Gem of Wisdom for Daily Reflection: 

Stupa - The Enlightened Mind Of The Buddhas

One of the Stupas at the Samye Monastery in Tibet Reliquary stupa of HH Pema Norbu Rinpoche at Palyul Thubten Shedrub Chokhor Dargyeling at Bodhgaya in India Reliquary stupa of HH Pema Norbu Rinpoche at Ngagyur Tsogyal Shedrub Nunnery in India

From the perspective of worldly knowledge, stupa - the reliquary monument constructed to enshrine the relics of the Buddha and other noble beings - has its origin associated with the caitya, the traditional burial mounds of ancient India.

But for the supramundane beings whose accomplishment in siddhi (ngödrup) enable them to recognise the true state of reality pertaining to the sensuous-sphere, form-sphere and formless-sphere, they behold the three realms of existence as the emanation of the spontaneous self-arising stupas, and the four continents surrounding Mount Meru at the centre of the universe, crowned aloft by the celeste realms of the devas, as the unsurpassable stupas - the expression of the four immeasurables - with two blessed reliquary stupas for each continent. All these stupas are in actuality inseparable from the enlightened mind of the buddhas.

When Radra, the malignant demon of self-pride, was subjugated by Hayagriva (Tamdrin) the wrathful emanation of Avalokitesvara, stupas manifested spontaneously at eight different locations in the saha world as the source of blessings of the eight wrathful dakinis (mamos) who are tasked with the responsibility to pacify human transgression and environmental abuse through the forces of nature by creating challenging conditions such as mishaps, disease and obstacles to tame the pride of self-obsessed beings who are the causes of the degenerating age (tsöpé dü). This heralds the advent of the stupas of shravakas, bodhisattvas and buddhas such as the eight sugata stupas which chronicle the important event in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha (Sangyé Shakya Thubpa) and are often constructed as a group of eight stupas.

The eight sugata stupas

  1. Lotus Blossom Stupa (Pepung Chorten) - built by King Suddhodhana at Lumbini where the Buddha was born. This stupa has a circular base and the lower four steps (sazin) are decorated with lotus-petals design. Sometimes, it has seven steps to commemorate the seven steps Siddhartha took at each of the four cardinal directions at birth.
  2. Enlightenment Stupa (Changchub Chorten) - built by King Bimbisara at Bodhgaya where Shakyamuni Buddha attained buddhahood. The steps of this stupa are rectangular without any decorative design.
  3. Stupa Of Turning The Wheel of Dharma (Chokhor Chorten) - built by the first five disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha at Sarnath in Varanasi to commemorate the first ever teaching given at the deer park. Also known as the Stupa With Many Auspicious Doors (Tashi Gomang Chorten). The steps of this stupa are adorned with the decorative design of doorways to symbolise the opening of the gates to the path of buddhadharma.
  4. Stupa Of Great Miracles (Chotrul Chorten) - built by the people of Licchavis at the Jetavana Grove in Sravasti to commemorate the occasion when Shakyamuni Buddha defeated six heretic teachers by performing a different miracle every day for fifteen days. The four steps in the middle of each side are adorned with the decorative design of a widen path.
  5. Stupa Of Descent From Trayastrimsa (Lhabab Chorten) - built by the people of Kosala at Sankassa to commemorate the return of Shakyamuni Buddha from the Heaven of the Thirty-Three where the Blessed One in a display of gratitude to the kindness of his mother Maydevi, gave teaching there for three months. The four steps in the middle of each side are adorned with the decorative design of a ladder.
  6. Stupa Of Reconciliation (Yendum Chorten) - built by the people of Magadha to commemorate the occasions when the schism caused by Devadatta (lhé jin) among the sangha was reconciled by Shariputra (Sharibu) and Maudgalyayana (Maugal Gyi Bu). The steps of this stupa are octagonal with eight sides and eight corners.
  7. Stupa Of Complete Victory (Namgyal Chorten) - built at Vaisali by the local people to commemorate the occasion when Shakyamuni Buddha agreed to prolong his life for three months at the request of upasaka Chunda. The stupa has only three steps which are circular without any decorative design.
  8. Stupa Of Parinirvana (Nyangde Chorten) - built at Kusinagar by the local people to commemorate the parinirvana of Shakyamuni Buddha. This stupa has no step. The bell-shaped vase dome rests directly upon the throne which symbolises the supreme absorption of the Buddha in the ultimate state of samadhi.

