top of page

The Origin of Stupas


Origins of Stupas

The Origin of Stupas

Its symbolism in Tibetan Buddhist Culture


After the death and attainment of Enlightenment or Parinirvana of Buddha, his body was cremated and the fragments, bone remains, teeth, hair and clothes were distributed throughout the Buddhist world as relics. These were first placed at the top of tall mounds that were gradually turning into solidly built structures, called stupas. The prototypes of all dagobas, pagodas and tibetan chörtens, even without relics inside, turned into pure symbols of Ultimate Enlightenment. There are several definitions for the symbolism given to a stupa, some more complete than others.


The stupa represents the crowned Buddha sitting in meditation posture in a throne of lions. Its crown is the cusp of the structure, its head is the square at the base of the cusp, his body is the dome, his legs the four lower steps and the squared base represents the throne.


It also represents the 5 elements and their relationship with the enlightened mind. These are the essential attributes of a fully realized being: the base of the stupa means the earth and equanimity, the dome the water and indestructibility, the spiral means the fire and compassion, above these, is the symbol of wind and action that accomplishes all things and at the top, the jewel that represents the space and the omnipresent consciousness. Thus the stupa is a mandala, a sacred design that contains all these enlightened qualities.

In Tibet the construction of stupas became an integral part of spiritual life and the symbolism is so vast and complex that it is somewhat ridiculous to try to simplify it here. All visible parts of a stupa have a specific meaning, yet this explanation is merely superficial; inside books of scriptures and relics are arranged in well-defined positions, and each of these elements is quickened by a symbolic sense.


There are several types of stupas and two reasons for its construction after the death of Buddha Shakyamuni; the first to celebrate the Eight Great Deeds of his life and the second, to serve as a shrine to his remains.


Starting from the beginning, in Mahayana Buddhism generosity is the first of the Six Paramitas - Perfections and within the different categories of gift, none is higher or compares to the gift of Dharma. Since a stupa represents the mind of the Buddha, the person who contributes to its construction by giving something of himself, of his wealth or effort, is involved in a compassionate act. In that moment this person is putting others above his personal interests, thus building a stupa or contributing in any way to the existence of one, is considered a virtuous act.


This monument is a physical structure that invokes the desire for peace and harmony.


The Buddha has said, "Whoever sees one of these stupas will be released by the sight. Feel the breeze passing through the stupa frees us by touch. The sound of small bells hanging from the stupa frees us by hearing and by reminding the stupa, we free ourselves through memory".


The stupa which is a reliquary for the remains of a Lama is both a vivid memory of him and the embodiment of the awakened state in its aspects of Purity and Omnipresence. When a great being dies, his body ceases to exist but to indicate that his mind remains forever unchangeable in the Dharmakaya then built a stupa as a symbol of the Mind of the Buddha’s.


As transmitted in the Teachings, each and every aspect of the physical body of a Buddha is permeated by Enlightenment, therefore, even after cremation the remains of a Lama, are considered sacred because they are the distilled essence of its physical form, so they themselves are an embodiment of the Enlightened state. Being the stupa filled with such substances, it is therefore considered to be a powerful source which flows blessings permanently. It is said that when worshiping a stupa in these conditions we can symbolically find the Lama and that the visual impact of such a monument brings a direct experience of Awakening.


Currently the construction of stupas continues, not only for the reasons explained in the text, but also for its secular capacity to release sentient beings, just because they are seen.


The origin of a Stupa and what it represent


The Mahaparanirvana Sutra tells us that the Buddha Shakyamuni himself described the basic forms of a stupa before entering into Paranirvana, giving instructions on what to do with his body after his imminent death and subsequent cremation.


His disciples then asked him what to do with the ashes, considered with other reminiscent, holy relics. The Buddha told them that they should put them in shrines erected in four holy places which marked different stages of his journey:

- Lumbini, his birthplace

- Bodhgaya, the place of Enlightenment

- Sarnath, the site of the first public Teaching

- Kushinagar, the place of death


Buda Shakyamuni himself has shown the shape of the stupa. He did it in a very practical way, by building a model of a stupa through folding his robe in four, into the shape of a square. On this basis he putted his inverted begging bowl and said the stupas should have this basis as construction.

bottom of page