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Five Element Symbolism and the Stupa

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by Sangharakshita

... shortly before his passing away, shortly before his death, directed that a stupa should be erected over his remains. And after the great teacher had passed away this was in fact done. You may recollect, those who have either read this particular sutra or have read accounts of the last days of the Buddha based upon it, you may recollect that the Buddha's body, his physical body, after his death was cremated. It was placed on a great funeral pyre with hundreds, maybe thousands, of logs of wood. These were all drenched in oil and in clarified butter, and the whole was set ablaze, and it burned for a very long time. In this way the Buddha's physical remains were cremated. And after the flames had died down, and after the ashes had cooled, the disciples made a reverent search in the ashes for relics, small fragments of bone still remaining. And all these relics, after they had been gathered up - there were just maybe a handful or so of them - were placed inside a jar. People wanted to preserve them; they wanted to have some physical memento of the great teacher. This is a very common human, we might even say failing, but at least it's a forgivable failing.

Now at this point, after the Buddha's relics had been gathered together and placed in that jar, in the stone jar, unfortunately a great quarrel, a great dispute, almost a battle, arose among the disciples, and in Buddhist art, especially earliest Buddhist art, we sometimes see this great quarrel, this great battle, represented, and it would seem, if we take these sculptures literally, that the different parties to the dispute were almost ready to go to war with one another over the question of the possession of the relics. This is rather extraordinary. What happens after the death of a great teacher? As soon as he dies and has been cremated and his ashes are hardly cold, the disciples start quarrelling over the possession of the relics. You may remember there was a similar sort of incident, much more apocalyptic, much more magnificent in its symbolism, in the case of Milarepa. You may remember that after the death, or after the withdrawal from the mundane plane, of Milarepa, his disciples too wanted relics, and apparently all the relics condensed into a brilliant globe of light which hovered above the heads of the disciples, and they all tried to catch hold of it. But as they tried to catch hold of it, it just rose up into the air out of their reach, and as soon as they desisted, as soon as their hands went down, it came a little bit lower, but as they tried to catch hold of it, up it went. You see. Now this may or may not originally have been the case, but obviously there's a very great significance, there's a very great symbolism here.

So much the same sort of thing happened in the case of the bodily relics of the Buddha. There was a great quarrel, there was a great dispute, as I said almost a battle over who should possess them, and there were all sorts of different claimants, different tribes, different people, different cities, even different kings and chiefs. For instance the Shakyas, the Buddha's own tribe, they put forward a claim. They said: Well, the Buddha was our man. He was born amongst us. If anyone has a claim, if anyone has a right to the relics, surely it is the Shakyas. So they put forward their claim. In the same way the Mallas - the Mallas said: Well, he may have been born in Shakya territory, but he lived and taught amongst us much of the time, in our territory. We're his disciples too, so we have a claim, we have a right. So in this way so many people, so many tribes, so many communities, put forward their respective claims and so on. But anyway, in the end, due to the intervention, we're told, of a learned Brahmin, who reminded the disciples that it was very unseemly for the disciples to quarrel over the Buddha's relics as soon as he was dead, it was all settled, and the relics were divided into eight equal portions, and one portion was given to each of the tribes, or each of the peoples, who had put in a claim. And each of these tribes, each of these communities, built over their share of the relics a stupa; and a stupa was also built, we're told, over the jar in which they had been contained.

