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Great Stupa Symbolism

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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Traditional peoples tend towards what we would refer to as a metaphysical interpretation of life, an interpretation that precedes and goes beyond external perception. Cosmos, which means "order" in Greek, presupposes an underlying intelligence in an ordered universe and a unity of existence. This unity always has an inner as well as an outer aspect, hidden as well as manifest, one reflected in the other. The goal is always to unite inner and outer into an inseparable integrity.

The common language of archetypal laws is that of pattern, in particular number and geometry. Beyond the material order the structure of traditional architecture fulfills a function of far greater significance, which is to remind us through its symbolic aspect of the hidden, cosmic principles to which a building or garden corresponds. The shapes and forms of traditional architecture the world over are inseparable from this concept. Modern western emphasis on the quantitative in number even overlooks the symbolic significance of the Hermetic and Pythagorean mathematic traditions evidenced in Mediterranean and early European architecture.

Traditional Architecture, especially that of the temple, is an image of the world or of the ideal individual seen in the cosmic dimension. One (the microcosm) is a reflection of the other (the macrocosm). In this sense, for the body as well as the temple, the house as well as the palace, the image is a replica of the world (imago mundi).


Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle. The circle is the expression of perfection, equality in all directions, as well as the origin and the culmination of all polygons, containing and underlying them. The circle has always been regarded as a symbol of eternity. Without beginning and without end it stands outside time. The square depicts four cardinal directions in physical space and time.

The earliest mandalas are Paleolithic sun wheel designs that were scratched into rocks about 25,000 years ago. Yogis and priests of early Hinduism and Buddhism marked circles around themselves as representations of their sacred space. Their location in the center of the circle was identified with the center of the world. The sky seemed to be a huge hemispherical tent with holes pierced in it. Altars were considered to be access routes through which spirits could enter and leave the world. And the Pole Star, around which the whole sky revolved, was seen as the divine tent pole.

The mandala is a symbolic replica of the world, a geometric projection of it reduced to an essential pattern. In its geometry it acts like a spiritual or psychological wheel of many spokes, each intersecting with the center. By extension it represents the center of the universe, because the mandala, being the center, is connected to the Cosmic Center or world axis (axis mundi). The axis of the mandala is thus a line of communication between the powers above and humanity below. The mandala is also an aid to the process of becoming at one with the world and the universe in meditation -- the mediator identifies with the center and allows themselves to be transformed by a process of involution.

The stupa can be seen as a sphere merged with the earth with only its upper half exposed. Seen from above the stupa is a mandala. If the mandala is architectonic, and the stupa is a mandala, then the relation of one to the other is a reflective idea wherein one is the image of the other. The stupa is thus an image of the world. ORIENTATION

Orientation gives direction and is the vital factor in assuring the effectiveness of a sacred place. When constructed, the temple must not only be placed at the Center of the World, but it must be aligned with the four cardinal points of the compass (North, South, East and West). At the very beginning of the process, a simple upright pole or gnomon is sufficient to cast the shadow from which it is possible to orient a circle. Ancient Sanskrit texts on temple foundation detail the derivation of the temple plan from orientation of the circle. The site having been chosen, an upright was thrust into the ground at its true center. A circle was drawn around the pole. The arc of the drawn circle would be cut by the shadow of the gnomon which falls on it upon the sun's rising. This procedure gives a true East-West axis, thus the derivation of the term "orientation," from the Latin oriens, meaning East (occidens is the West). From this initial axis, another was inscribed at right angles and from this a square was drawn directed to the four quarters of the earth. In the Native American tradition the "circle of the year" represents the "world", an instantaneous image of the passing of time over the basic cosmic cycle: one complete planetary journey around the sun. To this day, all Mosques and Cathedrals are oriented, which is to say that they face the East or the rising sun.