What is a Stupa?

The stupa is a monument of peace, harmony and love. It symbolizes the essence of the five elements and the qualities of an awakened mind with the qualities of unlimited compassion and deeepest wisdom. It contains many Buddhist scriptures and prayers and is built for world peace. The stupa in the garden of the Bodhicharya centre for Peace and Understanding in Berlin will sustain the outer balance, inner peace and all encompassing love.

Ringu Tulku Rinpoche

Stupa, Chorten, Thupa, Chaitya, Pagode, Dagoba – these are some of the terms that refer to thousands of similar buildings in Asia. They were erected to keep consecrated relics, to mark sacred places or to remember certain events. Everywhere these stunning buildings of Indian origin are erected in public places, at the crossroads along the Silk Road, in the great temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, in Bagan in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, Chinese Wu Tai Chan and at the mountain passes of the Himalayas, in the Buddhist monasteries of the past and present.


The name derives from the Sanskrit syllable `stup` – which literally means piled up, accumulated, or erect. For more than 2,500 years, Stupas have been built in memory of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. They serve not only as religious reliquaries, but also for contemplation and meditation, and particularly to promote the peace in the world. When Ananda asked Gautama Buddha how they should remember him after his passing away (Skr. parinirvana), he answered:

A stupa should be erected at crossroads in order that everyone finds blessing and happiness who puts down garlands, perfumes or lamps there, or who expresses his joy in speech or thought.

Mahaparinirvana Sutra

After Buddha’s passing away about 2500 years ago, and after the cremation, the remains of the body were divided into eight parts and were handed over to the representatives of the eight Indian kingdoms. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra narrates how the dying Buddha identified four places where a shrine for his memory should be erected at a crossroad: (1) at the place of his birth in Lumbini, (2) at the place of enlightenment in Bodhgaya, (3) at the site of early teachings in Sarnath and (4) at the place of his parinirvana in Kushinagara. Later, these four main places of pilgrimage were supplemented by another four places: (5) Sravasti, (6) Samskasya, (7) Vaisali, and (8) Rajagriha.

Even today, thousands of pilgrims are attracted to the places where a stupa is situated. The stupa stands for the awakened mind and reflects the innate wisdom, and the compassion which is directed to the benefit of all beings. At the beginning, the form of the stupa probably embodied the person of the Buddha but within the lapse of time the building was increasingly associated with the essence of his teachings.

The purpose

A stupa is an architectural rendering of an enlightened mind and is used to contain the relics of great Buddhist masters, transmitting the very essence of their wisdom, realization, and compassion for all beings. It is0 to inspire people seeking a peaceful and spiritual path. It is a place for pilgrimage, a place of refuge, peace and serenity – especially for those who urgently need protection. A stupa is of great symbolic significance and helps to understand the Buddhist teaching. It embodies the compassion and mind of a complete and fulfilled human being, a Buddha.

The original purpose of the Indian stupa was to keep the Buddha`s relics. The Tibetan stupa, called tschörten, was later used to store the relics of spiritual masters. Depending on the size of the dome, it is filled up with small tsatsas (consecrated earthen effigies of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas), mantras, scriptures, statues, jewelry, healing stones and dried medicinal herbs. Over time, the interior of the base of great stupas has been used for a shrine and temple area. The miniature of a tschörten serves as domestic purpose and is usually kept in the shrine of the family. The frequented pilgrimage routes in Central Asia are lined up by long rows of eightfold tschörtens. They serve to harmonize and to protect against negative influences and are built at monasteries, at the entrance to a valley or a village, and at mountain passes according to geomantic principles.

In the 7th century AD, the great tantric master Padmasambhava erected series of tschörtens on the Tibetan plateau, in Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal. According to traditional Buddhist view an Indian stupa and a Tibetan chorten protect against natural disasters, famines, epidemics and raids alike. They have an immense power of spiritual blessing.



