Stupas

The following article is from the Autumn, 1995 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

A Teaching by
Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche

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Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche is currently visiting Chagdud Gonpa Foundatimi's main center, Rigdzin Ling, in northern California, to guide the construction and consecration of eiglit stupas. The follwing commentary is takcnfrom ediled transcipts of a teaching by and interview with Rinpoche conducted al Rigdzin Ling, and translated by Richard Barron.

In order to attain buddliahood so that ali sentient beings, who have been our mothers, may attain buddliahood as well, it is necessaiy for us to gather the two accumulations of merit and pristine awareness and at the same time to purify ourselves of the twofold obscurations-those of the afflictive emotions and those of ignorance concerning the nature of reality. There are no means in the sutra or the tantra tradition to attain buddhahood without this twofold process. The Vajrayana offers very profound and unique means for doing so. It is geared toward people of the highest aciunen, provides many skillful means that do not involve a great deal of hardship compared with the other paths, and is extremely precise about the understanding of the nature of reality that comes about through such practice.

Any kind of physical effort associated with creating or honoring a representation of enlightened form, speech, or mind such as prostrations, circumambulations, or pilgrimage is a way of gathering the accumulations and purifying obscurations. Just as statues are representations of the enlightened form of Buddha and texts are representations of enlightened speech, stupas represent enlightened mind.

Self-Arising Stupas

It's not easy to pin down exactly when the first stupa was created. One reason for this is that the terni stupa has a number of interpretations. In general, when we speak of a stupa, we are referring to a representation of enlightened mind, and so the stupa does not have to have a physical shape or refer to a physical object. One of the verses attributed to the Buddha states, Homage to stupas with form and without form, wherever these stupas may be in any direction or in any time.

There are five main categories of stupa: self-arising, or spontaneous; unsurpassable, or superb; those created by the blessing of the Buddha; those that arise due to siddhi, or spiritual accomplishment; and those that represent the various yanas, or spiritual approaches, of the Buddhist teachings. The eight stupas being constructed at Rigdzin Ling fall into the category of those that correspond to various yanas.

One meaning of stupa is that it is a self-arising, spontaneously occurring phenomenon. In this sense, the configuration of the entire universe-conceived in traditional Buddhist cosmology as four continents surrounding Mount Mera as the centrai axis, crowned by the realni of the gods with the wish-fulfilling tree growiiig in it-can be understood as a gigantic stupa. On an inner level, the structure ofthe vajra aggregates of the subtle body, the way a person's mind-body aggregates and sense facultiesali the elemento of the individuali experience of the world-fit together and interact, arises as a stupa as well and corresponds to the configuration of the universe as a macrocosm.

There is also a direct correspondence between the architectural features of a stupa and the way the universe is structured. The base and the steps of the stupa correspond to the six realms of beings in the desire realm. The middle, spherical sectionthe bumpa, or vasecorresponds to the seventeen levels ofthe form realm. The spire and the ornaments on top of the stupa correspond to the four stages of the formless realm. The sog shing, or centrai axis, the pole that runs through the center of the stupa, corresponds to dharmadhatu, the basic space of ali phenomena.

The reference in the Buddha's teachings to qualities of mind foundational to the attainment of enlightenment-for example, the four immeasurable qualities of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity-are reflected in the design of four-sided stupas. The unsurpassable stupa has four sides in the four cardinal directions, which correspond to these four immeasurable attitudes and to four of the five Buddha families. The rituals associated with the preparation of such stupas clearly indicate that the eastern wall of the Vajra family corresponds to the quality of love, and so forth, in the four directions. In the anuttara yoga teachings as well, the mandala is surrounded by what are called the eight charnel grounds as pure analogies of the eight aggregates of ordinary consciousness, each of which is described as containing a self-arising stupa.

It is said that at Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment, there is a crystal stupa under the ground formed of a vajra substance from the bones of a rishi, or seer, whose meditative absorption was so powerful that it actually transformed his bones into a diamond-like substance that will not be destroyed even when the four elements are destroyed. This underground stupa, this spontaneously present representation of enlightened mind, adorned by the bodhi tree growing on the surface ofthe earth, provides a unique support for that site, such that ali one thousand Buddhas who will appear during this age will attain enlightenment at Bodh Gaya.

In some of the Vajrayana teachings, it is stated that a self-arising stupa exists in the sky above Bodh Gaya, although it is visible only to people with a high degree of realization. The Dzogchen teachings describe the three sources-three things which must be present in this world for the Dzogchen teachings to remain here. One of these is this self-formed stupa.

