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Stupa Worship


STUPA WORSHIP . The Sanskrit term stūpa first occurs in the Vedas, where it conveys the meaning "knot of hair, top," or "summit." It is unclear how the term came to be used by Buddhists to refer to the mounds erected over the relics of Śākyamuni Buddha, but this usage can be traced back to early Buddhism, as can the practice of worship at stupas. The Jains too built stupas, but these postdate the earliest Buddhist structures. The terms thūpa (thūba ) and dhātugabbha (Skt., dhātugarbha ) are attested in Pali sources. This latter term derives from references to the Buddha's relics as a dhātu ("element") and to the dome or "egg" (aa ) of the stupa as a garbha ("womb" or "treasury").

According to the Mahāparinibbāna Suttanta, after Śākyamuni Buddha achieved final nirvāa his body was cremated and stupas were erected to receive his remains. Śākyamuni's cremation and the installation of his relics in stupas are probably historical facts. The early Buddhists erected stupas because they believed that Śākyamuni had freed himself from the cycles of birth and death. Had Śākyamuni died and remained within those cycles it would have been pointless to build a stupa for him, for not only would the place of his rebirth be unknown, but one could not have expected him to act on the requests of his believers. According to the Mahāparinibbāna Suttanta, stupas could be built to receive the remains of the following four types of people (known as thūparahā, "worthy of stupas"), all of whom had transcended the cycles of birth and death (sasāra ): tathāgata s (buddhas), paccekabuddha s (self-enlightened buddhas), tathāgatassa sāvakā s ("hearers of the Buddha"), and rājā cakkavatti s ("universal rulers").

Such sages could be enshrined in stupas because they had entered nirvāa. In the gamas, such people were said to have realized diadhamma-nibbāna ("nirvāa in this world") or saūpadisesa-nibbāna ("nirvāa with remainder"). Nirvāa was also called the "dharma realm" (dhammadhātu ). Such terms suggest that nirvāa was not always viewed as extinction but often as an actual state or realm a person enters upon realizing enlightenment.

When the Buddha died, he was said to have entered parinibbāna ("complete nirvāa ") or anupādisesanibbāna-dhātu ("nirvāa without remainder"). Thus, even after the Buddha died he was not viewed as having completely ceased to exist; rather, he was thought to exist in the realm of nirvāa. Consequently, believers could worship and offer their prayers to him through the medium of the stupa. It was at this time that the belief that the Buddha could respond to the petitions of his worshipers probably developed. If "nirvāa without remainder" had been considered a completely quiescent state, then such responses by the Buddha would have been impossible. Thus, the people who worshiped at Buddhist stupas seem to have believed that the Buddha continued to be active. This belief later led to Mahāyāna doctrines about the dharmakāya 's activity in the world.

During the early period of Buddhism offerings to the Buddha's relics (śarīra-pūjā ) were made by laypeople. According to the Mahāparinibbāna Suttanta, the Buddha was asked by nanda what type of ceremony should be held for the Buddha's remains. The Buddha replied, "You should strive for the true goal [sadattha ] of emancipation [vimoka ]." The Buddha thus prohibited monks from having any connection with his funeral ceremonies and instead called upon wise and pious lay believers to conduct the ceremonies. According to this same text, it was the Mallas of Kusinārā who conducted the cremation. The Buddha's remains were then divided among eight tribes in central India and stupas were built.