Style and symbolism


The oldest Stupa in Sanchi, Maharashtra

The outer shape of a stupa is either pyramidal or spherical. It contains precious relics, statues, scriptures, millions of mantras written downon paper, and miniature stupas of clay. Its aesthetic designand spiritual potency is a result of the strictly traditional specifications. The individual sectionsof the building are perfectly matched and have a complex meaning. In the wake of the growing interest in Buddhism, a number of stupas have been edified in the Western hemisphere. There spective locations serve for contemplation and meditation as well. Depending on its purpose the respective form of the stupa will vary slightly according to specific criteria. Larger difference scan be found in the dimensions. Usually it consists of harmonious and clearly structured geometrical shapes which are reminiscent of the proportions of the seated Buddha.

On earth level there is a foundation built upon which there are some stages and then a cuboid. On top of the cuboid tapered stages are arranged. The next stage is a round base on which the dome cambers. On top of the dome there are successive concentric rings, crowned by a symbolic umbrella and finally by a golden tip.

The principles of the original Indian architectural style can be seen most clearly at the Sanchi stupa. Each of these ancient shrines was characterized by a massive dome. It rose above a circular terrace which was reached through one or more steps. When circumambulating the stupa this terrace served as the ritual pathway. At the apex of the dome there was a square table-like structure (harmika) in which initially the relics were kept. It was crowned by a stationary rod to which a number of precious baldachins were attached. The ancient stupas were surrounded by a wooden or stone boundary which had a high, open, rich decorated archway (torana) in each of the four main directions.

Already in the 2nd century AD, thousands of stupas had been built on request of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. After the Indian King Ashoka (3rd century BC) had entered the Buddhist path, he ordered the building of countless stupas spread throughout his kingdom (Central and North India). Amongst others, he also ordered the construction of the Mahabodhi Stupa in Bodhgaya. The inherited remains of Buddha’s body were divided and kept in 84.000 stupas.

In the 7th century AD, the supremacy of Buddhism in India came to an end due to the Islamization, but it remained in the neighboring countries and East Asia. One reason for this was the spiritual merit which is attributed to the promotion and construction of stupas. Gautama Buddha described this with the following words:

Here and there children play and make stupas of sand to worship the Buddha. They all will participate in the enlightenment.


Technical drawing

For this purpose, a square base is vertically and horizontally divided into four parts. Diagonals are drawn and another square is placed at an angle of 45 degrees to the former one. All axes lines meet in the middle, which is also the center of the dome, which is compared with a vase (Tib. bum.pa). When these basic proportions are fixed, the artist draws the selected type on a grid. Design and construction are characterized by the simplicity of style and precision. The Tibetan style stupa (tschörten) is mainly white in color, and the four sides of the base are often decorated with colored reliefs of snow lions. The iconographies of the Indian model have been adopted. The three main elements of a tschörten are the base, the dome and the crowning parts. The outlines of the monument resemble the body of a seated Buddha and give the impression of his physical presence. The foundation corresponds to the throne, the four stages to his crossed legs in lotus position, the dome corresponds to his torso, the square to his eyes, and the tower to the crown of his hair.


Wider symbolism exists on a second level of interpretation:

Each of the four stages corresponding to one of the “four groups”:

  1. Total devotion
  2. Four supports for miraculous power
  3. Four orientations of mindfulness
  4. Five forces

The base of the dome symbolizes the “Five Forces”:

  1. Trust
  2. Vigor
  3. Mindfulness
  4. Concentration
  5. Wisdom

The dome is the vessel for the “Seven links to enlightenment”:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Wisdom
  3. Vigor
  4. Joy
  5. Mental flexibility
  6. Concentration
  7. Equanimity

The so-called “harmika” symbolizes the Eight-fold Path of the Saints”:

  1. Right view
  2. Correct thinking
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

The first 10 discs of the tower correspond to the ten supernatural powers and abilities of a Buddha. The top three slices correspond to the three “deep reflections” and the three “types of mindfulness.” Likewise, the rings indicate the thirteen levels of spiritual realization of the bodhisattva way until the final attainment of enlightenment. At the very top of the tschörten there is a small round ball, which is referred to as “drops” (tib. tig le), and which rests on a sun and a moon disc. The drop (or the jewel) symbolizes the perfect realization of mind. The solar disk embodies the discriminating wisdom (Skr. Prajna), the lunar disc the best method (Skr. Upaya) and immeasurable compassion (Skr. Karuna). On top of the tower, under the crowning parts of the tchörten there is a baldachin – the symbol of royal sovereignty. The Indian and the Tibetan stupa both have a wooden pillar in their center, the so-called “tree of life” or “tree of vitality” (Tib. sog-ching). It is painted in bright red and is adorned with golden Sanskrit syllables. This pillar in the center symbolizes the mythical connection between heaven and earth. It emphasizes the character of the building as a central point, an axis around which the sentient beings move in the same direction with the solar system and the universe.

