Purpose of Stupas

The following are edited excerpts from an unpublished transcript of teachings given by Lama Karma Samten Gyatso in 1998.


After Buddha Shakyamuni died, stupas were built for two reasons: to enshrine his relics and to commemorate the eight great deeds accomplished during his life. Click here to read more about what each stupa represents.

Stupas have three main levels of meaning, an outer meaning, an inner meaning and a secret meaning.

Outwardly, stupas are holy objects that represent the historical Shakyamuni Buddha who lived 2,600 years ago. Stupas also represent the Buddha’s mind or Buddha’s heart-mind. (From Buddhist perspective, mind and heart are very closely related.) Stupas represent the enlightened* mind or Buddha nature of all past, present and future Buddhas.

The inner meaning of the stupa is that it is a healing object. The outer world and our inner world are made up of the five elements, earth, water, fire, air and space. The magnetic energy of the stupa bridges the elemental forces of the outer world and our inner world and balances those energies.

The secret meaning of the stupa is to do with our mind, because we call the mind a secret world. The stupa is an object for accumulating merit and purifying your negativities (anger, jealousy, desire, ignorance and pride). In order to become enlightened you need these two circumstances; accumulation of merit and purification of your negativities. The stupa provides the seed or the conditions for the success of your journey. Without special objects (such as the stupa) it is very difficult to do this by yourself.

*The word enlightened in English is not a very good translation. The true meaning of ‘enlightened mind’ or ‘Buddha nature’ means something that never moves, is never disturbed and never deluded. It’s a bit like the blue sky, which is always there even when it is obscured by clouds, rain or storms. Our confused mind is like the clouds, storms and thunder. We cannot always see the blue sky but that doesn’t mean the blue sky is not there. Similarly we cannot recognise our Buddha nature when it is obscured by conflicting emotions and confusion but it is still there.

Meaning of the word Stupa (Pali) or Chorten (Tibetan)

Stupa is a Pali word which means ‘object of accumulation’, (see ‘secret meaning’ above for explanation of this).

In Tibetan they are called Chorten. ’Cho’ means offering and ‘ten’ means objects. Therefore chortens are objects of offering.

‘Cho; or ‘offering’ in this context means confession of your negative emotions; anger, jealousy, desire, ignorance, pride. Offering them is a way of releasing them, letting them go. This helps to purify your negative emotions. For example, if you have done something harmful that you regret, the best thing to do is to confess and to not keep it inside you. If you cannot confess to another person, you can confess in front of a stupa (or a Buddha statue or shrine). Expression is good, but if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time it can sometimes make things worse; this is why we have special objects.

‘Ten’ or ‘object’ in this context means ‘a pure reference point’, it also refers to the method of purification. The object ‘ten’ makes it easier for you to purify your negativities. For example if your hair hasn’t been washed for twenty years, it will be very oily and dirty. If you wash your dirty hair in cold water it is very difficult to purify or clean it. With a special shampoo it is easy to clean. The dirt in this case is our ego, it stinks, it hasn’t been washed for a long long time so we need a special shampoo. Many different Buddhas left behind many, many shampoos. The stupa is one of those shampoos.

When you purify negativities, you multiply your positive potential and accumulate merit. Hence the Pali word stupa means ‘object of accumulation’.

From a Buddhist perspective, objects such as stupas are not considered as God or Buddha and they are not thought of as having a solid existence. Their chief purpose is to purify. Using the shampoo example; after shampooing, you have to rinse out the shampoo. If you don’t rinse the shampoo out then your hair is still dirty and still stinks. Similarly if you use a visualisation of Buddha or a ‘ten’ object for purification and you regard it as something solid and existent, then you’re not rinsing out your shampoo, it’s stuck in your hair. In Buddhist terms you rinse out the shampoo by understanding that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence.

How Stupas work

In Buddhism, the power of a holy object comes 50% from the Buddhas and 50% from your mind, your belief and your sincerity. You have to trust, otherwise it doesn’t work. It is like electricity; you need two lines, one hot and one cold line, and when both come together you have light. With only the hot line it doesn’t work, with only the cold line it doesn’t work. Both sides need to be compatible, need to be equal. Similarly objects of power work by both sides.

