The Meaning of Stupas

“Stupas… demonstrate the triumph of enlightenment’s wisdom over suffering’s ignorance. They are memorials… to the possibility of freedom from suffering for all beings. They signal the triumphal reality of a nature that enables beings to evolve to experience the ultimate fulfilment of perfect bliss, beyond death and unsatisfying life. Stupas stand as eloquent testimony to the higher purpose of life, beyond competing or struggling, getting or spending. Consciously or subliminally, they help turn people’s minds away from their frustrating obsessions and towards their own higher potential”
(Professor Robert Thurman, from the Foreword to Buddhist Stupas in Asia: the Shape of Perfection).

Stupa is a Sanskrit word that means “to heap” or “to pile up” and refers to the mound-like shape of the earliest stupas.

The Mahaparinirvana Sutra tells us that it was the Buddha himself who outlined the basic design of the stupa. The story begins at Buddha’s deathbed. When he realized that death was imminent, Buddha gave instructions about the disposition of his body. He said that his body should be cremated and the relics divided up and enclosed in four different monuments. These monuments were to be erected at the following places, marking important milestones in the Buddha’s spiritual journey: at Lumbini, where he was born; at Bodhgaya where he attained Enlightenment; at Sarnath, where he gave his first teaching; and at Kushinagar, where he died, entering parinirvana, or ultimate liberation.

Giving a practical demonstration, he folded his outer yellow robe over and over until it became a rough cube. Then he put his begging bowl over it. These two elements, the square and the dome, are present in every stupa (India), dagoba (Sri Lanka), chorten (Tibet), chedi or pagoda (Burma), t’ap (Korea), ta (China), tarp (Vietnam), thaat (Laos), sotoba (Japan), or chandi (Java).

The stupa, universal throughout Asia, evolved into more than a reliquary monument. It has become an expression of the ideal of Enlightenment. Statues represent the Buddha’s body, Dharma texts his speech. Stupas are representations of the Buddha’s mind. They reveal the path to enlightenment, or how the mind can actualize its full potential and be transformed into enlightenment. Stupas can be seen as an expression of the five elements.

  • Earth, which spreads out in the four directions, provides the solid basis.
  • The dome is the garbha (“womb”), primordial, creative Water – formless potentiality. It is also called the anda, or egg.
  • The conical spire is Fire, which always rises upwards. It represents the wisdom which burns away ignorance.
  • The crescent moon is Air, expansive, waxing and waning (an ancient symbol of the feminine).
  • The circle is Space, wholeness, totality, with no end or beginning.
  • Finally, above the circle is a jewel, which represents a higher state of reality, gone beyond the five elements. It is the ushnisha, present on the crowns of all Buddhas, revealing their perfect, enlightened state. This ascent to perfection is laid out with precision in an Enlightenment stupa.

The base represents ethics; the abandonment of the ten non-virtues of body, speech and mind – the foundation of the Path. Upon this foundation the practice that leads to Enlightenment is built. Above the base is the throne, upon which the actual stupa will be placed. Above the throne are four steps – the four mindfulnesses, the four perfect efforts, the four miraculous feats, and the five powers. The base of the vase is the five forces.

The dome or vase represents the seven aspects of Enlightenment; where the actual Buddha is situated, it represents the celestial mansion of enlightened beings. The harmika, or cube is the peak of all previous attainments. It is where one enters the path of the superior beings, and is the point in the path are one first directly realises selflessness or emptiness. Stupas in Nepal have eyes painted on the harmika to emphasise this crucial moment of perception.

The base is ethics, the dome and harmika are the path. Beyond this begins the result – the conical spire, where wisdom burns away the residue of ignorance. The thirteen rings symbolise the ten powers (or bhumis), and the three close mindfulnesses of the Buddha.

Above the spire is an umbrella, which represents the Buddha’s great compassion, protecting us from suffering just as an umbrella protects us from the sun and rain.

Above the umbrella are the moon and the sun, and these two represent bodhichitta – the altruistic intention to bring all beings out of suffering and into the bliss of enlightenment. There are two types of bodhichitta, conventional and ultimate. The moon symbolizes conventional bodhichitta and the sun ultimate bodhichitta. Above the sun is the jewel – the final result, Enlightenment, or Buddhahood.

So, on the foundation, free of the ten non-virtues, one trains on the path and then finally attains Enlightenment – as the Buddha did.

The entire stupa represents the ultimate qualities of the Buddha’s mind and is therefore a very precious and holy object. By making offerings, prostrations, circumambulating – and especially by giving donations to help build a stupa, a huge amount of virtue or merit is received that will help one to train in the path and which becomes a cause for the quick attainment of Enlightenment.

“Ten Traditional Purposes of Stupas”, extracted from A Stupa for Geshe Lama Konchog by Tenzin Zopa.

  1. To remind one of a teacher
  2. To act as a reliquary, which contains the relics of a teacher and embodies the enlightened mind, and to serve as the focal point for the continuation of the buddha-activity of a teacher
  3. To magnetize enlightened energy
  4. To speed a teacher’s rebirth
  5. To promote longevity
  6. To create peace and harmony in society
  7. To magnetize wealth
  8. To turn back invading armies
  9. To pacify physical and mental illness, pestilence, and disease
  10. To actualize enlightenment