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The Tantric Symbolism of the Stupa

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by Sangharakshita

... of the Buddha, of the enlightened one, and he says to Ananda, he who would worship me let him simply follow my teaching, that is the true worship. This is what the Maha Parinirvana Sutra tells us, what the Buddha said in this connection. And after a while, the sutra goes on to say, Ananda asks, - it's a practical question, he is a practical man -, he can't help thinking ahead, - he asks, Lord, when you are dead, when you have attained parinirvana, what should be done with your body? How should it be disposed of? And what does the Buddha say? He says: Ananda, don't bother about that, don't worry about that. He says: get on with your own spiritual development, that is far more important. But he says that there are faithful lay followers, priests and nobles and traders, they will attend to the disposal of the Buddha's physical remains. So we how objective, in a sense, how severe was the Buddha's attitude, he wouldn't tolerate any sentimentality, he wouldn't tolerate, even for a moment, losing sight of what was really and truly of importance, namely one's own spiritual development. But Ananda, who is not yet enlightened, finds it very difficult to accept this kind of objective attitude, and we are told by the Maha Parinirvana Sutra that Ananda was, in fact, very upset, disturbed at the prospect of the Buddha's departing from the world. And we are told that he was so upset and so disturbed he could not even remain with the Buddha, he went away, he went a short distance away, and he was leaning on a post, or maybe leaning on the trunk of a tree and he was weeping, and he was saying to himself: I still have so much to learn and my teacher, who was so kind to me he is about to depart. And saying this he was weeping, leaning up against the post or the tree.

And meanwhile we are told, that other disciples had arrived, other disciples had gathered around the Buddha, knowing he was about to depart, and the Buddha noticed that Ananda was absent, Ananda was no longer there, and Ananda, normally was always with him. So the Buddha asked: Where is Ananda? So the others said: He's gone a little distance away, he's upset, he's disturbed and this is what he is saying, he's weeping. So the Buddha said: Let Ananda be sent for. So they sent for Ananda, one of them went, took him by the hand, brought him into the presence of the Buddha, and the Buddha consoled him. The Buddha said: Ananda, don't feel any regret that you haven't yet gained Enlightenment, that you are not yet enlightenend as I am. You will be, before very long.

Shortly after my parinirvana, in fact, you too will gain Enlightenment. And turning to the other disiciples the Buddha praised Ananda for his various qualities, the tact with which he handled visitors, especially. And by this time, by the time all this had happened, it was the middle of the night. And everybody knew that the Buddha was about to depart, it was only a matter, perhaps of hours. So they were all sitting around, very silent, very solemn in the middle of the night in the sal grove of the Mallas, waiting for the parinirvana. And as they were waiting, in the midst of the silence, in the midst of the solemnity, an unexpected visitor arrives. The Buddha can't even die in peace, a visitor arrives, who wants to see the Buddha, even at that moment. But Ananda prevents him, Ananda says: What are you asking, the Buddha is about to pass away, none can see him now, it's too late. It so happened that the Buddha overheard this conversation, and he called to Ananda, and he said: Ananda, let that man approach. His name, by the way, was Subadra, he was known as Subadra the wanderer. Let him approach, he is a simple man, a straightforward man, as soon as I explain the truth to him, he will understand. So let him come near. So Subadra approached, he had a brief discussion with the Buddha, and he developed, as a result of that discussion, spiritual insight. And he was the last of the Buddha's personal disciples, Subadra, the wanderer.

