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Stūpa (mchod rten)

  • A sacred object representative of buddha-mind, classed along with sacred images and texts, which respectively represent buddha-body and buddha-speech. Stūpas were originally a symbol of the buddha-body of reality, constructed in a dome-shape to hold the mortal remains of Śākyamuni Buddha, and they have become the most well-known sacred monuments in the Buddhist world. Stūpas are constructed to a specific architechtural design, usually in the shape of a dome, raised on a square base of several layers, from which protrudes a multilayered spire. The veneration of stūpas is closely connected to the earliet phase of the Greater Vehicle in ancient India, where the original stūpa-design developed into the monastic vihāra (Skt. caitya).
  • In Tibet, a series of eight stūpas is frequently constructed, symbolising different events in the life of Śākyamuni Buddha, and five of these were represented on the five mountain peaks of Wu Tai Shan, according to Part I of the present work. Among them, the stūpa symbolising the buddha's enlightenment (byang chub mchod rten) has simple steps indicative of the ten bodhisattva levels, the five bodhisattva paths, and the eighteen distinct attributes of the buddhas. The bkra shis sgo mang stūpa symbolising the first teaching of Buddhism has terraced steps with gates or niches on each side, representing the four truths, the eight aspects of liberation, and the three approaches to the doctrine. The cho 'phrul stūpa, symbolising the Buddha's performance of miracles at Śrāvasti, has four simple terraced steps, one on each of its four sides. The nirvāṇa stūpa (myang 'das mchod rten), symbolising the death of the Buddha, has a bell-shaped dome without steps, on a base representing the ten virtuous actions. Lastly, the lha babs mchod rten stūpa which symbolises the descent of the Buddha from Tuṣita where he had gone to instruct his late mother has a staircase running down each of its four sides. On these five types of stūpa, see also Keith Dowman, The Sacred Life of Tibet, pp. 228-233.
  • Other stūpas are extraordinarily large, like those of Boudhnath and Svayambhu in Nepal, or Sanchi in India and Borabudor in Indonesia, and some enclose within them entire maṇḍalas of deities, such as the dPal-'khor chos-sde at rGyal-rtse in gTsang and the Memorial Chorten in Thim-phu, Bhutan. The symbolism of the stūpa is complex-- representing the progression to buddhahood, the five elements and so forth. Smaller reliquary stūpas are frequently built as a funerary memorial to important spiritual teachers, often enshrining their sacred ashes or embalmed remains. For further details, see A Snodgrass, The Symbolism of the Stūpa. GD (from the Glossary to Tibetan Elemental Divination Paintings)