Myth and Design: Axis Mundi and the Netherworld

Myth and Design: Axis Mundi and the Netherworld

Before looking at the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna aspects of the stupa (and their forms of pilgrimage), it is worth considering how mythological cultural patterns are echoed in the design of stupa, bringing together two polarized aspects: tree of life and the reliquary.  The tree of life, or axis mundi (the world axis), is the still point around which all of the manifest world revolves.  It is the center of the world, the center of the labyrinth, and the telos of every pilgrimage.  Traditionally, the tree of life would be at the center of any given village and would be the gathering place for rituals of abundance and increase such as weddings and festivals.  The graveyard on the outside of town would be the burial mound and reliquary of the deceased.  These places would stand as the gateway to death, the boundary to what is beyond.

Newgrange Burial Mound

Sok Shing being placed in the Crestone Stupa

In the center of the stupa is a rsok shing, or “Life Force Tree,” a cedar tree trunk that is oriented in the same direction as it grew, cut according to strict proportions and wrapped in various mantras.  These consecrate it as the central life force channel of enlightened body-mind.  The stupa is also filled with as many relics and remains of past masters, empowering it as a reliquary.  Sun and moon, life tree and tomb, the stupa combines these elements into an integration of both of these journeys, making it a powerful symbolic nexus of the meaning of pilgrimage.

The journey to the central tree of life is a mirror of the journey into the periphery, the other world beyond death.  Both of these journeys turn themselves inside out to meet one another in the sacredness of natural mind beyond life and death.


Tomb Entrance, Newgrange

For this reason, we have chosen the triskelion labyrinth as the logo of the Earth Vase Pilgrimage, a symbol found on the 5000-year-old tomb of Newgrange in Ireland.  The triskelion turns itself inside out, rotating towards both life and death, a labyrinth of the center and periphery, echoing the triple gem coil of joy in the Buddhist tradition.




Read More: Stupas and Pilgrimage in the Mahāyāna: Emptiness with the Essence of Compassion