The Meaning of Stupas
The reliquary stupa represents the dharmakaya mind of the Buddha. Symbolically the stupa embodies a complex range of iconographic meanings, with each of its components representing a specific aspect of the path to enlightenment. The base of the stupa is fashioned in the form of a many-stepped square throne or plinth, known as a “lion throne.” Above this ascend the stupa’s hemispherical dome; a square reliquary chamber, or harmika; an upper spire composed of up to 13 umbrella wheels, and a crowning finial of a lotus umbrella, crescent moon, sun disc and dissolving flame.
As is true for much of Buddhist art, the symbolism of this architectural image operates on several different levels simultaneously. A stupa incorporates five basic geometric shapes corresponding to the five elements – earth, water, fire, air, and space – out of which the world and all the atoms within it are composed. Furthermore, the overall shape of a stupa bears a close resemblance to the image of a seated Buddha. Merely by viewing such harmoniously balanced images we receive subtle benefit, experienced as a feeling of peace, well-being, and wholeness. Finally, it should be noted that the various levels of the stupa correspond to the various levels of the spiritual path culminating in full enlightenment.
To learn more about the Reliquary Stupa that is already installed in the Dharmakaya shrine room of the Padma Samye Ling gonpa, or about stupas in general, please follow the below link to the Pema Mandala magazine Fall/Winter 2006 edition to read the article “New Home for Ancient Treasures” beginning on page 4.
THE SPECIFIC MEANING AND IMPORTANCE OF THE FORMATIONS OF A STUPA
The Omniscient Jigme Lingpa said:
All the round formations of stupas symbolize being free from complexities.
All the square shapes symbolize that realization and all its qualities are complete.
The gechu symbolizes the foundation of all merit.
The four levels symbolize (1) the four mindfulness concentrations, (2) the five things to be perfectly abandoned, (3) the four legs of miracles, and (4) the five powers.
The base of the bhumpa symbolizes the five abilities. The bhumpa itself symbolizes the seven limbs of enlightenment.
The squares above the bhumpa symbolize (1) the eight noble paths, (2) the ten powers, (3) the ten abilities, (4) the eighteen unequalled qualities, and (5) the three equanimities of mindfulness.
All the rings and central column symbolize the thirteen dharmachakras.
The umbrella symbolizes always being protected by compassion. The sun and moon symbolize dispelling the darkness of all sentient beings. The top knot symbolizes that this is incomparable.
The best material for making a stupa is entirely out of precious stones or metals; the second best is medicinal and fragrant wood; and the last is earth and stones. A larger stupa can be miles wide, and a smaller stupa can be the size of a churura fruit. But whatever size it is, build it with joyful effort, without being stained by negativities. Install the mantras and blessed objects with consecration ceremonies. The merit of building this with joyful effort is widely mentioned in many sutras and tantras.