The stupa is considered in its entirety as an image of `the path to enlightenment`. A stupa is an architectural rendering of an enlightened mind and is used to contain the relics of great Buddhist masters, transmitting the very essence of their wisdom, realization, and compassion for all beings.

Wath the short video on the stupa in Crestone / Colorado:



The eight Maha-Chaityas (Chorten)


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More than 1,000 years later in Tibet, slightly different stupas (tschörten) were developed – analogous to above referred main places of activity of the Buddha in India.

They are built in a fixed sequence and are located at the entrance to monasteries, or are visible from far away on mountain ridges and mountain passes. In the 7th century AD, according to tradition, Songtsen Gampo, the first Buddhist king of Tibet, is said to have ordered the construction of eight stupa versions.

  1. Stupa adorned with lotus flowers (Heaped Lotuses), to commemorate the birth of Siddhartha Gautama in Lumbini.
    The stages are circular, and decorated with lotus flowers.
  1. Stupa of Great Awakening (Enlightenment), honors the Buddha as the embodiment of enlightenment ( Bodhi)
    The stages are rectangular and not decorated.
  1. Stupa of many auspicious gates (Many Doors), commemorating the ‘opening of the many gates’ the Dharma teachings in Varanasi.
    The stages are adorned with small door openings.
  1. Stupa of bringing forth great miracles (Great Miracles), commemorating the demonstration of supernatural powers by the Buddha in Sravasti in response to the challenge posed by the Tirthika. On all four sides of the stupa the middle of the four stages is wider.
  1. Stupa of descent of Buddha from Tushita (Descent from the God realms), to continue his teachings in northern India. At each side of the stupa, there is a secondary small staircase in the middle of the four stages.
  1. Stupa of Reconciliation of ordained sangha after conflicts (Reconciliation),
    The four stages are octagonal with eight corners and eight sides.
  1. Stupa of blessing of a long life (Complete Victory), commemorating the ability of the Buddha to extend his own life span in accordance with the urgent request of a student. The four stages are circular.
  1. Parinirvana Stupa (Nirvana), commemorating the attainment of perfect Nirvana, of true peace beyond. The stupa has no steps and the central part rests on the square base, the “throne”.








The Stupa in Berlin

3D Ansicht von Joe Burke

3D view by Joe Burke

The Buddhist King of Tibet Yeshe Ö (11th century AD) succeeded in inviting Atisha Dipamkara, a monk and scholar from Nalanda, the famous Indian monastic university, to Lhasa. Atisha not only renewed the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet, but also built the first Kadam stupa, which is not among the eight stupa versions. He was apparently inspired by the stupa on top of the Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya.

The 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, one of the main spiritual masters in the history of Tibet, chose this version of the stupa to be built on the site of Bodhicharya Berlin. On the occasion of laying foundations, a sealed vase with relics was embedded by the spiritual director of Bodhicharya Berlin, Ringu Tulku Rinpoche. The site of the future stupa was blessed by the Karmapa himself and H.H. the 41st Sakya Trizin Ngawang Kunga in the recent years.

The construction of a stupa is to be accompanied by elaborate prayers and rituals. It starts with the preparation of the soil and embedding the treasure vase. Then the foundation is laid and the base is build, followed by the construction and filling of the dome. Finally, the stupa is completed by fixing the 13 rings, the harmika and the jewel on top. With a maximum compliance of the instructions in the traditional Buddhist scriptures the inauguration and empowerment of the stupa can then take place. Only then this building turns into a vessel for obtaining happiness and blessing (Skr. adhishtana).