STUPA: VERTICAL FORM & SYMBOLISM
The vertical form of the stupa rises up out of the mandala as if extruded. The stupa is essentially a three-dimensional form of the mandala. (See Stupa Form and Symbology). Each level of the stupa represents an ascending staget of the Buddhist path to enlightenment and thus also the Path of Return through the levels of multi-dimensional reality. The Buddhist cosmology defines 31 planes of consciousness in the ascending structure. (See Mandala #11 & Stupa #12 models of MDR.)
VERTICAL FORM & SYMBOLISM
At the bottom are the first three steps, which give access to the plinth upon which the whole structure sits. These represent the three refuges of Buddha (the Teacher), Dharma (the Teachings) and Sangha (the Spiritual Community). The plinth or platform is surrounded by a wall, which defines the sacred precinct. The 3 steps are often framed by four gates for each of the four directions which serve to both protect the access to the stupa and prepare the aspirant who applies for entry. The mandala plan is drawn out on this plinth.
The lowest level of the Chorten type stupa is the Lion Throne base which symbolizes the Buddha’s mastery over the entire universe. The treasure vase placed within it often contains relics or spiritual objects which symbolize the eight noble riches. At the base of each of the major levels there is a band of lotus petals representing unlimited love, compassion, joy and equanimity; they are both the foundation and the expression of the universe, embodying the entire teaching.
The base of the domed stupa has a number of terraces for circumambulating the dome, These vary in number, usually three or four, symbolize the four “Immeasureables”: love, joy, compassion and equinimity and the Four Noble truths regarding the causes and abatement of suffering. They also correspond the lower body or legs of the Buddha. Altogether they take the form of a shallow stepped pyramid. These are square in plan and represent the lessons of physical lifetimes to be experienced and mastered on the path to enlightenment. The terraces are circumambulated in a spiral path up to the base of the Dome. . The walls of the terraces along this part of the path may be decorated panels depicting various deities, teachings and events of the Buddha’s life. The wall of each terrace is capped by a frieze representing the four outer rings of the mandala. They begin at the lowest with the rainbow, then the fire of purification that burns off imperfection and distortion, then the band of diamond vajras of the purified mind and finally the 64 lotus petals of protection.
The Steps and Balustrades that connect each level take the form of the cosmic serpent which both brings the Buddhas to earth and the ascending initiates to up enlightenment. The stairways symbolize both upward and downward flow of prana, the vital breaths or currents that flow in the ida and pingula that spiral around the sushsumna, central energy column of the body.
Sitting on the terraces is the “Bumpa” or dome which represents the Buddha’s torso or upper body. It typically was solid with surrounding niches or alcoves for icons or statutes. The shape of the dome corresponds to the cosmic egg, source of the universe, and is also called a garhba, meaning “womb” found in Indian temples. A hollowed Dome could serve as an inner space for meditation but also be a resonance chamber to amplify the energies produced and focalized by the dome shape. As a perfect hemisphere with a virtual full sphere that includes the terraces below it is then the whole universe in which the sacred solids: tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, icosahedron and dodecahedron appear as vibrational structures. These are analogs geometrically of the sphere which can be nested within each other…seed forms of the universe. The dome is designed with an outer, flattened dome having an radius that is in golden Ø ration to the inner dome.Inside the dome there would be a central mast called the “yupa”, which rises from either the base of the terraces or the base of the dome and rises to the top of the pinnacle. It is also called the sok shing, the world or life-tree or the Tree of Enlightenment, made from a living tree. This represents the axis mundi of the earth, the vertical Path to the Sun, which sits at the center of the universe. It also represents Buddha’s spinal column or sushumna and is marked at the five chakra points. Alternately there could be a standing quartz crystal to amplify and radiate the energies of the dome.
The “Harmika” or high altar, representing the Buddha’s head, sits on top of the dome and may have the Buddha’s all seeing eyes on its 4 faces. The harmika represents the ancient fenced area or separated sacred space having a square masonry fire altar at the base of a tree, representing the world and the whole body of teaching. Its form is a cube, which having 8 vertices symbolizes 8-fold path of right realization, speech, action, livelihood, effort mindfulness and meditation. Harmika repeats in a higher/smaller format the symbolism of the square steps and dome below it. The Harmika is accessed by a circular opening at the top of the Dome called the “Sun Door” which admits light into the universe-dome. The sun which sits eternally at the top of the stupa is the goal of the vertical path the portal to the center of the universe.
Above the harmika is a pyramidal or conical structure called the Spire that has thirteen ascending rings or disks representing the thirteen steps of enlightenment (or accomplishments of the Bodhisattvas). They can be thought of as the layered dimensions of heavens corresponding to ascending stages of consciousness. This form, like pyramids all over the world, channels subtle etheric energies into the earth.
The spire is crowned with a parasol attached as a skirt around a bowl, which provides protection for the stupa and indicates the presence and compassion of the Buddha. The bowl or vase holds the elixir of enlightenment, the nectar of immortality. The full bowl represents perfected enlightenment. The sun sitting in a crescent shaped moon sit on top of the bowl representing the non-dualized reality of wisdom (female principle), 1000 lights or Bodhichitta joined with compassion (male principle), thus undivided totality. Finally above this is a blue flame representing the achievement of ultimate enlightenment and Buddhahood. The entire assembly of the bowl. Sun/moon and flame is sometimes known as the “Jewel” or the Pinnacle. Above this, thin air, the void, emptiness beyond enlightenment, the last step requiring the surrender even of the teachings which brought one to enlightenment.
The form of the stupa follows from the sequence of the five elements. These are qualities of substance of which reality is made in various combinations. The ascend from the base/bottom up as earth, water, air fire and space. The last being all pervasive and holding the other four together. They are in essence states of energy or consciousness as well as states of density. Thus earth is solid, impervious, water is fluid, transparent, air is gaseous or vapor, fire is plasma, atoms free electrons, space is empty-still, formless. The space in each of the elements also increases as they proceed from earth to fire as does their molecular structure.
As stated before, each level along the path marks stations of enlightenment and are associated with specific deities, practices, visualizations and mantras to stimulate the development of wisdom and compassion and other Bodhisattva qualities and eliminate the ignorance and attachments that are the limitations to achieving enlightenment. The stupa embodies the whole Dharma and, as well, is a part of the Dharma as a holon is both whole and part of the hologram.