What is a Stupa?

Since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha’s death, Buddhists in many countries have constructed spiritual monuments called ‘stupas’ containing the relics of enlightened teachers. Over the centuries these have become places of veneration, the destination of pilgrimages wherever they have been built.

A stupa is an architectural rendering of the Buddhist path, from foundation practice to enlightenment. Its form has evolved over the centuries. The relatively modern Tibetan stupa shape has eight versions, each presenting one of the the eight stages of the Buddha’s life and path.

The Tibetan word for stupa is cho-ten.  Cho translates as “offerings” and ten as “support;” a stupa is a support for offerings that have been placed inside it. Burial stupas hold relics from funerals, commemorative stupas mark an event or occasion in the Buddha’s life, and offering stupas are built in fulfillment of a vow to accumulate merit. A stupa can function as a place of veneration, inspiring us to invoke our best qualities of love and compassion and thereby inspiring blessings. We not only receive from the stupa but we also, in a way, energize it through our motivation and aspiration.

A stupa is also distinctly a ‘power spot,’ a site carefully chosen as an auspicious location, with the power to transform surrounding wilderness or neglected areas into sheltered and protected landscapes. Many stupas in the past were situated in specific geographic spots to protect local populations and incidental travelers, even in some cases to protect kingdoms themselves from invading barbarians.

Two of the most fundamental shapes in all stupas are the dome or mound-shaped hemisphere, and the cone, or spire. The dome has evolved over the centuries into ever-more intricate and sophisticated shapes and sizes. But the basic role of the bumpa or vase section, is still basically a representation of earth, our womb of life.

The gold cone or spire, with 13 rings – originally umbrellas in ancient Indian stupas – symbolize the ten bodhisattva stages and the three applications of mindfulness and is topped by the Sun-Moon-Jewel above, the ‘honorific-umbrella.’’

In between the dome and the spire is a square box called a harmika (Skt.). Symbolizing the eight-fold path, it’s traditionally known as the “dwelling place of the gods.”

Even today stupas are a place where offerings can be made, blessings received, and devotion practiced., each in his or her own way. For example, by walking around the stupa in a clockwise direction, known as korwa. Circumambulating stupas is an ancient practice that reflects not only the movement of the sun, moon, planets and stars but also the ever-returning seasons and the fragility of life.

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