by Manfred Seegers

Stupas are monuments for peace in the world. Through their perfect form, these structures express the clear nature of the mind - enlightenment. They have been built in Asia for thousands of years and exercise a beneficial influence on the energy field of the whole universe. Over the past few years, stupas have been erected in many other places around the world. These stupas range in size, with the tallest measuring up to 82 feet high in France and Hungary. These monuments radiate a great charm. Many people want to learn more about the symbolism of stupas, especially after experiencing their powerful blessing firsthand. The spiritual influence of stupas is considered to be very great. People who venerate them, who participate in their construction, or those who live near them, find them to be a source of peacefulness, happiness, and prosperity.

Even today the Buddhist texts about the deeper meaning of stupas have only partially been translated. There are a few books on stupas, such as Psychocosmic Symbolism of the Buddhist Stupa by Lama Govinda, and others, but many of the explanations offered therein are very general and often do not correspond to the information transmitted in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. However, if one has the opportunity to actively participate in the construction of a stupa, a lot of theoretical as well as practical knowledge is passed along by the teachers and experts involved in building the monument. It is a great joy to be a part of the whole process from the planning stage to the actual construction of the stupa and to learn all the details through hands-on experience. It is also a great way to learn more about one's mind.

The stupa represents the Mind of the Buddha. Furthermore, it signifies the community of practitioners, the sangha. This is why stupas are also placed on altars along with representations of the Buddha and the Dharma. These "Three Jewels" - Buddha, Dharma, Sangha- signify the Buddhist refuge.

A stupa is a vessel containing relics of realized masters. It is filled with statues, clay forms (tsatsas), texts, and relics symbolizing the body, speech, and mind of all Buddhas. In earlier times, large stupas were filled with the Kangyur, a compilation of Buddha's direct teachings, and the Tengyur, the commentaries by Indian masters. Smaller stupas were filled with Prajnaparamita texts. The foundation of the stupa should be filled with valuable materials, and the correct filling is of utmost importance. The entire process must be supervised by qualified teachers.

Different types of stupas

Due to the different forms of stupas created over time, a man named Bishukama laid down certain rules for various stupa forms in his text Tsuktor Drime Gyä Chung. Most forms are related to Buddha's deeds. In this group there are eight main types which directly relate to the four main and the four secondary locations where Buddha gave teachings. Buddha advised his students that after his passage to Parinirvana, they should visit the four main locations to make offerings in order to purify their veils of obscuration. These four places are Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnath, and Kushinagara.

Following, are the eight types of stupas in the order in which they relate to the life of Buddha:

1. Lotus Stupa - this stupa was built during Buddha's lifetime and is situated in Lumbini. The main structure is shaped like a lotus and symbolizes the birth of the Buddha.
2. Enlightenment Stupa - this stupa was built by the Dharma king Bimbisara in Bodhgaya in honor of Buddha attaining enlightenment. It expresses the removal of the last, thin veils of obscuration and obstacles in Buddha's mind on the evening before he reached enlightenment.
3. Stupa of Wisdom or Stupa of Sixteen Gates - this stupa was built in honor of Buddha's first teachings in Sarnath/Varanasi about the Four Noble Truths.
4. Stupa of Miracles - this stupa form was built by a person named Lisabi in Shravasti, where Buddha performed miracles in order to convince people with wrongful views.
5. Stupa of Descending from the Tushita Heaven - this stupa was built in Shankasa and has many steps which signify Buddha's decent from Tushita Heavn. Tushita Heaven is a god realm where Buddha gave teachings to his mother.
6. Stupa of Reconciliation or Stupa of Unity - this stupa was built in Rajgir to celebrate the reconciliation within the community of practitioners after some difficulties caused by Buddha's cousin Devadatta.
7. Stupa of Complete Victory - this stupa signifies an event which occurred in Vaishali shortly before Buddha's death, when he prolonged his life span by three months upon the request of his students.
8. Parinirvana Stupa - this stupa signifies the attainment of Parinirvana in Kushinagara. The main body of the stupa has the shape of a bell, the symbol of Buddha's complete wisdom.

