What is Stupa

Stupas are the famous Buddhist sacral buildings, places of pilgrimage and the high reverence in the Buddhist world since the ancient times.

They are containing relics of Buddha Shakyamuni, those of other Enlightened Buddhas, powerful Buddhist scriptures, mantras and jewels. Each element of these structures holds a symbolic meaning and has received appropriate consecrations from high Buddhist teachers.

It is believed Stupas or chaityas have been built already in pre-Buddhist era in India as burial grounds to mark the remains of worldly rulers. But after Buddha passed away into parinirvana his remains were cremated and ashes divided and buried under 8 stupas and later two more. In this way stupas turned into places of great veneration and pilgrimages. Later, in 3d century BCE the great emperor of Magadha Ashoka started to build thousands of Stupas all over the Indian subcontinent and South Asia. It is said 84 thousand Stupas were built by Ashoka edicts and guidance. He opened the original Stupas and distributed the remains between the newly built. As stupas spread in different Asian countries, they acquired slight local features and are known as chortens in Tibet and pagodas in East Asia.

The shape of the stupa represents the Buddha, crowned and sitting in meditation posture on a lion throne. His crown is the top of the spire; his head is the square at the spire's base; his body is the vase shape; his legs are the four steps of the lower terrace; and the base is his throne.

shanti-stupa-ladakhEach Stupa in the Tibetan tradition sits upon a square base called Lions Seat. Its four sides symbolize four qualities of the mind, namely: Love, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity. The base is usually filled with jewels, Buddhist texts and mantras, and other relics according to the specifics of this stupa. On top of that is usually build five steps that represents the minds progression towards enlightenment. Each step can be divided into two and refers to the ten levels of Bodhisattva realisation. Or depending on tradition there can be only three steps standing for the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Above the steps there is a rounded form build called Bumpa. It can contain a room for meditations in large stupas, but in smaller stupas it is filled with more relics and precious texts and jewels. It is very precisely described what exactly should be placed inside and how it should be crafted.

The first type of relics is called Dharma relics or Tsa Tsa. These are many small clay stupa models. Inside of them are put various special mantras written on a paper and rolled into thin rolls. Tsa Tsas can only be made by monks and nuns or lay people who have taken Buddhist refuge and who have taken eight basic Buddhist precepts for the day.

Other relics placed inside stupa have to be remnants of the Buddha’s body and robe. In our days for this cause often are used relics of later Enlightened Buddhist teachers as those of Guru Rinpoche, Tilopa, Marpa and Karmapas.

The final relic to be placed in a Stupa is the Mantra Relic. It includes the eighty four thousand teachings of the Buddha along with the commentaries on his teachings by many of the later enlightened teachers.

Through the very centre of stupa goes a central axis, called Sog Shing in Tibetan, meaning “Life Tree”. Usually it is made from a Sandalwood or Juniper but if those are not accessible, can be used any tree that doesn’t bear poisonous fruits.

Eight great stupasIn Tibetan Buddhism there are 8 kinds of different stupas being built commemorating significant events during Buddha’s life:

  1. Birth Stupa - The four steps of the basis of this stupa is circular, and it is decorated with lotus-petal designs. Occasionally, seven heaped lotus steps are constructed. These refer to the seven first steps of the Buddha. Example – Lumbini Stupa.
  2. Enlightenment Stupa - Also known as the Stupa of the Conquest of Mara. This stupa symbolizes the 35-year-old Buddha's attainment of enlightenment under the bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, where he conquered worldly temptations and attacks manifesting in the form of Mara.
  3. Stupa of Many Doors - Also known as the Stupa of Many Gates. After the Buddha reached his enlightenment, he taught his first students in a deer-park near Sarnath. The multiple doors on each side of the steps represent the first teachings: the Four Noble Truths, the Six Perfections, the Noble Eightfold Path and the Twelve Links in the Chain of Dependent Origination. Example – stupa at Sarnath (Varanasi).
  4. Stupa of Descent from Tushita heaven - At 42 years of age, Buddha spent one rainy seasons retreat in Tushita Heaven, where his mother had taken rebirth. In order to repay her kindness he taught the dharma to her reincarnation. Local inhabitants built a stupa like this in Samkashya in order to commemorate this event. This stupa is characterized by having a central projection at each side containing a triple ladder or steps.
  5. Stupa of Great Miracles - This stupa refers to various miracles performed by the Buddha when he was 50 years old. Legend tells that he overpowered maras and heretics by engaging them in intellectual arguments and also by performing miracles. This stupa was built by the Lichavi kingdom to commemorate the event.
  6. Stupa of Reconciliation - This stupa commemorates the Buddha's resolution of a dispute among the sangha. A stupa in this design was built in the kingdom of Magadha, where the reconciliation occurred. It has four octagonal steps with equal sides.
  7. Stupa of Complete Victory - This stupa commemorates Buddha's successful prolonging of his life by three months. It has only three steps, which are circular and unadorned.
  8. Stupa of Nirvana - This stupa refers to the death of the Buddha, when he was 80 years old. It symbolizes the Buddha's complete absorption into the highest state of mind. It is bell-shaped and usually not ornamented.

The 9th type of stupas is Kalachakra stupa. It is not directly connected with events in Buddha’s life, but with the symbolism of Kalachakra tantra, and is created to protect against negative energies.

The most usual spiritual practice connected with stupas is circumambulation of stupa i.e. walking around the stupa in a clockwise direction. Stupas radiate around them a large energy field of enlightened energies. It can bring countless Buddha-blessings, deep purification and countless other benefits. The same is true for taking part in the building of stupas. Stupa symbolizes Buddha himself with all effects and veneration to the Buddhas presence. Also widespread practice is prostrations to Stupa.