Structure

Each section of the stupa symbolizes specific Buddhist teachings and principles that underscore the path to enlightenment. This is a graduated path that represents an idealized and potential map of spiritual development, beginning at the Foundation and continuing to the crowning jewel on top. The 5 Elements (5 Wisdoms) of the Mandala are also represented in 5 sections of the structure (left hand side of image below). Some Buddhist texts reveal the iconography of stupas in rich and complex detail, however, for the purpose of this website a more generalized approach is presented. 
 
The 3 major sections to the stupa symbolize the Buddha's Body (throne/foundation), Speech (vase) and Mind (harmika/bhumis).  
 
Stupas are made of many materials - North American stupas are often parged or occasionally made of stone, while historical Asian stupas were often of stone or similar natural material. Stupas can range in size, from fitting into the palm of one's hand to 108 feet tall or more (108 is an auspicious number; it corresponds to the number of prayer beads on a mala).  Stupas are filled with sacred relics that include the following: tsa-tsas (small clay representations of the Buddha in various Deity forms, see picture below), ancient teachings, hand-rolled mantras, precious substances such as gem stones, and many small stupa replicas. These items can number in the hundreds of thousands. A stupa often has one open shrine room inside, unless it is very large and can accommodate more. Shrine room walls are decorated with numerous Tibetan symbols and thangkas by master painters (see images on Gallery page).

 

 Jangchub Chorten - Stupa of Enlightenment
  Pundarika Foundation, Crestone, Colorado
 


 
The Axle-pole or Sokshing (Tree of Life): The sokshing (not visible in the image), plays an important symbolic role in the stupa. It is usually the trunk of a sacred tree, often a cedar, and it becomes the central pole in the inside centre of the stupa. The symbolism of the sokshing is interpreted by the Vajradhatu Stupa Project as the "life-force pole, the central channel of the stupa's enlightenment energy" (from The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya Which Liberates Upon Seeing; see Resources section). The axle-pole symbolizes the 10 powers that the Buddha possessed. These powers are: clear thought, full karmic responsibility, meditative knowledge, perception of others' faculties, perception of others' mental inclinations, knowledge of others' mental faculties, knowledge of all paths, knowledge of all previous lives, knowledge of all deaths and rebirths, and knowledge of karmic cessation. There is a specifc process for the placement of the sokshing: it is recommended that its east direction while still growing, match the east direction inside the stupa after its placement. The preparation of the sokshing's surface includes carving, painting and other decorative elements, with mantras, sacred relics and treasures attached or inserted within. The stupa texts detail the position of the pillar in this way: its base is touching the fourth step of the Foundation and the top is touching the base of the moon disk. 


 
1 -  Throne / Foundation

The foundation represents the Body of the Buddha and the element of Earth. It provides the foundation upon which the virtues and practice of Body, Speech and Mind are represented.            
 

2 - The Four Immeasurables

The 4 individual steps including their sides and corners represent many Buddhist teachings which help the student develop Bodhicitta or awakened heart on the path to enlightenment. They include the following:

    1. The Four Immeasurables (Brahmavihāras; often called Divine Abidings): loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.  
    2. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness: Body, Feeling, Mind, Objects of Mind/Phenomena.  The Buddha's teachings on mindfulness from the Anapanasati Sutra.
    3. The Four Right Efforts (sammappadhana): avoiding harmful actions, not increasing harmful actions that already exist, increasing virtue that already exists, generating new virtue that does not yet exist. 
    4. The Four Miraculous Feats (riddhipada): intention/aspiration, thought, perseverance and analysis/virtuous action.
    5. The Five Powers: faith, diligence, mindfulness, concentration/meditative stability, and knowledge/prajna.