The most important of these eight stupa forms is the Stupa of Enlightenment. It symbolizes the goal of Buddhist practice - recognizing one's own mind, complete enlightenment. It means freedom from all disturbing feelings and their roots as well as full development of the mind's abilities. At the same time, the stupa is a symbol for overcoming all obstacles and all obscurations.

The common elements of these eight types of stupas are the foundation up to the lion throne, and the upper part from the rings upward. The middle section is where the different forms are realized.

The Symbolism of an Enlightenment Stupa

1. The treasure vase - a treasure vase is placed into the base of a stupa when the foundation is poured. It symbolizes the eight auspicious signs and the inexhaustible physical qualities of the Buddha.
2. The foundation - this level "which contains the earth" symbolizes the ten positive actions of body, speech, and mind.
3. The three levels above the foundation - these three levels symbolize the Three Jewels, the threefold refuge of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
4. The lion throne - above the three levels there is a large square block representing a throne. It is often decorated with snow lions. This so called "lion throne" symbolizes the invincibility of the Dharma, the Four Fearlessnesses of the Buddha.
5. The small and big lotuses - above the inner square portion of the block, two steps protrude outward, representing the small and large lotuses. These lotus layers stand for the Six Liberating Actions (Paramitas) which are: generosity, ethical discipline, patience, perseverance, meditative concentration, and wisdom.
6. The square surface of the throne - this is a large, square slab, the four corners of which symbolize the Four Immeasurables: immeasurable love, immeasurable compassion, immeasurable joy, and immeasurable equanimity.

In most cases, Buddha aspects are positioned on top of the lion throne, on a lotus, and a disk of the sun and the moon. The meaning of the foundation also applies in this example. After developing mindfulness towards one's actions and therefore taking responsibility for one's own life, one takes refuge and begins to develop an enlightened view. This is the basis for actually practicing the Dharma. The next levels above the throne, up to the spire of the stupa, symbolize the Five Paths.

The Five Paths - the entire development from the first contact with the liberating teachings to full enlightenment is described as Five Paths: 1) the path of accumulation, 2) the path of application, 3) the path of insight/seeing, 4) the path of meditation, and 5) the path of no more learning. The path of no more learning leads to full enlightenment. These Five Paths can be explained according to the Smaller Vehicle (Hinayana) or the Greater Vehicle (Mahayana). Practitioners who have the Mahayana potential, who developed the enlightened view and purified obscurations in the mind, are practicing the path of accumulation according to the Greater Vehicle.

