In Buddhism, it’s important to honor Buddha and other saintly persons. One way this is done is through stupas, or commemorative monuments. These stupas are easy to recognize, and you’ll find variations of them in India, China, Tibet, Japan, Thailand, and beyond.
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To fully understand how stupas are used in Buddhism, you’ll also need to know a few things about Buddhist funeral traditions. These are highly symbolic structures, and they’re a way of sharing the legacy and culture of Buddhism.
In different cultures across the globe, people use their own relics and items to honor the legacy of those who passed. These are a way to find peace with death, and they bring a form of comfort to religious believers. In this guide, we’ll share what a stupa is in Buddhism, as well as its history and purpose.
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What Is a Stupa?
Unless you live in India, China, Japan, or the surrounding area, you likely haven’t encountered a stupa yourself in-person. That being said, these structures are still very recognizable. Sometimes they stand on their own or within other temple structures.
So what exactly is a stupa? This is a mound-like or hemispherical structure. Within it, there are relics that usually belonged to Buddha, monks, or nuns. You could compare this to a Christian church with religious relics inside.
Stupas are a place for meditation. They’re often used as prayer halls or temples. These have been used for a long time within Buddhism, and they’ve spread throughout the world to wherever has large Buddhist populations.
While each stupa looks a little different depending on where it is located, there is always a circular base that supports a large dome. From the dome projects an umbrella-type structure. The exterior might be decorated with sculptures depicting the life of Buddha, mythological figures, and the Jataka tales.
Why Were Stupas Built?
Stupas were built as a way to preserve the remains of Buddha and his associates. His ashes were buried within the structure, along with sacred texts and other relics. According to Buddhist afterlife beliefs, people cycle between death and rebirth in the search for enlightenment. Since Buddha and these all-knowing monks are said to have reached enlightenment, their remains are sacred.
The history of stupas date back to Buddha himself. Buddha’s remains were cremated and divided under eight stupas across various parts of India in the 5th century.
Later, an emperor recovered the relics from the Buddha from all of these stupas and created 84,000 to distribute them further across India. To this day, many of the most well-known stupas date back to these early constructions.
Aside from their practical use as a place to store and share the relics of Buddha and other enlightened beings, what symbolism lies behind stupas? They’re decorated with reliefs and structures depicting many scenes from Buddha’s life, religious texts, and more. All of this helps clarify the symbolic meaning.
The structure itself is a symbol of Buddhism. The mound at the base represents the form of the seated Buddha, who is meditating on his journey to enlightenment. The spire represents enlightenment, which is the highest state Buddhists can reach. Notice how the spire is reaching upwards, always looking to the heavens and beyond earth.
If you look at many different stupas, you’ll start to see the symbolism yourself. This is especially true of the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, which is over 108 feet tall. This poses a striking resemblance to the seated Buddha resting on a throne, and it’s easy to see why this is such a popular place for prayer and meditation.
Stupa Rituals and Traditions
Like other religious centers, there are so many specific rituals and traditions Buddhist people utilize in relation to these stupas. The building itself is considered sacred, and believers come from all over to pay their respects.
While many make pilgrimages to these impressive structures, Buddhist men and women visit every day. These are typically locals who include this in their daily routine. Men and women circle the stupa as a way to pay respects.
While they circle the structure, they chant mantras and use prayer beads. Some will spin prayer wheels as a way to reach enlightenment. Most prostrate themselves in prayer all the way around the stupa, repeating this process again and again. It’s a very ritualized process, and it’s a source of peace for religious followers.
Individuals might say Buddhist prayer for the dead, prayers for good luck, or simply repeat a mantra that’s meaningful to them. Some light incense, which is seen as a way to burn away negative energy. It’s also common to spot people deep in meditation.
The process of walking slowly around a stupa is a symbol of the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. The universe is an ever-moving, ever-changing thing. As such, followers continue around the perimeter while they visualize enlightenment.
More and more stupas are built every day, and they have some surprising side effects. The practice of building these has its own significance within the Buddhist tradition.
Building stupas are said to have karmic benefits. This means they can generate good karma and ethical consequences. Those who build stupas as a way to get closer to their faith will bring themselves better luck in their next lives. They won’t be born into extreme poverty or into a remote location. As such, the practice of building a stupa is just as powerful as visiting one.
Some of the smaller stupas are a place for votive offerings. These are usually found in home altars or in monastic shrines. They’re small, easy to transport, and usually depict certain deities.
These smaller stupas are just as powerful, and they’re used on a daily basis. Followers leave votive offerings, light candles and incense, and pray at these smaller stupas.
Where Can You Find Stupas?
While it’s usually thought that stupas are only in the East, they are actually found anywhere with a thriving Buddhist population. This includes many places in North America. There are few places in the world where you won’t find stupas, especially as Buddhists continue to create new communities in different places.
That being said, some of the most famous stupas are a place of pilgrimage. These are common travel destinations for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Some of the most popular stupas are:
- The Great Stupa (Sanchi): This is the oldest known stupa dating back to the 3rd century. It’s said to be home to Buddha’s remains.
- The Boudanath Stupa (Nepal): The Nepal structure is one of the largest in the world, and it’s surrounded by a lot of mythology.
- The Swayambhunath Stupa (Kathmandu Valley): This is one of the most well-recognized stupa structures. It’s characterized by Buddha’s all-seeing eyes in all directions.
- Ruwanwelisaya Stupa (Sri Lanka): This stupa is one of the largest in the world, and it’s also highly sacred. It was recently renovated, reviving it to its original splendor.
- 108 Stupas (China): This arrangement of 108 stupas in 12 rows is a marvel to behold. Seeming to go on forever, it’s easy to see why so many Buddhists flock here to pay respects.
Though these are some of the most well-known stupas, they’re far from the only ones. These are plentiful across Asia, but they’re also in growing numbers across the United States, Canada, and Europe. Seeing one for yourself is the best way to understand the symbolism and beauty behind these structures.
Stupa Sacred Sites in Buddhism
In Buddhism, life and death are seen as a never-ending cycle. Visiting a stupa is the perfect way to honor this never-ending realm of existence. These structures have existed in the Buddhist religion throughout the centuries, and they honor this rich history today. Though some have been around for thousands of years, they still retain the same karmic significance and power.
These are more than just impressive architectural feats. They’re a way to honor the events of Buddha’s life. They’re a testament to Buddha’s legacy and impact. Memory and commemoration are important in every religion, and these structures seem to be built into the land themselves, reaching for the heavens in a constant search for enlightenment.