Turning the Wheel of the Dharma

The Immeasurable Benefits of Stupas

A teaching given by the Venerable Thupten Rinpoche at the Dhargyey Buddhist Centre, 5 May 1996. © Copyright Dhargyey Buddhist Centre, 1996.

Today I'm going to talk about the benefits of constructing spiritual monuments, stupas. In Tibetan "stupa" is chö.ten, "the basis of offering". I was asked by the stupa committee to explain to them the benefits of constructing a stupa and since I thought it would be good if everybody knew about these benefits I will explain them now.

The benefits I will explain to you are not just what I think the benefits are. Rather, when I was asked to explain the benefits I had to do some research in order to make things authentic and proper. I did this research in the Kangyur, the texts containing the original teachings of the Buddha. I won't have time to go into the fine detail but I will explain the important points.

The first stupa came about because of an experience Ananda, Buddha's constant attendant, had one day. On this day Ananda was going for alms. He came to a family who were building a house with many doors. Considering the shape and number of doors he thought, "Maybe these people are making a residence for the Sangha." Then he thought to himself: "What would be more beneficial? To make a spiritual monument -- a stupa -- or to make a statue of the Buddha, or to make a residence for the Sangha?" He wanted to know which of these would bring the most benefit.

He took the alms given by the family and went back with the question in his mind. When he saw the Buddha he told him what he had seen. He said, "There are people making a building. I thought maybe it was a residence for the Sangha. Would it be more beneficial to make a temple for the Sangha, or to make a stupa the size of a myrabolan fruit (a small medicinal fruit)?" He went on, "Any stupa must have a central axis called a 'life tree' (srog.shing). A needle could be the srog shing. A stupa always has an umbrella on top. That could be a small flower. So which would be more beneficial -- building such a stupa, making a statue of the Buddha, or building a residence for the Sangha?" Ananda asked the Buddha.

The Buddha answered, "If someone were to build a huge temple that would accommodate hundreds of thousands of Sangha, and if the same person were to make offerings to the Sangha for day after day for years; or, on the other hand, if that person were to make a small stupa the size of a Myrabolan fruit, and a statue of the Buddha the size of that fruit, making the latter two would be more beneficial. Both the stupa and the statue represent the Buddha's mind and body, and since a Buddha has limitless qualities, any worship, any offering made to these two miniatures would be more beneficial.

When Buddha was talking about the benefit of constructing stupas and statues there were many beings, human and non-human present, and it was from this time on that beings began making stupas and statues.

Another incident concerning the origin of stupas happened when the Buddha was at Rajgir. At this time he was addressing about five-hundred bhikkshus and seven thousand two hundred Bodhisattvas. At that congregation the Bodhisattva Maitreya put a question to the Buddha. Maitreya asked, "In the distant future there will come a time when it will be very hard for people to practise Dharma. Due to the enormous number of negative forces and many types of interference they will not be able to practise as they would like. What conducive factors will be needed to ward-off and pacify all these negative forces?"

The Buddha explained that five factors would be needed. If these five factors were present, people would be free of interference from negative forces and they would live long. As well, these five factors would gradually contribute to the practitioners' attainment of enlightenment.

The first factor is to give Dharma constantly with the intention of helping others.

The second factor is constantly to give sentient beings a sense of security, or freedom from fear. This means to constantly save beings whose lives are at risk, and provide them with security and peace of mind.

The third factor is constantly to reflect on the four types of immeasurables.

The fourth factor is constantly to repair old stupas or to commission or construct new stupas.

The fifth factor is constantly to maintain the mind of enlightenment, Bodhicitta, the universal altruism to want to achieve the state of enlight-enment for the sake of all sentient beings. One needs to maintain this in one's mind all the time.

Of the five factors the Buddha spelt out, one is repairing old stupas and making new ones. If one is able to do that it will bring a lot of benefit to oneself and others in the future.

The third story about the benefit of making stupas concerns the Buddha and Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. At one time when the Buddha was explaining the dharani, the mantra, of the essence of interdependence to the assembly, he made a reference about stupas to Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. The Buddha said that if the mantra is written on a long piece of paper and offered as the heart of a small stupa of the size mentioned before, this would bring a lot of benefit to other people in the future. If anyone is able to make such a stupa, and then make offerings to it and cirmumambulate it, this person will gather as many merits as are collected by Kings of Gods like Indra and Brahma. If a person dies collecting such huge amounts of merit they will be reborn in the celestial abode called Pure Abode. (This is not one of the usual Pure Lands but a pure abode within the celestial realm, which is itself within cyclic existence.) As well, such people may be reborn in rich and powerful human families.

These are the benefits that the Buddha explained to Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, so in the stupa that we are going to construct we are going to put a huge number of the mantras of interdependent origination, the essence of all things.