The objects we call ‘ten’ need to be made precisely in accordance with tradition with nothing missing and the proportion is very important. It needs to built in the correct place. The building materials and labour should be donated and the motivation of the benefactors is very important. However, the most important part is that the stupa represents a mandala and building a mandala requires a vajra master with the correct qualifications. Finally when it is finished, it needs to be consecrated and the merit dedicated to all sentient beings. This in particular creates positive energy.

The power of the object ‘ten’ can also be compared to electricity. For electricity to work, you need to fulfil a number of conditions. First, you need cables and all the cables should be connected correctly and have the appropriate number of lines. You need an electrician. A vajra master is a good electrician. If you aren’t a good electrician then maybe it won’t work or you’ll blow the whole thing up. Once all the cables are connected correctly, then you have to make sure you have the appropriate voltage. This is very important. If your current is too powerful, you’ll blow a fuse. We call this process samaya-sattva, which basically means it’s capable and everything has been done properly. Then we call the ‘current’ wisdom-sattva, the closest translation in English might be ‘consecrated’. When the current is switched on, the power is there because everything has been done correctly.

Your side also needs to be exactly the same. You need to be good enough to deserve this particular power. ‘Good’ here means that the main power from your side is belief, sincerity and trust. Belief and trust are very much the same. You gain belief and trust from your experience and through the learning process. This is called logical trust. You see some evidence and through that you gain trust.
An example of logical trust is if someone tells you there is a fire on the other side of the mountain. You don’t immediately go to the other side of the mountain, first you look for evidence of a fire. When you see smoke you realise there must be a fire. However, seeing smoke doesn’t make you warm, you still have to get to the fire. Indirect logic means you can figure out through the symptoms that the fire is there. Then you ‘trust’ that if you go to the other side of the mountain, you will get warm. Buddhist philosophy is like that. Through logic first you gain some trust, then you do the practice yourself.

I find that in the West, people sometimes are too skeptical, they have lots of doubts but that doubt is actually very clever. They understand very well intellectually but before they do anything, they want a 100% answer. That’s a problem. You cannot find the 100% answer outside yourself, you can only find it within yourself. Too much doubt and hesitation means you get a bit lost, your mind gets stuck and you don’t progress. Blind faith is OK, but logical faith is better. In this case, maybe it is good to study some Buddhist philosophy first to understand the logic, then do the practice, then gradually logical trust can develop.

How Stupas Heal

In Buddhism we recognise five elements; earth, water, air, fire and space. The outer world, the entire universe, all the galaxies and the planet earth are made up of these five elements. Our body, (our internal world) is also made up of these five elements. If you are feeling physically or mentally out-of-balance, it means your elements are out-of- balance.

Elements behave like magnets, the energy of elements move all matter. For example water evaporates when the sun comes up and daisy flowers close when the sun goes down. That’s the magnetism of element forces.

The stupa encompasses the principle of these five elements and is a bridge between the outer world and our internal world. The design of the stupa is based on very accurate balance, all the proportions of the elements (in the stupa) have to be completely balanced mathematically. When this happens correctly the stupa is an object of healing.

The stupa is not just healing for the body, it is healing for the entire universe because the entire universe is made of elements. So, stupas are good for the land, the country, and universal peace. Peace here means that the whole environment becomes more balanced, not only are peoples’ physical and mental energy levels more balanced, but the outer world is more balanced also. For example, the balance of elements causes weather patterns to improve, with fewer natural disasters, fewer earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions.

The place where you build a stupa is like an acupuncture point. If it’s not in a special place it still helps, but if you build it in a special or significant place then it has more power. The place for these stupas was chosen by Venerable Lama Karma Trinley Rinpoche.

What to do when you visit a Stupa

Traditionally how you pay respect or how you operate the stupa is that you circumambulate clockwise three times. This represents inner body, inner speech, inner mind. After that, you sit, meditate or just stand and look directly at the stupa. Then the magnetic forces adjust and balance your body, your mind and your energy levels.


“This explanation is to help modern people understand and make sense of the Stupas. There are 84,000 teachings from the Buddha on the contents and significance of Stupas. It is detailed and complex, I hope this simple explanation is helpful for our modern world and time.”

Ven. Lama Karma Samten Gyatso 2017