 

Harmika/13 Bhumis/Parasol/Moon-Sun-Jewel          Close-up of Gau with Deity in Bhumpa/Vase

 
 
 3 - Bumpha/Vase
 
The rounded vase form symbolizes the torso of the Buddha while sitting in equipose. The ornamentally shaped opening, called the gau, symbolizes the Buddha's heart of compassion. Generally, the Vase or Bumpha represents the 7 elements of enlightenment (or the 7 branches of awakening) on the path of accumulation (gathering merit through direct practice of the teachings). These elements are mindfulness, discrimination, effort, joy/ecstasy, mastery of disciplines, samadhi/concentration, and equinimity.                                                                           
 
4 -  Harmika: The Noble Eight Fold Path

The Harmika symbolizes The Noble Eightfold Path, a systematic application of practices to lead the practitioner out of suffering (samsara) into the awakened state (nirvana). The path consists of 8 specific ways in which to apply these teachings:
    1. right view (acceptance and integration of teachings)
    2. right understanding (right attitude)
    3. right speech (positive and virtuous speech)
    4. right action (living the precepts)
    5. right livelihood (a lifestyle that is synonymous with the teachings)
    6. right effort (directing one's energy towards virtuous activities)
    7. right attention (mindfulness practice)
    8. right concentration (mind training for meditative absorption).
The Harmika is often symbolized as a lotus with 8 unfolding petals that represent the Eight fold path. 
 
5 -  The 13 Bhumis

The 13 Bhumis are in the shape of rings or wheels. They symbolize the refining stages of the Bodhisattva's path - eliminating conditioning that obscures the radiance of awakened mind. The Bhumi stages are referred to as:
    1. Perfect Joy
    2. Immaculate/Stainless
    3. Luminous/Illuminating
    4. Radiant
    5. Difficult to Keep/Difficult to Conquer 
    6. Manifest
    7. Far Progressed
    8. Immovable
    9. Perfect Intellect
    10. Cloud of Dharma
    11. Universal Radiance
    12. Lotus of Non-Attachment
    13. Vajra Holder
 
6 -   Parasol

The Parasol represents the limitless compassion of a Buddha. It also represents reaching the stage of Buddhahood after purifying one's obscurations through all the previous practices in the previous stages. The top section of the parasol is the crown, representing the 5 Buddha families or 5 Wisdoms.  (See below for more information).  
 
7 -  Moon, Sun, Jewel   

The top of the stupa represents the final culmination of the Buddha's teachings. The moon symbolizes Bodhicitta or awakened heart/mind. The sun symbolizes prajna, or highest knowledge gained. The crowning jewel is a symbol of final attainment (full realization or awakening), the space of all-pervading awareness

Left: Stamping mantras on back of Tsa-tsas, Zuni Mountain Stupa (Vairotsana Foundation). 
Right: Three separate Deity tsa-tsa molds. Hundreds of thousands of tsa-tsas are placed in stupas. 

 
5 - Buddha Wisdoms - 5 Elements of the Stupa
 
The 5 Elements represented in Tibetan stupas correspond to the 5 Buddha families/wisdoms. Each element is endowed with specific purified qualities and attributes. Each one is also symbolized by a specific Buddhist Deity in both male and female form (balanced wisdom energies). The attributes of the elemental wisdoms are also found in complex traditional mandalas in much greater detail. The 5 Buddha families, their location on the stupa, and their corresponding wisdoms, are as follows:
 
    1. Foundation to the bottom of the Vase:  Earth Element; Deity--> Ratnasambhava - Wisdom of Equanimity; this wisdom refers to a natural state of stability and balance with whatever arises.
    2. Bumpha/Vase: Water Element; Deity--> Akshobya - Mirror-like Wisdom; this wisdom refers to the natural and purified reflecting state of true Mind.
    3. Harmika to the top of the Bhumis: Fire Element; Deity--> Amitabha - Discriminating Wisdom; this refers to the ability to discriminate what is the Truth.
    4. Parasol to the Crown: Air/Wind Element; Deity--> Amoghasiddhi; All-Accomplishing Wisdom; this refers to the place of effortless awareness (of all).
    5. The Moon, Sun, & Jewel: Space Element; Deity--> Vairocana; All-Pervading Wisdom/Dharmadhatu; this refers to space-like emptiness from which all phenomena arises.