Significance of the Stupa

Venue: Taiping Buddhist Society

Today is an auspicious day for us as we gather here to celebrate the restoration of the Eight Buddha Image Stupa. Allow me to speak a little bit about the stupa and its significance to Buddhists.

For about 500 years after the Buddha’s parinibbana, there was no image of the Buddha available anywhere. Devotees who wanted to pay respects to him would go and do so at a stupa instead. The original stupa was a simple one shaped from a mound of earth. Nowadays, we can see many different types of stupas. The one here at the Taiping Buddhist Society is a Sri Lankan model commissioned by Ven Seevali.

During the Buddha’s lifetime, Ven Ananda, one of his foremost disciples, asked him how they should handle his remains upon his demise. The Buddha replied that it was the duty of his disciples to concentrate on their meditation to achieve ultimate liberation rather than worry about this matter, which should be left to lay devotees. When asked how his remains should be handled upon his demise, the Buddha replied that his body should be cremated like that of a cakkavati (universal monarch) and the ashes then enshrined in a stupa at a prominent crossroad. This will provide the opportunity for devotees to offer puja. Those who do it with respect and faith in the Buddha will be reborn in heaven and will have long-term good welfare and happiness.

When he was alive, the Buddha discouraged devotees from idolising him. A monk by the name of Ven Vakkali used to follow the Buddha around, taking delight in his mere presence. The Buddha admonished him saying a monk who dogged the Tathagatha’s every step but is full of greed (lobha), hatred (dosa) and delusion (moha) is as far away from the Buddha as can be. On the other hand, a monk who cultivates wisdom and meditates is near to him even though he may be miles away.

Ven Ananda also said that many renowned and respectable monks visited the Buddha often, thus giving “us” (monks and lay devotees) the chance to see and associate with them. That would no longer be possible after the Buddha’s parinibbana. The Buddha replied that there were four places that were worth seeing, that could arouse a sense of urgency in the faithful:

  • the birth place of the Tathagatha
  • the place where he attained enlightenment
  • the place where the first sermon was given
  • the place of his final parinibbana.

When a monastic disciple or lay follower goes with faith on a pilgrimage to such places, recalling the respective events and dies in the process, he/she will be reborn in heaven.

Here again, the Buddha did not mention the creation of any image for idol-worshipping. Thus, for more than 500 years, the stupa where his relics were enshrined symbolised the Buddha. Sometimes the devotees would use other items such as carvings of his footprints, robes or even pictures of a lion or peacock to symbolise him but never his image. They felt that nothing created could ever reflect the perfection of the Buddha’s form.

It was only later, at Gandhara in the north east of Pakistan, that the ruling Grecian empire which had a long established culture of making statues, created the first Buddha image when Buddhism spread there. Eventually, every country created its own version of the Buddha image.

Nowadays, whenever we see a stupa or a Buddha image, we should remember not just the Buddha but his teachings as well. The verse on the Buddha’s enlightenment, which was chanted just now, tells us about his journey of countless rebirths through samsara searching for the builder of his house. But now that the builder (tanha or craving) is found, the rafters of the house (other mental defilements) are demolished. With enlightenment, there is no more greed, hatred or delusion and therefore no more rebirths. In order to really understand what the Buddha said, we have to practise meditation to experience reality. The Buddha encouraged lay followers not to be satisfied with merely supporting the Sangha but to occasionally practise meditation as well. In this way the chances are better for a favourable rebirth and future circumstances conducive to ultimate liberation.

So, we should not merely come to the temple to pray but should also try put the Buddha Dhamma into practice.

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