie — and one movie totally changed her life? No it didn’t. Totally changing your life would be moving to another country, learning another language and then finding a job using that other language.
Do I sound confrontational? You bet I am about some things, especially language.
Too many of us carry these absolutes around with us in the language that we use.
DAVID: That makes a lot of sense to me. Yes, that’s a real problem. Most of us carry a whole host of assumptions about other people, about the rest of the world.
Considering all that you’ve seen and even the challenge that we’re talking about right now — the challenge of people who have these rigid viewpoints about the world — does all of this leave you feeling sad or worried or hopeful or —
MARTIN: If you want to know whether I’m hopeful, I have to say: no and yes.
I have a pretty extraordinary understanding now of global history and I can see the momentums from the past and I can see the trajectories of those forces. One thing you realize is that a lot of things are not going to change in a week or a month. The Sunni-Shia conflict. That’s not going to change tomorrow. That’s been going on for centuries.
Things like environmental degradation, AIDS, global poverty. These things won’t change tomorrow.
DAVID: That’s the “no” part of your answer, certainly. And, you’re right, so much of our culture is moving so fast right now, we can get mixed up about the pace of world history itself.
MARTIN: Yes, but there also are people like you and me who are emerging around the world — hundreds of thousands of people emerging across the planet.
This isn’t theoretical. I’ve been everywhere doing my slide shows and talking to people and I know that there are hundreds of thousands of people like us all around the world.
DAVID: You refer to people like us. What do you mean?
MARTIN: I mean, people who want to know more about the world and who know that we have to do something about it each day.
I mean, I disagree with this silly idea that I keep hearing from some people, saying: I’m going to create a new reality of my own. And I say: Oh, is that true? Well, then, make your reality stop that glacier from melting and disappearing. Can you do that?
DAVID: You’re saying that people really do need to grapple with the world’s great challenges — even as we realize that things move slowly and we may not even see the end of the process.
Just like you, I talk to many groups of people, these days, and I keep telling them that one of the toughest spiritual questions of our age is: Why should I get out of bed in the morning?
MARTIN: Right. But the whole thing is not as impossible as it sounds.
I say to people: Just get up in the morning and put goodness and beauty in the world –- whether you’re an artist or anyone else. If you’re a parent, putting goodness and beauty in the world may be bringing up your children well.
It’s all about love and goodness. It’s about what you do with each day.
DAVID: It’s almost as though we’ve come full circle here. You’re saying you don’t need to travel as widely as you’ve traveled.
MARTIN: Really, I don’t tell people that they NEED to go to these places. I don’t like to talk about what I think people need to do. I say: If you feel a connection with these places, you might want to consider going. I never say that anyone needs to go there.
There are loads of sages in China and India and they attain realization sitting in a cave. It doesn’t matter where we go, really.
It’s all about your own yearning for spirit, your own yearning for what we call God. If you want to go out to these places that have great spiritual energy -– great -– but ultimately the work is inside of each of us.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS today are samples from Martin Gray’s vast body of work, provided by Gray for us to use in this article about his work, his Web site and his new book.
The first is Uluru (or Ayers Rock) in central Australia. Americans have seen images of the rock in many films and miniseries about Australia. Uluru is sacred to Aboriginal people. It is a World Heritage Site.
Second is the Dome of the Rock, one of the most prominent visual landmarks in Jerusalem. Located on the Temple Mount, the 1,300-year-old mosque is sacred to Muslims around the world.
Third is the church at Fatima in Portugal that marks the spot in 1917 where three Catholic children reportedly saw the first of a series of visions of Mary.
Please, tell us what you think! Email me personally by clicking here. Or, click on the Comment link in our Web site and post your thoughts for other readers.