Closely related to the stupa in functional terms is the caitya (Pali, cetiya ). Caitya s are similar to stupas, although originally the two were distinct entities. In Buddhism, the term caitya referred originally to a place that was sacred. In the Mahāparinibbāna Suttanta caitya s are described as places that men and women of good families "should see so that feelings of reverence and awe will arise." Four of these are mentioned in the text: the Buddha's birthplace at Lumbinī, his place of enlightenment at Bodh Gayā, the site of his first sermon at the Deer Park (in Banaras), and the place where he entered "nirvāa without remainder" (Kuśinagara). Because the pilgrims who visited these sites were called caitya-cārika, the sites must have been known as caitya s. Sacred objects of worship that helped people remember the Buddha were both present at and themselves identified as caitya s. For example, in Bodh Gayā pious pilgrims could worship at the bodhi tree or the Adamantine Seat (vajrāsana ) on which the Buddha sat when he realized enlightenment. Because the stupa was an object of worship, it too could be called caitya. The difference between stupas and caitya s is explained in the Mohesengqi lü (Mahāsāghika Vinaya ): "If the Buddha's relics are enshrined, the site is called a stūpa ; if the Buddha's relics are not enshrined, it is called a caitya " (T.D. 22.496b). This explanation suggests that by the time the Vinaya of the Mahāsāghikas was compiled, caitya s and stupas had the same exterior shape. As time passed, the Buddha's relics became increasingly difficult to obtain and other objects were enshrined when stupas were constructed. Thus, the distinction between stupas and caitya s gradually vanished.

After the Buddha's death, stupa worship became increasingly popular. With King Aśoka's (r. 268232 bce) conversion to Buddhism, stupa worship spread throughout India. Aśoka ordered that the eight stupas erected after the Buddha's death be opened and that the relics within them be removed, divided, and enshrined in the many new stupas that he had commissioned to be built throughout India. These events are described in the Ayuwang zhuan (Aśokarājāvadāna ; T.D. 50.102b) and in the Ayuwang jing (Aśokarājā Sūtra ?; T.D. 50.135ab). In the records of his travels in India, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang mentions the stupas constructed by Aśoka, many of which have been identified in modern times by archaeologists.

The Formation of Buddhist Orders around Stupas

Little is known about the history of stupa worship during the 250 years between Aśoka's reign and the rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism at approximately the beginning of the common era. However, archaeological evidence from this period indicates that stupas were built in many areas in India and that stupa worship was a growing practice. Clearly, religious orders must have formed around some of these stupas and doctrinal developments reflecting the increasing importance of stupa worship undoubtedly occurred. Although most of the stupas are in ruins today and little is known of these doctrines, the new teachings associated with stupa worship contributed much to the rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Buddhism has long been formulaically defined in terms of the so-called Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Order (sagha ). Apart from the Mahīśāsaka and Dharmaguptaka schools, which held that the Buddha was a part of the jewel of the sagha, most schools argued that the Three Jewels were distinct elements, with stupas belonging to the jewel of the sagha. In fact, stupas and sects (i.e., the monastic order) do seem to have developed separately. Economic considerations played a role in this doctrinal debate. Given that the Three Jewels were separate, alms donated to the jewel of the Buddha could only be used for the jewel of the Buddha (i.e., stupas), not for the jewel of the Order (i.e., Buddhist sects). Thus, monks were not allowed to use items that had been offered at stupas, that is, to (the jewel of) the Buddha.

Originally, stupas were institutions independent of the Hīnayāna schools. Archaeological evidence reveals that the stupas were constructed and administered by lay believers and were not affiliated with any particular school or sect. However, as stupas worship continued to flourish, stupas came to be constructed within monastic compounds and monks began to worship at them. Yet even after stupas came to be affiliated with sects in this way, alms given to the stupa still had to be used for the stupa alone and could not be used freely by the monks. Monks who had received the full Vinaya precepts (upasampadā) were not allowed to live within the confines of stupas or to take custody of their assets. Thus, although a stupa might be affiliated with a particular sect, a clear distinction was maintained between the property and site of the stupa and those of the order of monks. However, as stupa worship became more popular and more alms were offered at stupas, the schools suffered adverse economic effects. To counter this, the schools argued that little karmic merit would result from such offerings; some even openly opposed stupa worship.

Once a stupa accumulated alms, believers began to live around it and use the food and clothing that had been offered at it. These believers, who were considered religious specialists in their own right, probably assisted pilgrims who came to the stupa by finding lodgings for them, giving instructions about worship, and explaining the carvings of the Buddha's life and of the jātaka s ("birth tales") inscribed there. They probably preached about the greatness of Śākyamuni's personality, compassion, and power to help save sentient beings and formulated doctrines concerning these subjects that were independent of sectarian (nikāya ) opinion. Of course, these doctrines differed from those that had been originally preached by Śākyamuni.

