The Meaning of the Buddhist Stupa

His Holiness Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche is quoted to have said, “The visual impact of the stupa on the observer brings a direct experience of inherent wakefulness and dignity. Stupas continue to be built because of their ability to liberate one simply upon seeing their structure.” [Source:] And if you look at a stupa, you will agree that this is true; just watching a stupa gives you a feeling of inner peace and tranquility. If you ask a monk what a stupa is, he will most likely say ‘a spiritual monument that represents the mind of Buddha’.

The Symbolism of the Stupa

The stupas are Buddhist shrines that came into existence after Buddha’s death. Wherever these monuments were built it was either to commemorate Buddha’s eight great deeds during his life or to enshrine holy relics of Buddhism.

You will find that the stupas are built to represent symbolically the five elements of life – the ground square base represents earth, the large canopy represents the air, the round dome represents water, the cone shape of the stupa represents fire and lastly, the volume of the stupa represents space.

The Symbolism You Will Find Inside Each Stupa

Each stupa tells a story about the Buddha and the doctrines he passed on:

The base platform represents the earth that embodies 10 virtues that a Buddhist practices:

  1. protect life
  2. be generous
  3. live a moral life
  4. speak the truth
  5. speak calmly and gently
  6. speak sensibly
  7. be content in whatever circumstances
  8. be altruistic
  9. maintain faith in right views

The first three steps represent three spiritual anchors for your mind and soul:

  • the Buddha
  • the achieving of Buddha
  • the Sangha (those who practice the teachings)

As you go in, you will find the Lion Throne, which symbolizes the authority of the teachings.  The treasure vase is the symbol of the eight noble riches. There would be lotus flowers in every stupa and these symbolize the six must-have virtues:

  1. generosity
  2. meditation
  3. wisdom
  4. pure morality
  5. energy
  6. pure morality

The four corners of the throne symbolize unlimited/ boundless virtues that promote one on the path of Buddha:

  • boundless love
  • boundless compassion
  • boundless joy
  • boundless calmness

The tree of life is the symbol of ten steps to Nirvana:

  1. realization that you want to know the truth
  2. the discovery of the power of the mind
  3. the inter-dependent links
  4. the understanding of the illusion of happiness in life
  5. recognizing suffering
  6. realizing the origin of suffering
  7. the finding and walking on the path of cessation of suffering
  8. finding and walking on the path that kills ego
  9. the realization of nothing
  10. the finding of the truth

You will also find the moon which is the symbol of elimination of suffering; the sun which is a symbol of radiation of all-encompassing compassion. And on the top is the jewel that fulfills all wishes.

There are many more such symbols in a stupa, each telling a story about the great Buddha and seeking to inspire mankind towards freedom from pain and rebirth. Do you want to learn some more about this?

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