7. The first level above the throne - this level symbolizes the smaller path of accumulation. It signifies the Four Mindfulnesses, that is mindfulness of body, feeling, mind, and external phenomena.
8. The second level above the throne - this level contains the middle path of accumulation. Here, the Four Perfect Efforts are to be realized: giving up all negative actions, remembering that one gave up negative actions, performing positive actions, and constantly expanding the scope of positive actions.
9. The third level above the throne symbolizes the greater path of accumulation and consists of the Four Miraculous Feats: turning one's mind towards the Dharma, unshakable perseverance, single-minded concentration, and thorough investigation.
10. The fourth level above the throne signifies the Five Faculties on the path of union: trust, diligence, mindfulness, meditative concentration, and wisdom.
11. The unchanging base holding the vase - this foundation level symbolizes the Five Forces on the path of union, which signify the full realization of the Five Faculties of the previous level.
12. The treasure vase - this level symbolizes the Seven Branches of Awakening on the path to seeing: profound mindfulness, profound distinction between the phenomena, profound diligence, profound joy, profound habituation, profound meditation, and profound equanimity. In the Greater Vehicle this stage is equivalent to the first Bodhisattva level.
13. The "Tre" above the vase (the square base for the spire of the stupa) - this section corresponds to the second to tenth Bodhisattva levels. The "Tre" carries the meaning of the Eightfold Noble Path on the path of meditation: correct view, correct analysis, correct speech, correct action, correct livelihood, correct effort, correct mindfulness, and correct meditative concentration.
14. The tree of life (inside the stupa and, visible from outside) - this represents the central axis of the stupa. The tree symbolizes the Ten Kinds of Transcendent Knowledge. These are different wisdom aspects of a Buddha.
15. The thirteen rings - these rings symbolize the Ten Powers which are ten aspects of a Buddha's wisdom and the Three Essential Remembrances, that is knowledge of the three times: past, present, and future.
16. The umbrella and its connecting part - this honorary umbrella, one of the eight auspicious symbols, stands for overcoming all suffering.
17. The garlands (Zaratsak) - these garlands represent the ornaments for all superior qualities of the Buddha state.
18. The moon - this is a symbol for the relative enlightened mind and a Buddha's wisdom.
19. The sun symbolizes limitless compassion ("like the rays of a sun") and the absolute enlightened mind.
20. The jewel represents the indestructible nature of the mind and the fulfillment of all wishes, the clear light of the mind.
21. The Buddha statue (at the vase level) - The statue represents recognizing the nature of the mind on the path of seeing and complete liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

A stupa also shows the various aspects of dependent occurrence as described in the Sutra of Noble Dependent Occurrence (Skr. Arya-tratitya-samutpada-nama- mahayana-sutra). Furthermore, Buddha explains in the Rice Seedling Sutra: "Those who understand dependent occurrence understand phenomena (Dharma), and those who understand phenomena understand buddhahood." This sutra explains both aspects of outer and inner dependent occurrence as well as both aspects of cause and conditions.

In its outer form, a stupa symbolizes the five elements. The square section represents the earth element; the round part, the vase, represents the water element; the triangular portion, the rings, represents the fire element; the half moon on the spire represents the wind element, and the sun symbolizes the space element. The whole outer world as well as our own body consist of these five elements. In recognizing the pure form of these elements, one also recognizes the five pure aspects of body and mind.

The benefits of building a stupa and walking around it
The main purpose of building a stupa is to help sentient beings purify their negative impressions and accumulate positive impressions in order to gain merit and wisdom, both of which are prerequisites for reaching enlightenment. Building a stupa, regardless of its size, while maintaining a pure view, will clear away veils obscuring the mind, and the good impressions experienced during the construction process may result in intelligence, wisdom, and all the other high qualities.

The motivation for the construction of a stupa and the intentions of the participants and those who visit it should be directed towards the following points:

1. Maintenance of the Dharma, Buddha's liberating teachings.
2. The temporary and ultimate benefit for all sentient beings.
3. The continuing all-encompassing activities of the realized masters.
4. Purification of obscurations and the development of all the positive qualities of practitioners.

People who live close to a stupa can make good wishes, prostrations, and offerings. Others, who are visiting, may experience a sudden moment of awareness. Simply stepping into a stupa's shadow accumulates great merit.

Buddha stated, "These are the benefits of walking around a stupa: Free of the eight unfavorable conditions, you will be reborn into a noble family and will acquire great wealth. You'll be free of disturbing emotions such as miserliness and you will happily exercise generosity. You will look good, be attractive, have beautiful skin, and others will be happy to see you. You will have power over the world and will be a king of the Dharma. You will always attain a happy rebirth and will be enthusiastic for Buddha's teachings. After completion of your practice you will perform miracles and continue to achieve the thirty-two pure signs and the eighty physical perfections of Buddha's body."

These are only some of the benefits resulting from walking around a stupa; there are many more. Simply seeing or touching a stupa, or through memories of it or teachings about its qualities, walking through the shadow of a stupa or being touched by the wind that passed over it, one's life will be a happy one, ultimately resulting in awakening.


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