Relics of the Buddha

According to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, after the parinirvana of Shakyamuni Buddha, the holy relics of the Bhagavan was divided into eight equal portions by the brahmin Drona and distributed to eight groups of devotees which include:

  1. Ajatasatru, the king of Magadha.
  2. Licchavis of Vaisali.
  3. Sakya of Kapilavastu.
  4. Bulis of Allakappa.
  5. Koliyas of Ramagrama.
  6. Brahmins of Vethadipa.
  7. Mallas of Pava.
  8. Mallas of Kusinagar.

Each group then erected a reliquary stupa over the holy relics of the Blessed One and hosted a memorial festival with massive offerings. The urn of the holy relics was given to the brahmin Drona who built a reliquary stupa over it. When the Moriyas of Pipphalivana heard that the Buddha has pass away, they sent a request to the Mallas of Kusinagar for a portion of the holy relics so they too can build a reliquary stupa in their township. They were given a portion of the holy ashes to build their own reliquary stupa.

Altogether, there were eight stupas for the relics, a ninth for the urn, and a tenth for the ashes. In addition, one tooth is honoured in the Trayastrimsa heaven, one tooth in the kingdom of Kalingpa, and one tooth by the naga kings.

2500 years later, King Asoka acquired a portion of the holy relics from the descendants of King Ajatasatru whose share of relics had miraculously increased by itself. The relics were used to build 84,000 stupas across the kingdom of King Asoka which included most of the territory of today Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Another portion of holy relics from the Lotus Garland Stupa built by King Ajatasatru was invited to Tibet in the 8th century to consecrate the first stupa in the Land of the Snow at the Samye Monastery.

The Sutra of Sublime Golden Light described the significance of the Shakyamuni Buddha’s relics in the following manner:

“The relics of the Buddha
Were as small and as numerous as mustard seeds.
Were it not for a body of flesh and bones,
How could it be feasible to have relics remain
To benefit the beings of the world?”

 In the Miracles Manifesting Sutra, the skilful means of the Buddha is described as follows:

“The Buddha’s skill to ripen beings are limitless,
Some are subjugated by his passing,
Some are subjugated by his relics,
While others are ripened by the virtuous actions
Of building stupas and temples.”

In accordance to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha gave very clear instructions on how stupa should be constructed:

“His ashes are to be buried in a stupa
At the crossing of the four directions,
The unmoving hub of the wheel,
The place of enlightenment. “

The four directions represent four important events in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha:

East - Buddha’s birth at Lumbinil
South - Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodhgaya.
West - Buddha’s first teaching at Sarnath.
North - Buddha’s nirvana at Kusinagar.

Different Types of stupas

There are many types of stupas that range from miraculously self-manifested to man-made. Here are some of the main types :

  1. Spontaneous Self-Arising Stupas - manifested due to the enlightened mind of the Buddha.
  2. Unsurpassable Stupas - manifested due to an ocean of virtues of the Buddha.
  3. Stupas of Blessing - manifested as a source of blessings of the Buddha.
  4. Reliquary Stupas - contain relics, ashes, personal belongings such as robe and begging bowl of the Buddha and other realised masters.
  5. Commemorative Stupas - build to commemorate important events in the life of the Buddha and other realised masters.
  6. Stupas of Siddhis - manifested due to spiritual accomplishment of realised rishi.
  7. Symbolic Stupas - build to highlight the different aspects of buddhadharma.
  8. Protective Stupas - build as protection against the four maras of death, aggregates, defilements and devas of haughtiness.
  9. Kalachakra Stupas - build as protection against negative cosmic influences.

On the outer level, the universe as we know is part of one colossal stupa with Mount Meru as the central axis. On an inner level, the structure of our subtle body, our five aggregates of body and mind, and all our experiences of the world, arise likewise as an individual stupa which reflects and corresponds exactly to the configuration of a lokadhatu (jikten gyi kham).

As Buddhism spreads southward into Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand; eastward to China, Japan, Korea and finally to Nepal, Tibet and Mongolia, the architectural style of stupa has evolved to assume a variety of structures known collectively as pagoda.  Stupa is thus referred to as tháp in Vietnam, sūdǔpō or in China, sotoba or in Japan, t'ap in Korea, and chorten in Tibet.

A great deal of benefits can be gleaned from the understanding of the architectural design of a stupa. Chorten, the Tibetan style stupa, for example, has evolved into a very different structure from the ancient Indian style of earth-mound stupa, yet remain correlating to the way how the universe is formed.

