What is Stupa


Stūpas 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 Śākyamuni, 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 Stūpas 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 Parinirvāṇa his remains were cremated and ashes divided and buried under 8 Stūpas and later two more. In this way Stūpas turned into places of great veneration and pilgrimages.

Later, in 3rd century BCE the great emperor of Magadha Aśoka started to build thousands of Stūpas all over the Indian subcontinent and South Asia:

It is said 84 thousand Stūpas were built by Aśoka edicts and guidance. He opened the original Stūpas and distributed the remains between the newly built.

As Stūpas 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 Stūpa 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 4 steps of the lower terrace; and the base is his throne.

Shanti Stūpa, Ladakh

Each Stūpa in the Tibetan tradition sits upon a square base called Lions Seat. Its 4 sides symbolize 4 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 Stūpa.

On top of that is usually build 5 steps that represents the minds progression towards enlightenment.

Each step can be divided into two and refers to the 10 levels of Bodhisattva realisation. Or depending on tradition there can be only 3 steps standing for the Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha.

Above the steps there is a rounded form build called Bumpa:

It can contain a room for meditations in large Stūpas, but in smaller Stūpas 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 1st type of relics is called Dharma relics or Tsa Tsa:

These are many small clay Stūpa 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 8 basic Buddhist precepts for the day.

Other relics placed inside Stūpa 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.

8 Great Stūpas

The final relic to be placed in a Stūpa is the Mantra Relic:

It includes the 84 thousand teachings of the Buddha along with the commentaries on his teachings by many of the later enlightened teachers.

Through the very centre of Stūpa 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.

In Tibetan Buddhism there are 8 kinds of different Stūpas being built commemorating significant events during Buddha’s life:

  1. Birth Stūpa - The 4 steps of the basis of this Stūpa are circular, and it is decorated with lotus-petal designs.

    Occasionally, 7 heaped lotus steps are constructed. These refer to the 7 first steps of the Buddha. Example – Lumbini Stūpa.

  2. Enlightenment Stūpa - Also known as the Stūpa of the Conquest of Māra:

    This Stūpa symbolizes the 40-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 Māra.

  3. Stūpa of Many Doors - Also known as the Stūpa 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 6 Perfections, the Noble Eightfold Path and the Twelve Links in the Chain of Dependent Origination. Example – Stūpa at Sarnath (Varanasi).

  4. Stūpa of Descent from Tuṣita heaven - At 42 years of age, Buddha spent one rainy seasons retreat in Tuṣita Heaven, where his mother had taken rebirth.

    In order to repay her kindness he taught the dharma to her reincarnation. Local inhabitants built a Stūpa like this in Śaṁkāśya in order to commemorate this event.

    This Stūpa is characterized by having a central projection at each side containing a triple ladder or steps.

  5. Stūpa of Great Miracles - This Stūpa refers to various miracles performed by the Buddha when he was 50 years old:

    Legend tells that he overpowered Māras and heretics by engaging them in intellectual arguments and also by performing miracles.

    This Stūpa was built by the Licchavi Kingdom to commemorate the event.

  6. Stūpa of Reconciliation - This Stūpa commemorates the Buddha's resolution of a dispute among the saṅgha.

    A Stūpa in this design was built in the kingdom of Māgadha, where the reconciliation occurred. It has 4 octagonal steps with equal sides.

  7. Stūpa of Complete Victory - This Stūpa commemorates Buddha's successful prolonging of his life by 3 months. It has only 3 steps, which are circular and unadorned.

  8. Stūpa of Nirvāṇa - This Stūpa 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 Stūpas is Kalachakra Stūpa:

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 Stūpas is circumambulation of Stūpa i.e. walking around the Stūpa in a clockwise direction:

Stūpas 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 Stūpas.

Stūpa symbolizes Buddha himself with all effects and veneration to the Buddhas presence. Also widespread practice is prostrations to Stūpa.