The Buddha's Presence
Ven. Thrangu Rinpoche says [< see end of item 6] that "Even though no living master may be present to teach the Dharma in actuality, generation after generation, people continue to see the stupa with their eyes, receive blessings, understand that there are the Three Jewels in which you can place your trust, and in this way, naturally, the Dharma continues. In the same way, when building a stupa for the remains of a great master, his power and blessings will remain. That is the reason to build a stupa. "
Also, in response to a student's question as to how to deal with so much suffering in the world, Thrangu Rinpoche recently responded, "Build peace pagodas (stupas) as they did in Japan, during the time of Nichiren. His building of so many peace pagodas around the country led to [conditions for] peace and prosperity in Japan."
Stupas range in size from miniatures meant to be put on a shrine as reliquary and/or a remembrance of the mind of the Buddha, to enormous buildings that serve as temples as well as monuments.
Meaning of the Terms
Stupa is actually Sanskrit for "pile" as in a heap that gradually accumulates when each visitor to a grave leaves a small stone as a momento or calling-card. All over the ancient world we find that the tombs of great individuals were covered in stones so that a tel, hill or cairn is eventually the result. The erecting of a ready-made cairn is certainly a related practice.
The Sanskrit word stuupa is also used to designate a topknot, such as is created when all one's hair is gathered at the crown of the head.
In regions that are or were Buddhist, the word stupa (or in Tibetan, chorten) is sometimes used for a chaitya [Skt. sanctuary.] A chaitya is, in fact, an enclosure -- a building with a stupa inside it, so that people can be protected from the weather. Chedi is the Pali term. Sometimes the word tope is found in older English texts.
A pagoda refers to the same type of monument. The word is actually a 17th C. European corruption of dagoba, the Sinhalese (or, Sri Lankan) word derived from Skt. dhatu-garbha meaning repository. It is usually takes the form of a stepped tower, but serves the same purpose.
Stupa usually signifies a domed memorial that normally contains relics and offerings. Its shape evokes the seated figure of the Buddha, and there are 8 traditional variations to the form, each commemorating an event in the life of the Teacher. They are evocative of the eight chaityas that first held the Master's relics.
The Eight Types
Each of the eight kinds of stupas commemorates an important
event in Buddha's lifetime:
Stupas and pagodas may be found either indoors or outside on open ground where the monument also serves as a landmark.
T. W. Rhys Davids wrote (1901): "The oldest authority, the Maha-parinibbana suttanta, which can be dated approximately in the fifth century B.C.[E.], states that after the cremation of the Buddha's body at Kusinara, the fragments that remained were divided into eight portions. . . . allotted as follows:
Though the stupa began as a simple pile of stones, it developed into a complex of symbolism. These shrines are common in most Buddhist cultures often forming part of architectural mandalas such as the Khmer medieval site that is Ankhor Wat, and Java's Borobudur. Today they are also present in the Americas, Europe, the Antipodes and elsewhere.
Karma Thegsum Tashi Choling, re: Tashi Gomang stupa of HH 16th Karmapa.
Interior of a stupa
This is the base of the Third Jamgon Kongtrul's memorial stupa in Pullahari, Nepal. We see the offerings in the base, and the shrine set up as it was immediately after the offering ritual. They are placed about the life-tree (sog shig) the central wooden pole that is at the core of the stupa.
At top left, we can see the green skin of a drum.
Here the chorten itself functions as the highest level of a typical Tibetan Buddhist prayer shrine, the two lower levels of which have been set out on the cloth on the cement foundation at foreground's centre.
At the rear, we see the ladder leaning against the base so that offerings can be placed inside. At the right, in the background, someone on a scaffold is painting a mural.
This is the stupa at its official installation. It has been covered in gold leaf and encrusted with turquoises, corals, amber and other jewels. There is a window in gao or amulet-box shape at the third level below the 13-level spire with its lotus crown.
The location of this chorten is the Jamgon Kongtrul labrang at Pullahari, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Examples of the 8 kinds of stupa are also at Pullahari, which is the home of the Rigpe Dorje Institute as well.
Building a Stupa
It is not advisable to try this without someone who is knowledgeable about the proportions, orientation and consecration of the stupa. According to Lama Tashi Dondup, if any detail is incorrect or incomplete, obstacles are certain to arise. That is, the project will not benefit you or any other beings and in fact, it could do more harm than good. The reason may be that the stupa, like any other form of a buddha, should be perfect. It is a reflection of the Ideal, and it serves a precise purpose. It must be consecrated to this purpose that lends it to contemplation, in an extensive ritual invoking the blessing and protection of all classes of beings.
Pilgrims and travelers circumambulate stupas as a form of respect and devotion. Movement along the circular path (Tib. kora) is clockwise, so that the right shoulder is always facing the monument. At Pullahari, the khenpo said that the dogs are in the habit of doing kora in the evenings.
When we arrive at the stupa, we pause, then contemplate and bow in recognition that it is the representation of the Buddha. Some people like to pick up a handful of small stones so they can keep track of the number of their turns. They can deposit one on a ledge after each turn.
We walk clockwise slowly and mindfully. We can murmur the mantra of Buddha Shakyamuni while walking. In the Kagyu tradition it is: OM, MUNI MUNI MAHAMUNIYE, SOHA
If you can do so, it is thoughtful to leave a small offering on a ledge or in a dish to help with the maintenance of the stupa.
The Vanishing Chorten of Tibet
Vijay Kranti writing to The Organiser (Sept. 15, 2002) had this to say about chortens in today's Tibet:
The mandala that is the location of the great stupa at Boudhanath was built by Manadeva (464 - 505 CE). Tibetans call it Zyarung Khashor. In Nepali, the stupa is Khasti Chaitya. It is one of the world's oldest and consequently, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Some North American stupas
Pema Dorjee. Stupa and Its Technology, a Tibeto-Buddhist Perspective. Delhi: 1996/2001.
China and Japan