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The Tantric Symbolism of the Stupa

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 104: The Tantric Symbolism of the Stupa

I think everybody knows that the Buddha, Gautama the Buddha, the founder of the spiritual tradition that we now know as Buddhism, lived in India some 2500 years ago. And 2500 years, 25 whole centuries is rather a long time as human history goes. Nevertheless, though the Buddha lived all those years, all those centuries ago, we do know, even today, quite a lot about him. We know quite a lot about his life, about the events of his life, what he did, what happened to him. We know quite a lot about what we can only call, using a rather unfortunate word, the personality, the character of the man himself. We know also quite a lot about his teaching, so many traditions of the teaching have come down to us, so many forms of it, so many expositions of it, of one kind or another. We also know, quite a lot, not only about the Buddha himself, but about his various disciples, about the men and the women and even the children, who, in the course of his 45 years of ministry followed him, were influenced by him, influenced by his teaching, influenced by his example. We know quite a lot about the Bhikkhus, about the Bhikkhunis, about the Upasakas, about the Upasikas. I am deliberately using the Pali and Sanskrit words, because the English translations as monks, nuns, etc, usually create such a very misleading impression. But we know quite a lot about them all, all these, or many of them, these disciples, some kings, some nobles, some garland sellers, garland makers, sweepers, scavengers, merchants, traders, priests, we know quite a lot about them too.

And we know quite a lot about the sort of impression the Buddha made on his contemporaries, what people thought of him, how they reacted to his teaching, how they reacted to his influence, how they reacted to the fact that up and down the roads of India, there was walking, could be seen every day, a man who was enlightened.

We know what they felt about that, we know that some were very much impressed, were carried away almost by their enthusiasm, that there was walking about in the world in flesh and blood, on two feet, as it were, an enlightened human being. But there were others, we know, who were not at all pleased, did not like the idea at all and criticised and reviled the Buddha, we know that as well. There were some who thought of him as 'the Buddha', the Enlightened one - others who thought of him as someone who had happened to leave his home, the Sakyas and was wandering about as religious mendicant. Some thought of him just as an ordinary teacher, others again thought of him as nice kindly old gentleman, others as a great yogi, others as a great miracle-worker, and so on. We know from the scriptures, from the traditions, that the Buddha created on the minds of his contemporaries all these impressions. We know too, quite a lot, not only about the Buddha, not only about his disciples, his contemporaries, about the impression he created, we know quite a lot about the general conditions of times in which he lived in India, in north eastern India. We know quite a lot about the political conditions, about how there was a general shift from a republican to a monarchical form of polity. We know quite a lot about social conditions, or the caste system, stratification of society, and so on, about the economic condition of the country, what sort of trade, what sort of business was carried on, by whom, where. We know about the trading connection that extended all the way to Babylonia, perhaps even further than that. All these things we know.

But amongst all these things that we know about the Buddha, about his disciples, about his times and so on, as regards the life of the Buddha itself, we know most of all about and in connection with two particular episodes.

And these episodes are: the Buddha's attainment of enlightenment when at the age of 35 the supreme at last dawned upon him in meditation, and about, what we call, his Parinirvana, which is the Buddhist expression for the Buddha's final passing away from the physical body, the dissociation, as it were, of that supreme enlightenment experience from the physical body in connection with, perhaps even through which it was originally attained. For the second of these two events, for the Parinirvana, that is to say, for the final passing away there is indeed a special section of the scriptures devoted. We have a scripture, we have a text, that is to say a Sutra called 'the Maha Parinirvana' Sutra, sometimes translated as the book, or the scripture of the Great Decease, or rather, perhaps I shoul say, Sutras, because the text, the scripture exists in several versions, in several recensions, and this great work, this great scripture, the Maha Parinirvana Sutra, or Maha Parinibbana Sutta, or Suttanta, as it is called in Pali, contains a very detailed, a fairly connected account of the last few months of the Buddha's earthly life. It follows him, as it were, step by step, it tells us where he went, who he met, how he discoursed, what teaching he gave, and the whole story, the whole account contained in this Maha Parinirvana Sutra constitutes, a very solemn and a very moving story indeed, because by that time, by the time embarked upon that last journey described in the Maha Parinirvana Sutra, the Buddha was an old man. He was an old man of 80, he had a long, he had had a very eventful life, and he knew that he was going to die, he knew that he was going to pass away, he knew that, enlightened though he was, he was not exempt from the general doom of humanity, that he had to die. But being the Buddha, being the Enlightened One, he remained calm, he remained perfectly objective, he simply thought: inasmuch as I am going to die, and he knew apparently exactly when it was going to be, what should I do? What is it fitting for me to do? And he reflected, we are told, that it would not be fitting for him to pass away, for him to die, to attain Maha Parinirvana without first having said 'goodbye' to his friends and disciples and companions and giving them his last words of exhortation and advice.