There is another story that tells us about the benefits of circumambul-ating a stupa. There is no doubt that if someone makes or commissions a stupa and then makes offerings and circumambulates the stupa with faith and conviction in the power and the qualities of the Buddha and so on, that great benefit will accrue to that person. But even if someone were to accidentally, unintentionally, go around such a holy object, the benefits would still be great. This story is about a householder called Palchen, who lived during Buddha's own time. He was an old man about a hundred years old, and as an old man he wasn't able to work actively to contribute to the family. So his wife, his children and his household started to torment him, making his life a misery. He felt very sad and thought that the best thing for him now was to become a monk. He went to the Sangha community and asked permission to become a monk. To be a monk or a nun the applicant must have at least one merit that can become the basis for receiving the vows. The monks checked to see whether he had any merits, and after checking they thought that he had none. So the old man went to consult Shariputra and Maugalyayana, the great disciples of Buddha, known for their wisdom and psychic power. They checked with their clairvoyance to see whether this old monk had any merit accumulated from some distant past life. But they didn't see any merit, and he was refused permission to be a monk.

Then the old man thought to himself: "I left home to become a monk because at home I was being tormented by all. Now at the monastery I'm being refused permission to become a monk." He thought that there was nothing left for him except to die. So he went off to die, and the Buddha knew about it straight away. The Buddha sent Maugalyayana to fetch the old man and bring him to him. The old man was brought to the Buddha and Buddha gave him a word of encouragement, saying, "You do have some merit that you accumulated in an extraordinarily distant past life. It is so far back in the past that although Shariputra and Maugalyayana are Arhats with extrasensory perception, their extrasensory perception is not powerful enough to reach so far back into the past. However as a Buddha I see one merit for you." The old man asked, "What kind of merit do I have?" The Buddha said, "You have a merit you unintentionally accumulated in the very distant past, at a time when you had been born as a worm in a cow-pat. This cow-pat was dry on the surface and soft inside, and you were able to live inside it. One day there was heavy rain and flooding in that area. Everything was washed away by the flood and your cow-pat house and you were washed down into the plains. Down there there was a stupa and around it was a shallow channel worn by the feet of the people who circumambulated it. The current of water from the flood ran into this channel and went round and round, and everything in the water also went round. Thus you unintentionally circumambulated the stupa at that time."

"...if we can circumambulate stupas and make offerings and so on there is no doubt that it will bring immense merit."

So, due to Buddha's powerful omniscience, old man Palchen saw that he had one merit that could become the basis of his receiving vows, and he became a monk.

This is an account of a real person who in a distant lifetime unintentionally went round a stupa, which gave him that ground-breaking chance to become a monk. If we can circumambulate stupas and make offerings and so on, there is no doubt that the merits will be immense.

In terms of the merits gathered, there is no difference between cir-cumambulating, making offer-ings and saying prayers in the presence of a stupa, or in the presence of a statue of the Buddha. However in practical terms, I think building a stupa would be of more benefit to a greater number of people. If you have a statue you have to have a temple for it and an enclosure for that, and you have to do all the other activities that are required to look after it all. Whereas if you have a stupa it is built outside and there doesn't need to be anyone to guard it (although it is good if someone does live there to care for it.) Many beings, humans and non-humans, will go around it intentionally or unintentionally and thus many beings will benefit from having a stupa in the open air. Because of these benefits it is said that during the time of Nagarjuna and so on, thousands of stupas were constructed so that people would have the chance to gather merits.

It is possible to think that of course when stupas were built during Nagarjuna's time they had the power to help people gather merits, but what about a stupa made by us? Would it have the same power?

For any stupa to be of benefit to others there are four items that must be put inside it. These are the "four relics" (ring.sel). If the four kinds of relics are present in any stupa, no matter when or where that stupa is made it will have the power to benefit others.

The first relics are the "relics of the Dharmakaya". This refers to the dharanis, the mantras that were taught by the Buddha. We will have those.

The second relics are the relics of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and gurus. Of course we have the relics of Gen Rinpoche himself, fragments of his bones. There are also pills which are the quintessence relics of many great practitioners and even of the Buddha, which have been constantly passed down from generation to generation. We have such relics.

The third relics are the relics of hair and clothing of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and gurus. We have such items too.

The fourth relics are relics in the form of pills which originated from a real relic. Duplicates of the original were produced, containing a percentage of the original relic. We have some of these. If these four kinds of relics are within a stupa that we build, the power of our stupa and the power of the great stupas of the past will be the same. Even the great stupas of the past had no more than these four kinds of relics.

"Because a stupa is built in the open air many beings, human and non-human, will go around it and thus many will benefit."

It is possible for someone to think, "If stupas of this kind are made, some benefit might accrue to the person for his or her future lifetime, but what about now, here?"

For immediate benefit, diagrams of wealth gods like Ganesh and Norgyunma will go inside the stupa. And they won't just be put there, but a lot of rituals of consecration will be done beforehand, requesting the spirit of the real wealth gods to come and be present in the diagrams in order to energize them. When such consecrated diagrams are put into the stupa it will be good for the land, good for the people, good for crops and for timely rainfall etc. These are some of the tangible benefits that one and all will share even in this life. When stupas were built in Tibet -- as you know, the Tibetan landscape is dotted with stupas -- they were built taking these long-term and short-term benefits into consideration -- to help people gain these benefits.

This is a brief explanation about the advantages and benefits of constructing a stupa. I thought it would be good for everyone to know them so that everyone can do the right thing when the stupa is completed.

[Back]Back to Teachings page.
This page is designed and maintained by Sönam Tenzin.
Enquiries, suggestions for improvements, and any comments are welcome: E-mail me!