Holy Ground: What Is a Stupa and Why Is It Important to Buddhists?

Historical monuments in the West preserve the past and are a source of inspiration. The same is true in the East, except some monuments are also believed to hold the ashes and powers of the dead. Monuments for a man once named Siddhartha are one example.

Siddhartha Gautama was born to a wealthy ruler, yet he relinquished his fortune to lead a simple life of meditation in pursuit of enlightenment. He became Buddha, and his teachings on the pursuit and achievement of enlightenment are the basis for Buddhism. His words live on past his death, and Buddhists believe his physical remains still hold protective powers for mankind, imbue his living presence, and contain his energy.

Though thousands of years separate Buddha’s life on earth from the present, Buddhists today travel to special monuments called stupas to experience and be affected by his lasting energy.

What Is a Stupa?

Stupas (stoop-ahs) were originally traditional burial mounds for everyday people in ancient India. They had no religious significance; they were simply memorials that were less elaborate and conspicuous than they are today. Buddha’s death changed all that.

The Mahaparinirvana Sutra, an ancient Buddhist text, details Buddha’s last days on earth. It claims that Buddha’s followers divided his remains into eight parts and distributed them among the eight kingdoms Buddha lived in during his lifetime. In keeping with traditional burial practices in India, his devotees built burial mounds, which developed architecturally into stupas, to house his remains.

“Jesus’s power lasts long past his death, but his presence isn’t tied to a place or relic. We don’t need to build a structure to honor him. Christ’s power lives within us through the Holy Spirit.”

Stupas today are semispherical monuments that house cremated remains or belongings of Buddha or Buddhist monks or nuns. There are generally five types of stupas, each with a purpose to house relics or remains, or to commemorate Buddha’s life and teachings.

It’s thought that the original eight stupas were built in northern India after Buddha’s death in 483 or 400 BC. Some sources claim that Emperor Ashoka of India’s Mauryan Empire later opened the sealed stupas and further divided Buddha’s remains into eighty-four thousand portions so more stupas could be built around the world.

The Stupas of Asia

The original eight stupas housing Buddha’s remains are in India. The Sanchi stupa, located in central India, is referred to as “Stupa 1” because it may have been the first commissioned by Emperor Ashoka. Tourists from as far west as America and Buddhists from East Asia visit Sanchi to pay respects to Buddha and admire the stupa as one of the oldest stone buildings in India.

Stupas are known as “chedis” in Thailand. The Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, Thailand, houses the ashes of a king. It was built in the fourteenth century. Photo by Andrew Rivers.

Monks carrying out Ashoka’s orders to spread the message of Buddha set out from his kingdom, splitting company from one another and traveling far and wide to Asian nations. Carrying Buddha’s ashes, monks likely set sail to Indonesia, Japan, and Sri Lanka. Others hiked over the Himalayas to Nepal, Tibet, and Korea. Still others navigated the jungles and rice paddies of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

In Myanmar, stupas are called “zedis.” This zedi is tucked away in a mountain village. Photo by Caroline Anderson.

Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, and Nepal are home to frequently visited stupas, though they’re known by different names, and the sites draw pilgrims from near and far.

Pha That Luang in Vientiane, Laos, was thought to originally be a Hindu temple, but messengers from Emperor Ashoka are believed to have brought Buddha’s breastbone to the stupa, transforming it into a Buddhist holy site. Photo by Victor Xingh.

What Buddhists Do at Stupas

Many Buddhists make pilgrimages to stupas to meditate, venerate the relics stupas house, and make merit and atone for their sins. People often seek the protective power of the relics to guard against misfortune and ill-willed spirits. The stupa itself is also revered since it houses the relics.

Some stupas draw repeat visitors, like Kathmandu’s Boudhanath Stupa, which is situated in the heart of several communities.

The Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal, draws Buddhists from around the world who hope to earn merit. Photo by Caroline Anderson.

Every day, weathered and wizened Tibetan Buddhist men and women circumambulate the Boudhanath stupa. They chant mantras as their fingers slide over individual prayer beads. Worshipers at this stupa also spin prayer wheels to make merit. The mantra Om Mani Padme Hum (listen here) is inscribed on the prayer wheels at Boudhanath stupa and is designed to move Buddhists closer to enlightenment. Spinning the wheels is thought to have the same effect as saying the mantra verbally.

Women walk to the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal, grasping prayer beads to use in their recitation of mantras to earn merit. Photo by Caroline Anderson.

Some worshipers will prostrate themselves as they circle the stupa. They rise to a standing position, then prostrate themselves, repeating the process all the way around the stupa.

A woman prostrates herself in worship in front of Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo by Caroline Anderson.

In other stupa locations, worshipers may light incense, leave offerings, or meditate. Lighting incense is believed to be symbolic of burning away negative energy and undesirable qualities within an individual. Buddhists believe it purifies the mind and thoughts and shows honor to the object of their worship.

How Can Christians Respond?

Some sources estimate there are 1.2 million Buddhists in the US. Forty percent live in Southern California. However, there are Buddhist temples, societies, or monasteries in all fifty states.

Stupas exist in the US as well, including Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. So while stupas venerating Buddha may seem far removed from the West, the reality is that they and other Buddhist buildings are important to people in our communities.

This presents a great opportunity for the US church, but where do we start?

There are three main branches of Buddhism and a wide spectrum of Buddhist beliefs in the US. Learning the basics of Buddhism and the origin of Buddhism will equip us to have intelligent conversations.

Then, here are a few questions we can ask in conversations with Buddhists.

  1. What are your thoughts on sin, and what is your view of how to atone for sin?
  2. What are some ways you make merit? What motivates you to do so?
  3. After you make merit, how do you feel?
  4. Are there specific Buddhist temples or stupas that you’d like to visit, and why?
  5. Are pilgrimages important to you, and why?

After listening to their responses, we can share that Jesus’s death and resurrection provides atonement for our sins once and for all. Peace and eternal security are real concerns for Buddhists, so sharing that we have both in Christ may resonate with a Buddhist.

Jesus’s power lasts long past his death, but his presence isn’t tied to a place or relic. We don’t need to build a structure to honor him. Christ’s power lives within us through the Holy Spirit. Let’s strive to invite our Buddhists neighbors into that new life too.

Caroline Anderson is a writer and photographer with the IMB. She currently lives in Southeast Asia. Her childhood in Asia consisted of two important ingredients: braving hot chili peppers and telling people about Jesus.