And by this time the end was fast approaching. The Buddha, as it were, rousing himself, gave his final exhortation to his disciples, especially he told them, especially he insisted on the fact that they should not think that they had lost their teacher. Many of them were thinking, as he knew, many of them were even saying: our teacher is about to depart, we will not have any teacher after the Buddha has passed away. But the Buddha says: you should not think like that. I have left a teacher with you, I am leaving a teacher with you, the teacher that will be with you all the time. And that teacher is the teaching itself, the Dharma itself will be your teacher, the Dharma that I have taught. And the Buddha suggests, that he is spiritually present in the teaching, in the Dharma, so that we you are in contact with the Dharma, you are in contact with a spiritual tradition, you are in contact with the Buddha himself. And having given them that exhortation he reminded them that all things were impermanent, it's not just the Buddha who has to die, the Buddha who has to pass away, all beings, all things, everything is transient, everything is impermanent, everything, one day, will pass away, everything conditioned, everything phenomenal, just like the water of a great river, - everything is impermanent, therefore, he said, Oh monks, develop mindfulness, develop awareness, do not, as it were, fall asleep.' And then the Buddha passed away into the state of deep meditation, and from that state of deep meditation he passed away. And that is the parinirvana, the parinirvana, the final passing away of the Buddha, the final dissociation of the enlightened consciousness from the physical organism.

But so far as the Maha Parinirvana Sutra is concered that is by no means the end of the story. The Buddha passes away, the physical body of the Buddha is left lying there on a couch beneath the twin sal trees, those of the disciples who are as yet unenlightened are very upset, some weep, some lament, but those who are enlightened as the Buddha himself, they just go on sitting calmly round the corpse, their minds are not disturbed, even by the passing away of the Buddha. And as they sit, as the hours pass by, as the dawn comes, the Mallas, in whose sal grove they are all sitting, the Mallas come to hear the great news that the Buddha has passed away. And in the course of the next few hours, the next few days, they arrange for the Buddha's physical body to be cremated with royal honours. And after the body has been completely consumed by the fire, they search among the ashes and they collect fragments of bone. And these fragments of bone, these relics, they place, they seal in a golden jar.

And they worship the relics in this golden jar with flowers and with perfume and with hymns of praise.

And while they are so engaged messengers arrive, messengers from north, south, east and west, messengers from various kings, from various nations, various peoples, tribes. And these messengers are all demanding a share of the relics, the relics of the Buddha, the bone fragments. But the Mallas are not very pleased about this, they are not ready to part with them, because they say: the Buddha, the Enlightened one passed away in our territory, therefore, his physical body, the relics, the fragments of bone, these belong to us. So they refused to part with them. So the kings, and the nations, and peoples and tribes, they marched up with their armies to claim a share of the relics, and prepared if necessary to fight to the death for their share of the relics. And very nearly a battle did take place. But there was at least one wise man around, and he talked with the representatives of these various kings and tribes and peoples, he maybe, made them see reason, and in the end they agreed to appease division of the relics. So the golden jar was opened, and the relics were very reverently divided into 8 equal portions. The Mallas got one portion, and the various kings and tribes and peoples and nations they got the others, and in this way everybody was happy. And they all too away their share of the relics to their own territory, and then shrined them with very great honour. And how did they enshrine them? They heaped up, above them, in some chosen spot an enormous mound of earth. And it's these mounds which were subsequently known as stupas.

And it's with the stupa that we are concerned this evening. Now, we are not concerned with the stupa in general.

That is a very vast subject into whcih we can't enter now. We are concerned specifically with the tantric symbolism of the stupa. Though when we speak of the tantric symbolism of the stupa it suggests, that there is a non-tantric symbolism of the stupa, that the stupa, at least, in some of its forms, contains symbolic elements which are not of tantric provenance. And this is, in fact, the case. The stupa, the stupa which originated from these great mounds of earth heaped up over the relics of the Buddha, the stupa has a history, throughout Asia coterminous with the history of Buddhism itself. Wherever Buddhism went, there went the stupa. One might even say that the stupa is the most important and the most ubiquitous of all Buddhist architectural forms. Usually when we think of Buddhist art and Buddhist architecture the first thing that we think of is the Buddha image. That seems most characteristic, most representative. But this is not, in fact, the case. The stupa is even more ancient than the Buddha image, even more characteristic of Buddhism than the Buddha image. The Buddha image, we know, did not come into existence in India until several centuries after the parinirvana. There was a period of several hundred years during which there was no such thing as the Buddha image, no cult of images, no veneration of images, no keeping of images, or installation of images of the Buddha. In fact, we may say, there was, amongst the early ...

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