Some Aspects of Stupa Symbolism
by Lama Anagarika Govinda
The universality of the principal of enlightenment (bodhi) and the boundlessness of the Enlightened One who has surpassed the limits of individuality, who is deep and immeasurable like the ocean - this universality is expressed in the cosmic symbolism of the stupa. It's main element, the cuploa, in fact, imitates the infinite dome of the all embracing sky which includes both, destruction and creation ,death and rebirth. The early Buddhists expressed these prinicipals by comparing the cupola of the stupa to the water bubble and the egg (anda) as the symbol of latent creative power (as such anda was also a synonym for the universe in the oldest indian mythology), while the kiosk or altar-like (harmika) structure which rose on the summit of the cupola, symbolised the sanctuary enthroned above the world, beyond death and rebirth. Nepalese stupas, which in many respects have preserved archaic features, decorate the harmika with painted human eyes, thus suggesting a human figure in the posture of meditation hidden in the stupa: the crossed leg in the base, body up to the shoulders in the hemisphere, the head in the harmika. This also corresponds to the psycho-physiological doctrine of the cakras or centres of psychic force, which are located one above the other in the human body and through which consciousness deveolps in ascending order: from the experience of material sense-objects through that of the immaterial worlds of pure mental objects, up to the supramundane consciousness of enlightenment which has its base in the crown chakra of the head. The latter would correspond to the harmika.
The symbolism proceeds in two lines, the cosmic and the psychic; they find their synthesis in the psycho-cosmic image of Man, in which the physical elements and laws of nature and their spiritual counterparts, the different world palnes and their corresponding stages of consciousness (loka, and lokiya cittani) as well as that what transcends them (lokut-tara-cittam) have their place...
The altar-shaped harmika on the summit of the cuploa was crowned by one or more honorific umbrellas of stone and served, in accordance with its symbolical importance, as a receptacle of relics; in pre-Buddhistic times these were buried most probably in or under the massive and more or less flattened stone hemisphere or its terrace-like base if such a one existed. The resemblance of the harmika to a sacrificial altar is perhaps not unintentional, because the Holy One, instead of sacrificing other beings, sacrifices himself to the world. As the Buddha teaches: There is only one sacrifice which is of real value, the sacrifice of our own desires, our own "self". The ultimate form of such a
sacrifice is that of a Bodhisattva who renounces even Nirvana until he has helped his fellow-beings to find the path of liberation.
From the standpoint of the sacrificial altar also, the later idea, which compares the harmika with the element of fire, gets a new significance. Even the eyes on the harmika of Nepalese stupsa fit into this symbolism, because according to the Tantras, fire (agni) corresponds to the eye (faculty of vision, also of inner vision).
The stupas were surrounded by great stone fences (vedika) originally made of wood, as their architectural character indicates, seperating the sacred place from the profane world. Most of them were decorated with auspicious signs in order to ward off evil influences and to prepare the minds of the worshippers before entering the sanctuary. Four beautifully carved gates, the climax of the decorations of the fence, opened towards the four quarters of the world, emphasizing the universal spirit of the Buddha Dharma, which invites all beings with the call: "Come and see!~ The inner space, between the fence and stupa, and the circular terrace at the basis of the cupola were used as pradaksina patha for ritualistic circumambulation in the direction of the sun's course. The orientation of the gates equally corresponds to the sun's course, to sunrise, zenith, sunset, and nadir. As the sun illuminates the physical world, so does the Buddha illuminate the spiritual world. The eastern torana represents his birth, the southern his enlightenment, the western his "setting in motion the wheel of the Law", or the proclamation of his doctrine, and the northern his final liberation.
The entrances were buiit in such a way that they appear in the ground plan as the four arms of a svastika, which has its centre in the relic shrine on the top of the hemisphere in other words: in place of the comsic centre, which according to ancient Indian ideas, was mount Meru with the tree of divine life and of knowledge (in Buddhism the Bodhi tree), there stood the Buddha, the Fully Enlightened One, who realized that knowledge in his own life...