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On the surface ofthe earth there are incredible stupas as well. Perhaps one of the most well known is the stupa of Swayambhu in the Kathmandu Valley, the very name of which means self-arising. It is said that there has been a stupa at that site since four Buddhas prior to Shakyamuni. In the time of the first two Buddhas the stupa was in the sky above the site, in the time of the last Buddha before Shakyamuni it was under the earth, and in the time of Shakyamuni it carne to the surface of the earth. To this day, around the full moon in the sixth month of the lunar calendar, there is a remarkable apparition of the originai stupa in the sky which countless numbers of people have seen-Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. It is as though the stupa on the earth's surface levitates. This apparition is said to appear because there has always been a stupa at Swayambhu, in the sky, under the ground, or on the surface of the earth.

History of Buddhist Stupas

When the being who attained enlightenment as the Buddha Shakyamuni first entered the path and turned his mind away from samsara and toward liberation, he did so in the presence of a stupa. From the accounts of the Buddha's previous lives, and ofthe stupas at Bodh Gaya and Swayambhu, it is clear that the phenomenon of the stupa predates the Buddha. Since his lifetime, the stupas that have been built by Buddhists ali over the world are representations of his form or memorials of his deeds and are constructed according to guidelines established in his teachings.

There are two basic approaches to the design of stupas: those ofthe Hinayana and the Mahayana. The Tibetan tradition follows the teachings of the Indian master Nagarjuna based in turn upon the Buddha's teachings, so it falls within the Mahayana tradition. In the Hinayana view, the shape ofthe stupa derives from the way the Buddha's personal belongings were heaped on a seat built by his students following his passing into parinirvana. Directly on top of the seat they piled his mat and robes, then his begging bowl, staff, and finally a little umbrella.

The Mahayana system of stupa design and eonstruction was perhaps rarer in the Indian tradition than the Hinayana system was, but it was not absent, The way in which the Tibetans were taught to design and build stupas by the Indian masters who carne to Tibet was based on the teachings of the Mahayana canon and, in the case of the Vajrayana forms of stupas, on explanations and instructions in the tantras. Perhaps the most well known designs of Tibetan stupas are a series of eight that are often built together. These are based on models of stupas built by students of the Buddha in eight Indian holy places that were associated with various miraculous deeds he performed. For example, there is a stupa design known as the stupa of heaped lotuses which is based on the accounts of the Buddha's birth in the Lumbini Grove. When the Buddha was born miraculously from the left side of his mother's body rather than through the birth canal, he immediately stood up-right and walked seven steps in each of the four cardinal directions. Wherever his feet touched the ground, lotuses bloomed, forming heaps of lotuses. And so the design of this stupa suggests a heap of lotus blossoms. Similarly, a stupa with a design known as the tashigomangmeaning the many doorways of auspiciousness, referring to the Buddha's many avenues of teachingwas erected as a memorial to the Buddha's first turning of the wheel ofthe dharma in Varanasi, when he taught the four noble truths and the twelve links of interdependence, the beginning of the processthatled to the 84,000 collections of his teachings. Of the other six stupa designs, the enlightenment stupa commemorates the Buddha's enlightenment, the stupa of descent from the god realm commemorates his descent at Sankhya from the Tushita heaven after teaching his mother, the stupa of miracles commemorates the miracles he performed at Shravasti, the stupa of reconciliation commemorates his reconciling the quarreling factions of the sangha at the Bamboo Grove, the stupa of nirvana commemorates his death and passing beyond sorrow at Kushinagara, and the stupa of complete victory commemorates his voluntary prolongation of his life span at Viciously. Each of these has a specific form. For example, the reconciliation stupa is spherical, representing the idea of wholeness, of bringing everything back into a single group.

When the Buddha passed into parinirvana, his relics were gathered, divided into eight equal portions, and given to eight different groups of individuate, who took them back to their home countries and built stupas to enshrine them. These stupas were not so different in shape, but were simply built in eight different locations.

The Blessings of Stupas

The benefits of involvement in the creation of stupas and tsa tsas, clay images of stupas, are truly incaleulable. When the Buddha gave these teachings, not only the human beings but also the gods, spirits, and other nonhumans present recognized their value and promised to honor, respect, and preserve them. Throughout the history of Buddhism careful attention has been paid to maintaining this tradition of stupa construction.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the making of tsa tsas is an extremely powerful means of developing one's merit in preparation for any major undertaking. Retreat manuals often say that before you undertake a long retreat you should gather merit by activities such as making tsa tsas. It is also a powerful means of purifying the effects of harmful actions, obscurations, and broken vows or commitments.