Now it's very interesting, it's very significant, that this quarrel, this battle almost, for the possession of the relics took place among the lay followers of the Buddha. The monks apparently had nothing at all to do with it; they weren't involved. They're not even mentioned in this connection; it was entirely a quarrel between different sections of the lay community, the lay followers. And this fact is surely suggestive. It suggests that the whole practice of the worship of the relics of great men was not so much a part of the Buddha's own teaching, of course, not so much a part of Buddhism proper, as a sort of popular ethnic practice which continued and was still popular among the lay followers of the Buddha. Be that as it may, however, it is an ascertained fact that very very rapidly after the death of the Buddha, stupa worship, the veneration of stupas, the decoration of stupas, and so on, became a very very popular religious practice. In fact we may say that for hundreds of years after the death of the Buddha the worship and decoration and adornment, and of course the building, of stupas was the principal religious practice of the laity. There were no temples in those days, don't forget, no images. The laity didn't meditate like the monks; they didn't go and live in the jungle like many of the monks; they stayed at home. So what was their religious practice? - they made offerings to the stupas, they venerated the stupas, and they venerated the relics in the stupas, and in this way kept alive the memory of the Buddha and the great example which he had shown.

Now according to a tradition, not according to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, according to a tradition which has come down to us, as far as I recollect, through the Tibetan sources, some time before his death the Buddha directed that the stupa should be built, as the Mahaparinibbana Sutta itself says, but the tradition coming down from Tibetan sources adds further details, and it tells us that when the Buddha gave these directions the disciples very naturally asked how they should make the stupa. In what form should they make the stupa? And what did the Buddha say, or rather what did the Buddha do? He didn't say anything; he gave a sort of practical demonstration.

He took, the tradition tells us, his outer robe, his outer yellow robe, and he folded it into four, that is to say he folded it in two and again he folded it into two, and he folded it into four again. So in this way with the cloth he made a sort of rough cube, by folding the cloth again and again in this way. Then he took his begging bowl, which of course was round, turned it upsidedown, and put it on top of the robes. In this way there was a hemisphere on top of a cube. And the Buddha said: Make my stupa like this. And this was in fact the earliest form of the stupa. If you look at the archaeological remains of Buddhist sites in India, we find that this is in fact the oldest form of the stupa, a square, though sometimes a cylindrical base, and a hemisphere, a rough hemisphere, on top. Now what the symbolism of these two forms is, the cube and the sphere or the hemisphere, this we shall be seeing a bit later on.

Now by the time of the great ruler Ashoka, the king of the Magadha kingdom who spread his rule all over India and more or less founded or maybe refounded the Maurya empire - Ashoka, by the way, lived in the 3rd century - by his time the practice of relic worship and stupa worship had become very very firmly established indeed. It must be admitted that it seems that the monks, the sort of 100% followers of the Buddha who were practising more meditation and so on, they were at first not very happy about all this relic worship and stupa worship, but it had become so widespread and so popular among the laity that there wasn't very much they could do about it, and of course it had been going on for a long time, so eventually they had to accept the practice as orthodox, and indeed we find, according to the records like the Katha-vatthu, we find some sections of the monks quite explicitly ascribing great devotional and spiritual value to the practice of worshipping relics or worshipping stupas. Ashoka himself, according to all the accounts we have of him, was a very great builder of stupas, and the legends (one can't really say historical records here), the legends say that he built 84,000 stupas in a single day. It was rather a tough job even for Ashoka, so we're told that his spiritual preceptor, in order to give him plenty of time, very kindly stretched out his hand into the sky and held back the sun until the great work was finished, a variant we may say of the Joshua legend.

Now by the time of Ashoka, stupas had become much more elaborate than they were in earlier days, and we have preserved more or less intact a very splendid example of an Ashokan period stupa in the great stupa of Sanchi. Sanchi is in the former state of Bhopal, halfway between Bombay and Delhi in, of course, India. And the great stupa of Sanchi enshrined not any bone relics of the Buddha, but the relics of his two chief disciples Sariputra and Moggalana. And some of you may know that, by one of those rather strange historical accidents that you do find happening, these relics, in their little original steatite boxes like little pillboxes, with the names of the two disciples engraved on them, spent some eighty years not very far away from here, that is to say in the Victoria and Albert Museum, having been removed by a British archaeologist before the people of India started caring very much in modern times about Buddhism. But they were returned to India, to the Mahabodhi Society, after ...

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