So having observed what is called the rainy season retreat, that period of retreat during the rainy season, when making, as it were, a virtue of necessity, one remains indoors, in the monastery, in the Vihara, meditating or quietly talking with friends, having completed that rainy season retreat, his last rainy season retreat, the Buddha, with Ananda, as his sole companion, set out on a quite extensive tour of north-eastern India. And as the Maha Parinirvana Sutra proceeds, as the story unfolds, as we get nearer and nearer to the end, we may say that the final episode of the story is particularly sublime and particularly moving. We see the Buddha and Ananda arriving at a place called Kusinagara. Kusinagara, the present day Dhyuria, is just a few miles now from the Nepalese border.

And the Buddha and Ananda on their arrival there, make their way to a grove of sal trees. Sal trees are particularly beautiful trees. They have very tall, very straight, smooth stems, rather short branches, not too many of them, and beautiful big pale green leaves. So, the Buddha and Ananda make their way to a grove of sal trees.

And we are told that this grove of sal trees belonged to a certain tribe, a republican tribe, well-known to the Buddha, containing many of his disciples and followers, known as the Mallas. And when the Buddha and Ananda reach the sal grove of the Mallas, the Buddha is very tired. He's been walking, perhaps every day, for many months, he's been exerting himself to the utmost, expending his last few ounces, as it were, of his energy, visiting his friends, visiting his followers, talking with them, giving his last words of exhortation and advice. So he is very, very tired - and he asks Ananda to prepare for him a couch between two sal trees. So this Ananda does.

Apparently he takes off his own outer robe which is rather thick, he makes a sort of rough couch from it, and on this couch, at the foot of the sal tree the Buddha lies down. And then, according to the Maha Parinirvana Sutra, a sort of, we may say almost miracle takes place, it's not the time for those sal trees to bloom, but suddenly they break out into blossom. And sal trees have beautiful big white flowers, pure white flowers, and usually plenty of them. So these sal trees, these two sal trees, above the Buddha, towering above him, they break forth into untimely blossom. Not only that, we are told, or so the Maha Parinirvana Sutra goes on, these white blossoms, these white flowers starting raining on to the Buddha's body, and the text says, the scriptures says, it was as though the trees, the sal trees were actually worshipping the Buddha, raining down these white flowers in worship, almost as though nature herself was worshipping the Buddha before his departure. And the text goes even further than this, it says, down from the sky, down from the heavens, there came falling heavenly frankincense so that a beautiful odour pervaded in all directions and again, listening one could hear ethereal music sounding in the sky, the music of gods and goddesses floating upon the clouds, all worshipping the Buddha. But then, what does the text go on to say? What does the Maha Parinirvana Sutra go on to say? It tells us that the Buddha was not in the least impressed by all these miracles, by the flowers falling down, the incense falling from the sky, the gods singing thier songs and playing their instruments in the heavens, he wasn't in the least impressed by all these miracles. Perhaps, we can say the Buddha, after 45 years, was rather tired of miracles, and he just looks up, as it were, and he tells Ananda that all this that's happening, the white flowers falling down, the incense falling from the sky, the heavenly music in the sky, he says, all this does not truly constitute worship ...

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