Stupa worship

On June 30, 2016 Owen Jarus, contributor of Live Science ( reported on a saríra container found under a stūpa in the Chinese city of Nanjing. He writes that “… [a] stūpa, [is] a Buddhist shrine used for meditation.”

In 1963 Akira Hirakawa publishes his book “The Rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism and Its Relationship to the Worship of Stūpas”. On the basis of his research in canonical and monastic literature Mr. Hirakawa surmises that the early Mahāyāna scriptures recommend the worship of stūpas. To reach this conclusion he mystifies both Sukhāvati Sūtras (the “Small” and the “Larger” one) and says that the physical structure of the stūpa resembles the structure (the build-up) of both sūtras. However, the word stūpa is nowhere to be found in these manuscripts. Mr. Hirakawa furthermore points to passages in the Mahāsángika vínaya, the monastic rules of a late Small Vehicle School. Of this School nothing more is heard after the seventh century AD when itinerant monks report on settlements and monasteries outside China. Mr. Hirakawa’s research was mainly about Chinese Buddhism.

The Lotus Sūtra, unlike the two Sukhāvati Sūtras, dedicates an entire chapter to the stūpa. In Hendrik Kern’s translation — about which I have my hesitations(1) –- chapter 11 has the passage: “At the sight of that great Stūpa of precious substances, that meteoric phenomenon in the sky, the four classes of hearers were filled with gladness, delight, satisfaction and joy. Instantly they rose from their seats, stretched out their joined hands, and remained standing in that position.

These hearers did not rise from their seats out of veneration for the stūpa but rather for Buddha’s voice that resounded from within this edifice. The voice reminded the audience of the universality of Buddha’s Teachings -– that is, the universality of the teaching of the Lotus Sūtra –- and about the imperative to hold, guard and disseminate this teaching.

In his “Nāgārjuna in Context” (2005, pp.18/19) Joseph Walser states that Mr. Hirakawa’s “view [on stūpa worship] remains a classic forty years even after it was written”. That is to say: Buddhists worship stūpas. This is and was the opinion among a certain number of academics, not all of them. Learned monks from outside this group would smile at the thought of song and dance performed by the laity as an expression of stūpa worship. However, his pointing to Hirakawa’s research shows us why and from where Owen Jarus had his “… [a] stūpa, [is] a Buddhist shrine used for meditation.”

In 2015 we witnessed how bone-splinters attributed to Sakyamuni Buddha were transferred from one country to another as a gift of one Buddhist monastic community to another.
In the case of emperor Zhenzong it was a senior monk with the name of Deming who made the offering. Master Deming functioned as abbot of the Chengtian-temple, and he was “Holder of the Purple Robe”. Either abbot Deming brought his saríra, the physical relic, with him after travelling far and wide, or he obtained it from an itinerant monk, or he purchased it from an equally itinerant businessman. “Holder of the Purple Robe” means that this elder was entitled to the 24-stroke kasáya robe, the jia-sha in Chinese, worn by seniors who preside over large ceremonies. “Purple Robe” is not an indication of belonging to this or that (sub-)School.
Unlike the standard procedure in which relics are placed inside the stūpa, it appears that the Bao’en temple had underground rooms. It is said that the saríra mentioned in this piece were placed in one of these rooms. Hence Mr. Jarus’ use of the word “shrine” may be correct.

To this day there are several Chengtian-temples in China. Abbot Deming and his supporters had the saríra-holder made, and on July 21, 1011 the holder and its content was brought to the stūpa/pagoda, and as stated above it was placed in one of these underground rooms, i.e. “shrines” which, to repeat, is very unusual.

Certainly one may have doubts about the authenticity of abbot Deming’s saríra. A commentary accompanying Mr. Jarus’ article suggested that a DNA-test may be conducted against “DNA from the living Shakya clan, and also with the cremated bone material held by the Thai royal family and originally found at Priprahwa …” However, I doubt whether today’s Nepalese Sakya clan is the successor in straight line of the Sakya clan that lived 2600 years ago, and as far as the “Priprahwa” (must be Pipraháwa) relics go, there are but few who believe that these are Buddha’s relics.

Buddhist media outside China spent but a minimum of attention to the discovery under the Grand Bao’en in Nanjing (Bao’en means “Paying a Debt of Gratitude”). One not only doubts the authenticity of this relic, but there is furthermore the teaching about the transiency of all things, even of Buddha’s bones. Another teaching says that Buddha advised his followers/monks to not venerate his physical form but rather live according to his advice; this would be the only and true veneration of Buddha.

So here we have the mind-boggling situation of Buddhists approaching a stūpa or a temple with folded hands. They do not worship the stūpa or the temple as such, they show respect towards the content, towards what this content stands for, or to what it should stand for. Do they dance and sing around the stūpa? I’ve never seen it or heard of it. Certainly, monks in Chiang Mai used to circumambulate the stūpa on the grounds of their vihāra. They however did not worship the stūpa, but recited the Vessántara Játaka, the “Birth Story” that tells of Prince Vessántara, and how he eventually gave his wife and children away — and received them back because his offering was pure and without regret or anger. (As for the Chiang Mai stūpa: Now you have a 14th cent. stūpa on your wat (temple complex), showing a rather interesting architectural style, so you incorporate it in some way in your annual calendar of events.)

To illustrate it further: you may light a candle for your deceased family members. Do you worship the candle?

1. A Sanskrit dictionary says that varāh is the word for “meteor”, but I’m quite certain that Hendrik Kern’s manuscript did not contain this varāh. I’m afraid we will have to do with something like bhavaketu, phenomenon in the sky.

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