...when we speak of a stupa, we are referring to a representation of enlightened mind.

Participating in or sponsoring the creation of tsa tsas or stupas, as well as honoring them after they are built through prostrations, circumambulations, and offerings, provides a means for averting ali that is inauspicious or counterproductive and of assuring ali that is auspicious and supportive of spiritual development. Whatever the short-term goal-whether it be longevity, wealth and prosperity, the accomplishment of an undertaking, the alleviation of illness for oneself or others, the purification of even the most heinous act, the pacification of obstacles-this activity is a veiy powerful means for realizing that goal. As well, it plants the seeds of liberation in one's mindstream, so that one gains higher states of rebirth in the shorter term and ultimately is brought to enlightenment. This is particularly dependent upon one's bodhicitta. If one participates in the stupas's construction and ritual activities, or honors the completed stupa with an altruistic resolve to benefit ali beings, then the blessings one derives are such that the Buddha himself could not describe them.

Yet the blessings of stupas are such that they benefit ali beings, regardless of their connection or motivation. The fact that there are stupas and other sacred embodiments of enlightened body, speech, and mind at Rigdzin Ling may be something that people who live just a few miles down the road have no idea about. This doesn't mean they don't benefit in some way. The world benefits from the fact that Rigdzin Ling is here. The state benefits. The locai area benefits. There is benefit on ali levels. But that benefit is increased by one's participation and one's bodhicitta. A stupa is especially beneficiai to those who sponsor or build it, see it or hear the wind that blows by it, touch or remember it, but that does not mean that it is not beneficiai to other beings. It is really more a question of the degree of benefit.

When we were creating the stupa commemorating H.H. Khyentse Rinpoche, there was never any need to exhort people to work. Not only were the great lamas there day and night making tsa tsas, rolling mantras, and so forth, but people were flocking to help. They understood the value of what was going on and wanted to be part of it. There was no need to encourage people. If anything, it would have been necessary to turn people away because there were just too many. Because it was winter time and really cold, building the sides of the stupa was extremely hard work. Yet lamas and tulkus were practically racing each other for the honor of being able to get up the scaffolding and start plastering.

The oldest of His Holiness' students were getting on in years, and had arthritis in their fingers. Yet they couldn't wait to get to the work site. They'd run out there and help in any way they could, scooping up cement with their bare hands and plastering it on because they were so happy to take part in the work.

One of the interesting features of stupas is that it's hard to feel possessive of them. They don't exist for any other reason except to benefit. With other projects, there may be some vested interest. But a stupa is just a stupa. It's not something you can personally profit by. It's a representation of enlightened mind, sitting there, waiting for beings to see, touch, or remember it. In Tibet a lot of the stupas were built at cross-roads on high mountain passes, places where nobody would ever go except on their way somewhere else. Tibetans knew that no matter what stupas looked like on the outside, they contained incredible blessings. Just to see them was a blessing. To touch them was a blessing. To hear the sound of the wind blowing around them was a blessing. And that was why they built them-for the blessings, just the blessings.

Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche is abbot of the late H.H. Khyentse Rinpoche's monastery in Nepal, Sechen Dargyeling, was a student ofthe former head of the Nyingma lineage H.H. Khyentse Rinpoche and of the great terton Padgyal Lingpa. Rinpoche trained in stupa construction at Kalu Rinpoche's monastery near Darjeeling with Tenga Rinpoche, in Bodh Gaya with H.H. Khyentse Rinpoche, and at Sechen Dargyeling with Trulshig Rinpoche, who is considered the primary authority on the Mindroling ritual tradition. Since the death of H.H. Khyentse Rinpoche, Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche has been involved in a number of stupa projects com-memorating his passing and fulfilling His Holiness ' aspiration to build eight stupas in the eight great holy places in India.

For further information concetning 'he Rigdzin Ling stupas, ways to participate in or help sponsor their construction on behalfof the living or the deceased, a catalogue for ordertng tsa tsa molds, or the complete text of this teaching (reprinted in Mirror of Freedom no. 13), cali or write Rigdzin Ling, RO. Box279, Junction City, CA 96048. Tel. (916) 623-2714.

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