Chorten, which means ‘field of offering’ in Tibetan, symbolises the supreme attributes of the Buddha through the exterior design and the collection of precious items that are interred within. Chorten is build and presented by the devotees as the field of offering to the dharmakaya (chö ku) - the absolute body of the Buddha. It also serves as the focus of veneration to which the pure body, pure speech and pure mind are offered by the devotees to honour the omnipresent, all-pervasive tathagatagarbha - the ultimate buddha nature of the mind - that exists in all beings since time without beginning.

Design and the symbolic meaning of a stupa

Stupas may appear in a variety of sizes and shapes but the most common architectural design is usually consists of three parts:

A. The bottom part of the stupa:

  • The square base foundation represents the crossed legs and the lion-throne of the Buddha and the stability of the earth-element. The base foundation and the throne are the vital initial support for the stupa. It signifies the ‘path of accumulation’ to attain a great store of merits and wisdom that are essential to support the journey towards enlightenment. This is achieved through the following three stages:
  1. Meditating on the four applications of mindfulness - that of (1) the impurity of body; (2) the feelings of sufferings; (3) the impermanence of consciousness; (4) all mental phenomena are of the nature of emptiness.
  2. Meditating on the application of four opponent powers: (1) the resolve to avoid generating any non-virtues that have not arisen; (2) the resolve to abandon any non-virtues that have arisen; (3) the resolve to generate virtues that have not yet arisen; (4) the resolve to preserve any virtues that have arisen from deteriorating and to cultivate the accumulation of more virtues.
  3. Meditating on the four samadhi states of miraculous power by focusing on: (1) the intention to attain freedom from suffering; (2) the diligence to attain freedom from the origin of suffering; (3) the attention to remain in a state free from suffering; (4) the discernment with antidote for attaining freedom from sufferings.
  • The four steps of the stupa symbolise the six classes of beings in the desire realm. It signifies the ‘path of preparation’ with which the ‘path of accumulation’ is connected to the ‘path of insight’ through four stages. The first two stages of ‘warmth’ and ‘summit’ are used to cultivate the five powers of faith, diligence, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. The third and fourth stages of ‘acceptance’ and ‘supreme attributes’ transform the five powers into the five strengths once the opposing factors are overcome. The four sides of the steps signify the mind at this stage is still not free from the four conventional views of ‘existence’, ‘non-existence’, ‘existence and non-existence’, in addition to ‘neither existence nor non-existence’.

B. The middle part of the stupa:

  • The vase (bumpa) represents the torso of the Buddha, the fluidity of water-element, and the seven factors leading to enlightenment - mindfulness, discernment of phenomena, diligence, altruistic joy, pliancy, samadhi, equanimity.
  • Some stupas may have a window-recess on the front of the vase dome in which a statue or relics of the Buddha or a realised master is placed.
  • This middle spherical dome symbolises the seventeen levels of the form realm. It represents the ‘path of insight’ - the first of thirteen arya bodhisattva bhumis that culminated in the attaining of ultimate enlightenment. It signifies seeing the true nature of reality as it is - the first glimpse into the ‘primordial nature’ of the arya beings - through the application of coordinating ‘non-conceptual wisdom’ with ‘discriminative awareness’.
  • Between the spherical dome and the conical steeple is a square box called Harmika which represents the Buddha’s eyes. It signifies the ‘path of meditation’ which spans from the second bhumi to the ten bhumi through attaining familiarity with the noble eightfold paths - right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

C. The top part of the stupa:

  • The conical steeple represents the Buddha’s crown. It has thirteen tapering rings which symbolise the vitality of fire-element and the thirteen arya bodhisattva bhumins leading to enlightenment.
  • The parasol represents the spontaneity of wind-element which fends off all negativity.
  • The sun and the moon symbolise skillful means and wisdom respectively. It represents the ‘path of no-more-learning’ - the ultimate transcendence of duality and knowledge in recognising the non-confronting nature of
  • The flaming jewel at the tip of the steeple represents supreme enlightenment - the ultimate state of non-conceptual wisdom.
  • The conical steeple together with the ornaments symbolise the four levels of formless realm.

The four sides of the stupa symbolise the four immeasurables of loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy and equanimity, as well as four of the five Buddha families - Amitabha (west), Amoghasiddhi (north), Akshobhya (east), Ratnasambhava (south).

