Introduction to Stupa
A stupa is an elegant Buddhist structure that serves as a space for worshippers to meditate and pray and a repository for artifacts and other holy items. The best way to describe a stupa is as a "spiritual monument" because this building embodies the Buddha's divinity and path to enlightenment, as well as his intellect and spirit.
As the receptacle of Buddha's enlightened mind, the stupa encapsulates many symbolic meanings that reveal his enlightened qualities. Firstly, although it is not actually described in any Tibetan text on stupa symbolism, the stupa has 'assumed' the representation of the five purified elements.
The Symbolism of the Stupa:
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The stupa is divided into sections, each of which represents different Buddhist teaching or set of tenets that emphasizes the way to enlightenment. Starting from the Foundation and moving up to the crowning jewel at the top, this is a graduated path that symbolizes an idealized and prospective map of spiritual progress.
Pinnacle: Moon, Sun, and Jewel
The top of the stupa represents how the Buddha's teachings came to a conclusion. The moon stands for the Bodhicitta, or heart and mind that have awakened. The sun is a symbol for Prajna, or the highest level of wisdom. In the realm of all-pervasive awareness, the crowning pearl represents ultimate accomplishment (full realization or awakening).
The parasol/umbrella is a symbol of a Buddha's boundless compassion. In addition, it symbolizes achieving Buddhahood after removing all obscurations through all of the prior practices in the earlier levels. The crown, which represents the five Buddha families or five pearls of Wisdom, is the upper portion of the parasol.
The thirteen states of Bodhisattva's path to enlightenment. The thirteen Bhumis are shaped like rings or wheels. They stand for removing conditioning that obstructs the brilliance of the awakened mind and represent the purifying stages of the Bodhisattva's journey. The Bhumi phases are known as:
- Perfect Joy
- Difficult to Keep/Difficult to Conquer
- Far Progressed
- Perfect Intellect
- Cloud of Dharma
- Universal Radiance
- Lotus of Non-Attachment
- Vajra Holder
Also known Nirvana Harmika Symbol, the Harmika represents The Noble Eightfold Path, a methodical application of practices that aims to take the practitioner from suffering (samsara) into the awakened state (nirvana). The eight petals of a lotus, which stand for the Eightfold path, are sometimes used to depict the Harmika. The 8 precise ways to put these teachings into practice make up the path:
- Right view (acceptance and integration of teachings)
- Right understanding (right attitude)
- Right speech (positive and virtuous speech)
- Right action (living the precepts)
- Right livelihood (a lifestyle that is synonymous with the teachings)
- Right effort (directing one's energy towards virtuous activities)
- Right attention (mindfulness practice)
- Right concentration (mind training for meditative absorption)
The dome or vase represents the torso of the Buddha; the arched niche or window in which an image of a deity is placed at the dome's center is situated in the exact position of Buddha's heart. The spherical vase shape represents the Buddha's torso in equipoise. Gau, the decorative opening, represents the Buddha's, compassionate heart. On the path of accumulation, the vase or Bumpa typically signifies the seven components of enlightenment (or the seven branches of awakening) (gathering merit through direct practice of the teachings). These components are mindfulness, discrimination, effort, joy/ecstasy, discipline mastery, samadhi/concentration, and equanimity.
The four distinct stages, together with their sides and corners, stand in for numerous Buddhist teachings that aid students in achieving enlightenment by helping them cultivate Bodhichitta or an awakened heart. Some of them are as follows:
- The Four Immeasurables (Brahmavihāras; often called Divine Abidings): loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
- The Four Foundations of Mindfulness: Body, Feeling, Mind, Objects of Mind/Phenomena. The Buddha's teachings on mindfulness from the Anapanasati Sutra.
- The Four Right Efforts (sammappadhana): avoiding harmful actions, not increasing harmful actions that already exist, increasing virtue that already exists, and generating new virtue that does not yet exist.
- The Four Miraculous Feats (riddhipada): intention/aspiration, thought, perseverance, and analysis/virtuous action.
- The Five Powers: faith, diligence, mindfulness, concentration/meditative stability, and knowledge/prajna.
The earth element and the Buddha's body are both represented by the foundation. It serves as the cornerstone upon which the virtues and application of Body, Speech, and Mind are expressed.
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The Eight Great Stupas and what they represent:
1. The Lotus Heaped Stupa
The Lotus Blossom Stupa represents the birth of Siddhartha, afterward known as the Buddha. The stupa's stairs are circular and adorned with lotus petals.
2. The Enlightenment Stupa
This Enlightenment Stupa represents the universal divinity or the awakened mind and the road to realizing it. The stupa symbolizes the body, speech, and mind of Buddha, especially his mind, and each part illustrates the Buddha's path to Enlightenment.
3. Stupa of Many Doors
This stupa reflects the Dharma, the Buddha's teachings about how things are. It is also known as the "Wisdom Stupa," because it was created to commemorate Buddha's first teaching, "The Four Noble Truths," which he presented in Sarnath/Varanasi. The stupa signifies the threefold spinning of the Dharma wheel and encompasses all of Buddha's teachings.
4. Stupa of Great Miracles
This stupa represents the miracles done by Buddha when he used his power of miracles to convert "followers of incorrect viewpoints" (non-Buddhist masters). This stupa was built in Shravasti's Jetavana Grove by Lisabi.
5. Stupa Descents from God Realms
Buddha taught his mother in the heaven of the thirty-three gods (Trayastrimsha Heaven). This remarkable stupa with three ladders on each side represents Buddha's descent from this realm back to earth. The first stupa of this type was constructed in Samkashya.
6. Stupa of Reconciliation
Devadatta, Buddha's cousin, had produced a schism in the community of practitioners. This stupa was built in Rajgir to commemorate the Sangha's reunification.
7. Stupa of Complete Victory
Buddha's life was extended for three months before his death because his followers urged him not to die. This occurred in Vaishali. This stupa is also revered for its therapeutic properties.
8. Paranirvana Stupa
This stupa of Nirvana represents Buddha's departure from conditioned life (death) in Kushinagar. The stupa's main body is shaped like a bell and represents Buddha's perfect wisdom.
Cosmic Symbolism of Stupa
The creation of stupas is detailed and precise; there are ceremonies and traditions to follow, and how to construct the stupa also depends on the location's history. The relation between the five purified elements is shared among the different monuments, which are represented in the structure of these places. The other parts of the monuments connect metaphorically and symbolically to the cosmic elements. The base represents the ground and the earth, water is represented by the hemispherical vase, and the spire that stands out towards the sky represents the fire. The upper lotus and the moon represent air, while the sun represents wisdom and knowledge.
The three parts of the stupa- throne base, dome, and harmika- spire - also symbolize the Buddha's body, speech, and mind. Taken as a single unit, the stupa itself represents the dharmakaya as the ultimate nature of the fully enlightened mind. This image represents the theoretical relationship between the iconographical grid of the seated buddha and the stupa of enlightenment.
How to use a Stupa in your daily practice
The stupa has three purposes:
- As a reliquary for the Buddha's ashes or another symbol of his Dharma,
- As a monument commemorating the place of an event in the Buddha's life, and
- As votive offerings/gifts, stupas can be blessed and used in monastic shrines or home altars.