The religious specialists who lived around the stupas resembled monks and nuns in many ways. They served as leaders of orders, teaching lay believers and receiving alms from them. However, although these religious specialists led lives similar to those who had abandoned the life of a householder, they still were not monks (bhiku s). Because they had not taken the full set of precepts (upasampadā), they did not belong to the jewel of the sagha and thus were permitted to live at the stupas.

Because they felt that certain religious experiences were necessary if they were to teach others, these religious specialists not only taught lay believers but also engaged in strict religious practices. Consequently, they imitated the practices performed by Śākyamuni Buddha and strove to attain an enlightenment identical to that which Śākyamuni had experienced. Because Śākyamuni had been called a bodhisattva before he had realized enlightenment, they too called themselves bodhisattva s. The term bodhisattva, which had originally been used to refer to the period of practice prefatory to becoming a Buddha, was now used to refer to all religious practitioners who, unlike Hīnayāna devotees, aspired to realize the supreme enlightenment of the Buddha rather than arhatship.

The orders of religious practitioners that sprang up around the stupas were thus vitally interested in two major doctrinal themes: the Buddha's ability to save sentient beings and the types of practices that would enable people to realize Buddhahood. The religious activities of these bodhisattva s eventually led to the development of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of these doctrines developing among Hīnayāna monks. Because Hīnayāna monks respected Śākyamuni Buddha as a great teacher and believed that he taught the path of the arhat for their enlightenment, they probably would not have used a term such as bodhisattva to refer to themselves because it would have placed them on a level equal to that of Śākyamuni. In following the practices of the arhat, they had little reason to be concerned with new doctrines about the ways in which the Buddha could save sentient beings. However, lay believers, who were unable to follow the austere regimen of the monks, would have been vitally interested in teachings about how the Buddha could save them. The new doctrines that developed in the orders around the stupas did not stress the importance of observing the full set of precepts and performing all the practices required of a monk; rather, in these doctrines, a form of Buddhism for lay believers, one that emphasized faith (śraddhā ) in the Buddha, was described.

MahĀyĀna Buddhism and Stupas

At least some varieties of Mahāyāna Buddhism arose from the orders around stupas. Stupa worship continued to develop even after Mahāyāna Buddhism had begun to take form. Although the orders associated with stupas are not clearly described in Mahāyāna literature, the existence of such groups can be clearly inferred from these texts. Only a few do not mention stupa worship. The "Chapter on Pure Practices" of the Buddhāvatasaka Sūtra contains a detailed description of bodhisattva practices, many of which focus on stupa worship (T.D. 9.430ff.). According to the Ugradatta-paripcchā and the Daśab-hūmikavibhāā, bodhisattva s could practice either at stupas or in the forest (Hirakawa, 1963, pp. 9498). They were to meditate and perform austerities in the forest, but if they became ill, they were to return to a stupa in a village to be cured. Thus, bodhisattva s went to stupas for many reasons besides worship, including recovering from illness, nursing the sick, making offerings to teachers and saints (āryapudgala ), hearing discourses on doctrine, reading scriptures, and preaching to others.

Stupas were more than objects of worship. They also served as centers for Mahāyāna practitioners, with quarters for devotees located nearby. These early Mahayanists abandoned their lives as lay believers, wore monastic robes, begged food, read sūtras, and studied doctrine under the guidance of preceptors. They also meditated, worshiped, and prostrated themselves at the Buddha's stupas. An important part of stupa worship was the circumambulation of the stupa (usually three times) while chanting verses in praise of the Buddha.

