Buddhist Stupas: Their History and Purpose
by Tolek Sokolov | Issue 27
This article was published in issue # 27 | Spring-Summer 2011
“Stupas are monuments that contribute to the preservation of peace in the world. They are architectural structures that express in a perfect form the pure nature of mind: enlightenment. They were built thousands of years ago in Asia and have a positive influence on the power field of the whole universe.”Manfred Seegers
Since ancient times, people have marked burial places and visited them as a sign of respect for their ancestors. In many world cultures, after the death of a famous person, burial mounts were built above the place of their burial so that future generations could come to pay homage to the achievements of the person buried there.
The first stupas appeared in India during pre-Buddhist times and originally were monuments on tombs of rulers and other wealthy and famous inhabitants of ancient India. Often, such burial mounts were created around trees. The Sanskrit word stupa means “hair knot,” “the crown of the head,” or “a pile of stones and earth.” The tradition at the time was to cremate bodies after death, which meant there were no burials in the way we understand them. To memorialize someone, it was only necessary to preserve their ashes and unburned remains. These remains were placed into stupas. Over time, the tradition gradually transformed into utilizing stupas as reliquaries to contain the remains of spiritually accomplished individuals.
From there, stupas acquired a broader meaning. Today it is impossible to strictly categorize stupas into types: they may serve as a reliquary, a memorial, or an offering or object of veneration, and at the same time as a symbol of Buddhism. Today, stupas house only a few pieces of sacred remains; they may contain the clothes of an enlightened teacher and other sacred objects or texts. Sometimes stupas are built as road signs to protect travelers, and in Tibet and Bhutan they are often seen built on high mountain passes. On the highest level, a stupa symbolizes the Buddha’s mind, and by making offerings to the stupa one accumulates many positive impressions, which allows people to gradually discover their own Buddhanature and come closer to the ultimate happiness, enlightenment.
As Buddhism spread, primarily through the trade routes of the Silk Road, stupas began to be erected outside of India. Magnificent stupas of different shapes were built in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. Stupas have also reached as far as China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, Buryatia, Tuva and Kalmykia. Often, the shapes of the stupas were changed as they acquired architectural elements specific to particular regions, or according to the form of Buddhism practiced in the region.
The Kalachakra style of stupa occupies a special place among other stupa designs, as it is dedicated not to a sutra, but to a tantra. A Kalachakra stupa was first built by King Ashoka in Amarvati. Vajrayana sources say that Buddha gave teachings and initiations into the Kalachakra at that place. Because the Kalachakra Tantra became very popular in Tibet, several Kalachakra stupas were built there, with their shape and proportions strictly following the text. Today, there exist about ten such stupas in the world, the most recent addition being in the Corinthian highlands of Peloponnese, Greece, at the retreat center Berchen Ling.
In Nepal, the ancient Swayambhu Stupa is situated on a hilltop in the Kathmandu valley. Legends say that a crystal stupa spontaneously arose after Buddha Manjushri cut through the rocks that held the water in a lake covering the Kathmandu valley. Later, the large stupa that stands there today was built on top of the original self-arisen crystal one. Other sources claim that King Ashoka visited this place in the third century C.E. and built a temple, while the existing stupa was built at the beginning of the fifth century C.E. Since then, it has been one of the most revered sites for both Buddhists and Hindus.
Traditionally, Buddha’s eyes are drawn on the square part of the Nepalese stupas, right under the thirteen rings. The symbolism of the stupa is often likened to Buddha’s body in meditation posture: the base represents his crossed legs, the hemispherical part his trunk, the reliquary his head. The spike on the top points to the ushnisha, or the protrusion at the top of his head, while the moon, sun and droplet are the triad decorating Buddha’s hair. The all-seeing eyes are exactly under the spike with the rings. They look in the four directions and symbolize omnipotence, a characteristic of an enlightened being.
When Buddhism spread beyond Asia, western Buddhists started building stupas in their countries as a means of accumulating merit. Since Tibetan Buddhism is the most widespread form of Buddhism in the West, the majority of western stupas are built in the traditional Tibetan style, but often using modern technologies. When we look at such stupas from the ground up, symbolically we see the entire way to enlightenment, and each level signifies an important step on the way. Buddha, dharma, sangha, enlightened attitude and joy are the basis of the first architectural level. Then one accumulates positive impressions, like a vase, becoming a proper vessel with sufficient abilities of concentration and meditation. The thirteen rings on the spire symbolize the final way to enlightenment, by way of ten aspects of Buddha’s wisdom and the knowledge of the three times.
The variety of stupas, their shapes, and purposes should not confuse us. The essence of all the stupas remains the same: to symbolically show practitioners the path to liberation and enlightenment, to give them an opportunity to make offerings and to help them purify negative impressions and increase positive ones, thus accumulating merit and wisdom. All this creates the conditions for reaching the state of a Buddha.