Notes on Stupas and Other Sites of Pilgrimage

1 March 2524

I. In Pali, there are three terms that are often used in reference to holy places, namely,

  1. cetiya (Sanskrit: caitya; Thai: chedi), a shrine, which has the meaning of
    1. a) that which is worthy of respect or worship; object or place of homage
    2. b) that which is heaped or built up; raised heap of earth; mound
    3. c) that which reminds; reminder; monument.

2. thūpa (Sanskrit: stūpa), a tope, tumulus or cairn, which is often used as a synonym for cetiya.

3. saṁvejanīyaṭṭhāna, a place apt to cause a feeling of urgency or enthusiasm.

II. Cetiyas or caityas existed before the time of the Buddha. In the Pali Canon, references are made to the cetiyas in the republic of Vajji, the honoring and worship of which was recommended by the Buddha to the Vajjians as a condition of their welfare and which the Buddha praised as pleasant places.

The Buddha speaks of four types of persons as worthy of stupas, namely, the Buddha, the private Buddha, the Arahant disciple of the Buddha and the righteous universal monarch.

He also cites four places associated with himself as the Four Saṁvejanīyaṭṭhānas, visits to which are recommended to Buddhists, and the sight of which can arouse in devotees a calm, pure and happy state of mind that leads to good rebirths. These four places are:

  1. the place where the Buddha was born,
  2. the place where the Buddha attained the enlightenment,
  3. the place where the Buddha preached his First Sermon, and
  4. the place where the Buddha passed away.

(Mahāparinibbāna-Sutta, Dīghanikāya, vol. 10)

III. By the time of the Commentaries (approx. 900 years after the Buddha), four kinds of cetiyas had been established which included all holy things and places connected with the Buddha, viz.:

  1. A relic shrine or stupa enshrining the Buddha’s relics (dhātu-cetiya),
  2. A shrine by association (paribhoga-cetiya) which included the Bo-tree, the four saṁvejanīyaṭṭhānas and all things and places used by the Buddha,
  3. A doctrinal shrine (dhamma-cetiya) where inscribed palm-leaves or tablets or scriptures are housed, and
  4. A shrine by dedication (uddesika-cetiya) which refers especially to Buddha-images.

(Kh.A.221; J.IV.228;
Vinaya-Subcommentary I.263)

IV. Other remarks and observations:

Before the time of the Buddha, the term cetiya meant a seat or residence of a god (devaṭṭhāna) as a sacred place. The Buddha encouraged the traditions of cetiya– or stupa-worship and respect to many specific cetiyas or stupas, but a new meaning was given to it. An example can be found in a story in the Commentary on the Dhammapada. At one time the Buddha was on the way from Sāvatthī to Varanasi (Pali: Bārāṇasī) when he reached a devaṭṭhāna (seat of a god or a temple). The Buddha sent for a Brahmin who, when approaching him, paid respect not to him, but to the devaṭṭhāna. The Buddha approved his action, and to clarify his attitude he preached the Ghaṭikāra-Sutta in the Majjhimanikāya, in which he identified the devaṭṭhāna or cetiya as a site where a former Buddha used to reside.

(Dh.A.251)

The respect to a cetiya or stupa-worship can bring about these benefits:

• It can arouse a calm, joyful and purified state of mind that leads to the development of concentration and other virtues, or faith and spiritual strength that serve as a primary step toward further and more energetic practice of the teachings.

• As the term saṁvejanīyaṭṭhāna indicates, the cetiya reminds one of the law of impermanence that is immanent in life and all component things. It stirs up the feeling of urgency which helps one lead a life of heedfulness, and be earnest in doing good and in treading the Noble Path.

• For a mature practitioner, the reflection on impermanence leads further to the insight into the true nature of things and thus to the final freedom of mind.

At a temporal and social level, cetiya– or stupa-worship serves as a factor to unify people and help them to identify themselves with their faith.

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