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

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

Anyone who has been to Nepal or Tibet is familiar with the vortex-like phenomenon of pilgrims circumambulating stupas.  The countless stupas that dot the landscape of the Himalayas are common stops for passing pilgrims, and the greatest stupas, such as those in Boudhanath and Swayambhunath in Kathmandu, are destinations in their own right.  In addition to being waypoints and destinations for pilgrims, simply walking around a stupa is a pilgrimage itself.  Several routes of various circumferences are usually followed, with pilgrims winding around and around in a labyrinthine spiral.

The meaning and motivation for this type of pilgrimage rests on the understanding of the stupa as a repository of merit and its status as the representation of the mind of the Buddha, the dharmakāya.  To understand this, it is necessary to appreciate the symbolic context of the Mahāyāna and the way intention interacts with these symbols to facilitate the profound view and practice of bodhichitta.

From the standpoint of the Mahāyāna, the 37 factors of enlightenment are represented architecturally by the various details of the external form of the stupa.  Each aspect of the stupa, from the four stairs (the four immeasurable qualities of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity) to the 13 rings of the pinnacle (the stages of progress on the path) has a symbolic correlation.

The profound view of bodhichitta, emptiness having the essence of compassion, is incarnated through the ritualized layering of altruistic intention.  Those who are building the stupa hold vows not to harm other beings.  The holding of a vow is the accumulation of merit through preserving the purity of intention.  That merit is imbued into the work that is done.  While maintaining a state of contemplation and reciting prayers, practitioners take millions of pure intentions that have been densely printed on scrolls of paper, die them with saffron, roll them, and place them inside of smaller stupas.  Tens of thousands of these smaller stupas, or tsa tsa, are then placed in a particular way in the larger stupa.  The stupa is consecrated upon its completion through the focused intention of all who gather, sealing it as a source of inspiration for all who intend to receive it.

These intentions have no root or basis; they are the immaterial emptiness of mind taking form into artifacts through ritual.  The accumulation of these actions and artifacts produces a tangible form that can carry and transmit those intentions to anyone whose intention brings them close enough to receive them.  Making pilgrimage to a stupa, circumambulating, offering flowers or lamps, making prostrations, and praying or meditating at a stupa are all valid ways of drawing upon the accumulated intentions it holds, propelling one’s own altruistic intentions further and deeper.  One is then empowered to act for the benefit of others.  In this way, the design of a stupa manifests the essence of the wisdom of emptiness as compassion.


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