Two types of bodhisattva s are mentioned in early Mahāyāna texts: monastic (i.e., renunciant) bodhisattva s, who lived and practiced at the stupas, and lay (i. e., householder) bodhisattva s, who made pilgrimages to the stupas in order to worship at them. Lay bodhisattva s placed their faith in the Three Refuges (or Three Jewels), observed the Five Precepts (pañca śīlāni ) or the Eight Precepts (ahagika uposatha ), and performed religious practices. In many ways, their practices resembled those of Hīnayāna lay believers. However, the two groups had very different objectives in their practice. While Hīnayāna lay believers (m., upāsaka ; f., upāsikā ) sought a better rebirth, Mahāyāna lay bodhisattva s strove to attain buddhahood and based their practices on the Mahāyāna position that helping others results in benefits for oneself.

Bodhisattva s often observed a set of Mahāyāna precepts called the Path of the Ten Good Acts (daśakuśala-karma-pathā ). However, according to some later Mahāyāna texts, monastic bodhisattva s were to receive full monastic ordination (upasampadā ). Thus, at a later date monastic bodhisattva s began to use the complete set of precepts from the Vinaya for their ordinations. In such cases, they probably did not use monks from the Hīnayāna sects as their preceptors (upādhyāya ), because qualified preceptors could be found in the Mahāyāna orders.

According to the Saddharmapuarīka Sūtra, worshiping and making offerings at stupas were practices that led to buddhahood. In the Upāyakauśalya-parivarta (Chapter on expedient means), a variety of practices leading to buddhahood are discussed. These include not only the practice of the six perfections (pāramitā s) but also the building of stupas, the carving of images, and acts of worship and offering made at stupas (T.D. 9.8c9a). Because the realization of buddhahood was the primary goal of Mahāyāna practice, stupa worship clearly had a close relationship to Mahāyāna beliefs.

The stupa also provided a model for many elements in Amitābha's Pure Land (Sukhāvatī). The Pure Land was said to have seven rows of railings (vedikā ); railings were an important architectural component of the stupa. Other elements of stupas were also found in descriptions of the Pure Land, including rows of tāla trees (tāla-pakti ), lotus ponds (pukarii ), halls (vimāna ), and towers (kūāgāra ). Thus, the portrayal of the Pure Land was apparently based on an idealized view of a large stupa. Moreover, according to the early versions of the Emituo jing (the smaller Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra ), the bodhisattva Dharmākara vowed that anyone who worshiped or made offerings at stupas would be reborn in his Pure Land (T.D. 12.301b). This vow was eliminated in later versions of the sūtra, suggesting that, as time passed, Amitābha worship developed independently of stupa worship.

The evidence from these sūtras suggests that the relationship between Mahāyāna Buddhism and stupa worship was very close. Even the Perfection of Wisdom literature, which emphasized the memorization and copying of sūtras, did not deny that merit was produced by offerings at stupas. Rather, it maintained that stupa worship produced less merit than copying the scriptures. Thus the origins of the Perfection of Wisdom tradition as well are related to stupa worship.

See Also

Buddhism, Schools of, article on Mahāyāna Philosophical Schools of Buddhism; Nirvāa; Relics; Temple, articles on Buddhist Temple Compounds.


For a detailed study of the role of the stupa in the formation of Mahāyāna Buddhism, see my article "The Rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism and Its Relationship to the Worship of Stūpas," Memoirs of the Research Department of the Tōyō Bunko 22 (1963): 57106. André Bareau's "La construction et le culte des stupa d'après les Vinayapiaka," Bulletin de l'École Française d'Extreme Orient 50 (1962): 229274, provides a wealth of detail on Buddhist cultic life at the stupas, as does Prabodh Chandra Bagchi's "The Eight Great Caityas and Their Cult," Indian Historical Quarterly 17 (1941): 223235. For the Mahāparinibbāna Suttanta, see the translation by T. W. Rhys-Davids in volume 3 of Dialogues of the Buddha, in "Sacred Books of the Buddhists," vol. 4 (1921; reprint, London, 1973), pp. 71191.

Hirakawa Akira (1987)

Translated from Japanese by Paul Groner

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