Inserted right through the middle of the stupa is a specially prepared wooden trunk called the tree of life force (sog shing). It serves the same purpose as the central channel of subtle energy that course through the middle of a living being from the crown to the perineum, and symbolises the Buddha family of Vairocana. It also represents the dharmadhatu - the absolute space of all phenomena - through the precious treasury that are interred within.

Stupa construction in accordance to the Buddha’s instruction

According to the Two Stainless Cycles (Drimed Namnyi) the methods by which stupas are built in Tibet are based on teachings given by Shakyamuni Buddha in the human realm and the celestial realm. In spite of the existence of a variety of exterior designs, the consecration for the interior in every stupa remains identical to this day.

The text of Drimed Namnyi stated that at one time, the brahmin Sergei Dawa, a non-buddhist teacher had a premonition through meditation that he would die within seven days. Frightened and powerless to change his own destiny, he went to Shakyamuni Buddha for help. The Blessed One confirmed his dread suspicion of untimely death and informed him that due to his store of negative karma, he will be reborn repeatedly in the lower and lower realms until finally being reborn in the hell realms.

Overwhelmed by shock, Sergei Dawa made request to the Buddha for means to nullify this imminent calamity. The Blessed One gave him the location of a stupa and said that if he would repair, refurbish, and reconsecrate this stupa, the merits he would accumulate will be sufficient to prolong his life and exhaust his store of negative karma, and when his present life finally come to pass, he will reborn in the pure realm of bliss. Sergei Dawa took the advice to his heart and used all his means to refurnish and to reconsecrate the stupa. Blessed by the transmission of the Buddha, and empowered by the diligence of his own unreserved effort, Sergei Dawa was able to restore health to his dying body and live for many more years.

At the request of Bodhisattva Sarvanivaranaviskambhin (Dripa Namsel), further elaboration were given by the Buddha on the choice of location, building materials, design, rituals, the way how mandalas, scriptures, dharanis (long verses of mantra), tsa tsa (miniature stupa), holy relics, precious offerings should be prepared, and how a stupa should be consecrated and sanctified.

According to Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé, the most important texts to place inside a stupa are the Kriyayogatantra (Odzer Drimed) - Spotless Radiance Tantra - and the five classes of great dharanis (zung chen dé nga) which serve as the relics of dharmakaya (chökyi kü ringsel). These sacred texts energise and transform a stupa into the absolute body of the buddhas. The five classes of great dharanis are:

  1. Ushnishavijaya (Tsuktor Namgyalma)
  2. Vimaloshnisha (Tsuktor Drimed)
  3. Guhyadhatu (Sangwa Ringsel)
  4. Bodhigarbhalamkaralaksha (Changchub Gyen Bum)
  5. Pratityasamutpadahrdaya (Tendrel Nyingpo)

A stupa which has been consecrated and energised by the relics of dharmakaya is no longer a man-made burial monument but a sacred entity that can bestow blessings and amplify the potentiality of benefits, restore positive conditions for anyone who sponsor its construction, see it, touch it, circumambulate it, or hear the breeze that blow by it.

There is a legend in Bodhgaya which states that an underground crystal stupa exists beneath the bodhi tree - a stupa so powerful it will support and preserve this site of the vajra seat where all 1000 Buddhas of this aeon will attain enlightenment there.

Some tantra teachings state that a self-arising stupa existed in the sky above Bodhgaya at the time of Vipasyin Buddha (Sangyé Namzik) and Sikhin Buddha (Sangyé Tsuk Torchen), while at the time of the Kasyapa Buddha (Sangyé Ösung) who is the Buddha prior to Shakyamuni Buddha (Sangyé Shakya Thubpa), a self-arising stupa existed under the earth.

Another legend in Kathmandu states that stupa has existed in the same site as the Swayambhunath Stupa during the time that spans from Visvabhu Buddha (Sangyé Thamché Kyob), Krakucchanda Buddha (Sangyé Khorwa Jik), Kanakamuni Buddha (Sangyé Sertub) to Kasyapa Buddha (Sangyé Ösung).  To this day, on the 15th day of the sixth lunar month, an apparition of the original stupa has been known to appear in the sky. A true testimony to the existence of stupa on earth, in the sky and underground since time without beginning.

This teaching entitled ‘Stupa - The Enlightened Mind Of The Buddhas’ is presented here by Tenzin Gyalpo Drakpa Gyaltsen Dondrup Dorje as his homage to all the Buddhas of the three times in ten directions.