It is interesting to see how closely the architectural development follows the spiritual growth of the Buddha Dharma. ... The original elements of the stupa speak the same language if we analyse them from the psychological point of view. The ground-plan and starting from the principle of the stupa is the cricle, the symbol of concentration. As a three-dimensional form the stupa is essentially a hemisphere, it represents the principle of concentration in a higher dimension which does not only co-ordinate the forces of one plane butcreates an equilibrium of all the forces concerned, a complete relaxation of tension, the harmony of coming to rest within oneself. Every point of the surface is equally related to the centre, get its meaning and its importance from there, immune against external influences or disturbances, combining concentration and restfulness.
The symbolical meaning of the different parts of the stupa according to the description of the Tibetan Tanjur is as follows:
I. The first step of the 4 sided basal structure, i.e. the foundation of the whole building corresponds to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, namely:
- mindfulness as regards the body
- mindfulness as regards sensation
- mindfulness as regards the mind
- mindfulness as regards phenomena.
II. The second step of the 4-sided... corresponds to the Four Efforts
- effort to destroy evil which has arisen
- effort to prevent the evil which has not yet arisen
- effort to produce the good which has not yet arisen
- effort to cultivate the good that has arisen
III. The third step corresponds to the Four Psychic Powers
- the desire to act
IV. The fourth step corresponds to the Five Faculties
- faculty of faith
- faculty of energy
- faculty of mindfulness
- faculty of concentration
V. The circular basis of the cupola corresponds to the Five Forces, which are of the same kind as the Faculties, faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and reason. the 2 groups represent the passive and the active side of the same properties.
VI. The cupola represents the Seven Factors of Enlightenment
- discerning the truth
VII. The harmika corresponds to the Eightfold Path
- Right views
- Right aspirations
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right effort
- Right concentration
VIII. The stem of the tree of life corresponds to the Tenfold Knowledge
- knowledge of the Law
- knowledge of other persons' thoughts
- knowledge of relations
- empirical knowledge
- knowledge of suffering
- knowledge of the cause of suffering
- knowledge of the annihilation of suffering
- knowledge of the way that leads to the annihilation of suffering
- knowledge of the things connceted to despair
- knowledge of the non-production of things.
IX. The thirteen discs or layers of the tree of life which correspond to the mystical powers of the Buddha. The 13 mystical powers:
- the knowledge of the places which are suitable for the preaching and the activity of the Buddha
- the knowledge of the ripening of the different kinds of karma.
- the knowledge of all the meditations, liberations, ecstasies, and unions with higher spheres
- the knowledge of the superior and inferior faculties
- the knowledge of the different inclinations of other beings
- the knowledge of the different spheres of existence
- the knowledge of those ways which lead to any desired end
- the knowledge and recollection of former existences
- the knowledge of the time of death and of rebirth
- the destruction of evil forces;
- (11-13) the three foundations of the particular mindfulness of the Buddhas
10 Powers according to Anguttara-Nikaya
- perceives what is possible as possible, what is impossible as impossible
- perceives the results of actions done in the past, present and the future according to circumstances and causes
- perceives every result
- perceives world with different elements
- perceives inclinations of other beings
- perceives the superior and inferior faculties of other beings
- perceives the purity or impurity of the states of trance and of liberation, of concentration and its attainments
- remembers innumerable former existences
- perceives with the celestial eye, the purified, the supra-human how the beings reappear according to their deeds
- by conquering his passions he has attained, perceived, and realized by himself the passionless liberation of heart, mind, etc.
At first sight this scholastic symbolism will appear rather arbitrary, but if we examine it more carefully we find that it is consistent with the constructive principles of the stupa and their ideology. It represents the way to enlightenment, revealing the psychological structure of the Buddha-Dharma and the qualities of the Enlightened One in whom the Dharma is realized. The stupa, accordingly, is as much a memorial for the Buddhas and saints of the past as a guide to the enlightenment of every individual and a pledge for the Buddhas to come.