Asian Urns

On the history, culture & significance of (mostly) Asian Urns

A History of Stupas

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There’s no doubt that the stupa (thupa, chaitya, cetiya, pagoda, dagoba) is the earliest, and some consider most significant, architectural Buddhist expression.  Today the various forms of stupas can be found through out the world, with the oldest ones existing in Asian countries such as Tibet, India, Malaysia, China and Japan.

The story of the stupa began in India before the birth of Buddha Shakyamuni where mounds of dirt were built around a tree as a tomb for the remains of important figures such as kings and heroes. It’s said that the Buddha was the one who changed that practice when he asked that his own remains be placed in eight different locations within stupas that would represent the Awakened Nature, as a reminder of the potential for enlightenment within us all.

Today, the building of a stupa is a complex, sophisticated set of steps that requires great care as well as the supervision of a trained master, and will result in a powerful structure whose shape represents the Buddha in meditation or full lotus position. Specific ceremonial rites must be performed before, during and after the building of a stupa and many blessings, prayers and other auspicious items populate the interior, creating profound opportunity for enlightenment. Stuffing a stupa with thousands of prayers
Stuffing the Amitabha Stupa in Sedona, Arizona
The word “Stupa” is a Sanskrit word that is loosely translated as “a knot or tuft of hair”.  In Rigveda texts, stupa means “tree’s stem”.  The Monnier Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary says the stupa is “…a Buddhist monument, (generally of a pyramidal or dome-like form created over sacred relics of the historical Buddha (563-478 BC) or on spots consecrated as the scenes of his acts); a relics shrine or relics casket.”  It goes on to say that ‘stupa’ was originally a topknot of hair, designating the upper part of the head, but subsequently became used as an architectural term, indicating a monument of a dome-shaped form over the sacred relics of the Buddha or other saints or venerable persons. The connection between Shakyamuni and a topknot is apparent since he is often depicted as having such a topknot symbolizing his attainment of Enlightenment.
As Buddhism continued to grow over the course of time, the early structural model of the stupa gradually transformed architecturally in India, and eventually Tibet and Nepal.  As Buddhism penetrated Sri Lanka, Central Asia, South-East Asia and East Asian countries, the cultural traditions and concepts slowly changed the shape and construction of the stupa according to the local requirements, beliefs and tastes.
The Buddha's Burial stupa
The ancient burial stupa of the historical Buddha.

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