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Five Element Symbolism and the Stupa

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 100: Five Element Symbolism and the Stupa

Friends, Those of you who have travelled at all, especially those of you who have travelled all over the world or at least a great part of it, will agree that in every part of the world we find that the landscape that we encounter has a distinctive appearance. And this distinctive appearance of the landscape in different parts of the world is determined, we may say, principally by two different factors. In the first place it's determined, of course, by the various natural i.e. geographical features of the place, determined by whether that particular part of the world, that particular area, happens to be mountainous or hilly or simply flat, determined also by whether it's covered with lush green vegetation or whether it's dry and barren and desert-like. And in the second place the appearance of the landscape is determined by what we can call the human contribution, that is to say determined by its various architectural features. And this human contribution can be of many kinds; these architectural features can be of many kinds. They may consist of a few scattered mud huts, or rows of snug, neatly-thatched little cottages; or the human contribution may consist even of magnificent pyramids or soaring church spires or even, coming down to more modern times, of clusters of skyscrapers. And going even farther, and perhaps not so very far from home, we may say that the human contribution in some areas consists of enormous slagheaps and smoking factory chimneys and so on.

Now we find, if we turn to the East, we find that Buddhism, from its beginnings in India, spread in the course of centuries over a truly enormous area. It spread over an area which extended from the deserts of central Asia in the West as far as the islands of Japan in the East. And again we find it extending from the icy windswept tablelands of Tibet in the North right down to the sun- drenched tropical island of Ceylon in the South. And obviously the natural features, the landscapes, of all these areas, all these different parts of the East, will be very very different, and even their architectural features will be different, but if we cast our eye over them all, whether it's Tibet, whether it's Ceylon or Japan or China or central Asia, India, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, wherever we go throughout this Eastern Buddhist area, we find that there's one architectural feature, or one type of architectural monument, which is absolutely ubiquitous throughout this whole area. We find that it's discovered on bleak mountain tops, in pleasant wooded valleys, in the midst of vast plains, as well as by the seashore. And this monument, this ubiquitous Buddhist monument, is of course what we call the stupa.

In the course of centuries, in the course of millennia even, the stupa has assumed a number of different forms. Sometimes they are so different from one another you can hardly recognise them as springing from the same origins, from the same simple architectural forms. But in one or another of these forms, diverse though they may appear to be, the stupa is found all over the Buddhist world. It's made of very different materials. Sometimes we find it's built of brick, sometimes of stone, and in some cases we even find examples of stupas being built entirely, or almost entirely, of precious metals, of gold and silver and so on. And in some cases we find that there are stupas which are even studded with precious stones. And again, some stupas are very very big indeed, so big that it would take you ten minutes to circumambulate them; and again you find some stupas so small, so dainty, that you can hold them in the palm of your hand.

Now it's with the stupa that we shall be dealing tonight. And we're dealing with it not just as part of the general history of Buddhist art; we're dealing with it on account of its profound symbolical significance. In fact we may say that the stupa is one of the richest and most complex symbols in the whole field of Buddhism, especially Mahayana Buddhism, and it also happens to be one of the symbols occurring, very dramatically occurring, you may remember, in the White Lotus Sutra. The symbol of the stupa makes its appearance in Chapter Eleven of the White Lotus Sutra, and it appears after the various parables with which we've already dealt in the course of these lectures, that is to say it appears after the Parable of the Burning House, after the Parable or Myth of the Return Journey, after the Parable of the Raincloud, and after the Parable of the Sun and the Moon; and it also appears after the Buddha has predicted to Supreme Enlightenment, to Perfect Buddhahood, numerous disciples of his. And it also appears after he has described the propagation of the White Lotus Sutra in the distant past, and the previous Buddhas, and also after he has described the various ideal qualities of the preacher of the White Lotus Sutra, one who aspires to make known the message of the White Lotus Sutra.

And if we look at the text of the White Lotus Sutra, if we examine its chapters, we find that this great symbol, the symbol of the stupa, is introduced roughly halfway through the work, that is to say not reckoning the various chapters which seem to be later additions. So occurring as it does halfway through the work, appearing as it does halfway through the work, the stupa, the stupa symbol, divides the whole of the White Lotus Sutra into two approximately equal parts, into two great halves. And the first part, we may say, the part occurring before the appearance of the stupa, is dominated by the great parables which we've already studied. And the second half, after the appearance of the stupa, and perhaps including the appearance of the stupa, is dominated not so much by parables, though a few of these do sporadically occur, but rather by myth, by symbol, and by what we describe as cosmic phantasmagoria. We can also generalise a bit more, a bit further, and we can say that the first half of the White Lotus Sutra, the half dominated by the parables, is more concerned with the way, the way to Enlightenment, the way to Buddhahood, especially in its form of the Mahayana, the Great Way. The second part, on the contrary, seems to be more concerned with the goal.

Similarly, the first half is more concerned with the Bodhisattva, with the Bodhisattva's career, with the Bodhisattva's progress along the path, along the Great Way, whereas the second half, dominated by the myths and the symbols, seems to be more, we may say, dedicated to the Buddha, or the concept of the Buddhafield, the universe, the spiritual universe, the spiritual world, in which the Buddha as it were spiritually reigns, which he guides, which he influences.

And we may go further than this, and become more general and more as it were abstract still and say that in the first half of the sutra we see things, we see the whole of existence, as it were sub specie durationis, we may say, under the form of time, temporally; whereas in the second half we see them sub specie eternitatis, under the form of eternity, as they always were, are, and will be, above and beyond time, in the dimension of eternity.

The first half of the sutra therefore depicts, we may say, perfection, spiritual perfection, everlastingly in process of attainment, whereas the second half depicts perfection eternally attained. And the symbol of the stupa, this great symbol of Buddhism, stands as it were in between, and it stands in between not to separate them but to unite them, because the symbol of the stupa as it were contains, as we shall see, both time and eternity.

But before we see that, we have to enquire: What is the stupa? On lower levels, in simpler terms, what does the stupa represent? It's high time that we considered this question, and we're going to consider it under four great heads. First of all we're going to consider the origins of the stupa in India. Secondly, we're going to consider what has been called the five element symbolism, and after that we're going to apply it and consider the five element symbolism in the stupa; and finally we're going to consider the yin yang symbolism in the stupa.

So first of all the origins of the stupa. Now we must at once recollect, we must at once remind ourselves, that the stupa is as old as Buddhism, if not older. If we probe right back to its ultimate origins, we find that they go back into pre Buddhistic times, into Vedic times, hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years before the rise of Buddhism. We find that the Buddhist stupa goes back directly to the old Indian pre Buddhistic burial mounds, and this of course is a very ancient custom, a very ancient practice, that of heaping great mounds of earth over the dust, over the ashes, over the bones, of the heroic dead. And the word 'stupa' is Sanskrit, and literally the word stupa means 'the crown of the head', the top portion of the head, or the scalp; or it means simply 'the top'. And it also means 'gable', which is of course the top of the house. And you may be interested to learn just by the way that this Sanskrit word 'stupa' with all its rich symbolical associations is etymologically connected with our much more common and ordinary English word 'stump'.

Now some weeks ago we celebrated the Parinirvana of the Buddha, that is to say the Buddha's final passing away out of mundane existence, or, as we say in the case of ordinary people, death.

And you may remember, those who were present on that occasion, that in the course of our observance of that day there were some readings from a text known as the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which is one of the most important sutras or long discourses of the Buddha of the Theravada Pali Canon. And according to this text, according to the Mahaparinibbana Sutra, or Suttanta, the Buddha himself ...

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