Stupa (STOO-puh), or chorten in the Tibetan language, means a “support for worship.” Stupas symbolize the Buddha Shakyamuni’s (SHAHK-yah-moo-nee) enlightened mind, prescribed path, and continued presence after his final transcendence. Smaller stupas, such as this artwork in the Dallas Museum of Art’s collection, are commonly used as objects of meditation and can be placed in Buddhist temples alongside sculptures and volumes of sacred text. Monumental stupas are also common within Buddhist monasteries or temple complexes in the Himalayas. They serve as architectural memorials for deceased Buddhist teachers and attract many worshippers. Stupas may contain relics and ritual objects of the deceased and typically hold offerings of various kinds.
Both monumental architectural and small sculptural stupas reflect strict rules of proportion. The main sections are the base, dome, and crowning, which respectively represent the throne, body, and crown of the Buddha. The rising tiers throughout these sections symbolize the Buddha’s path toward enlightenment. The sun and moon at the top represent the union of compassion and wisdom, and the upper-most flame references the highest form of enlightenment.
At the death of the Buddha Shakyamuni (SHAHK-yah-moo-nee), the cremated relics of the Buddha were divided and placed inside large hemispherical mounds known as stupas (STOO-pah). Monumental stupas, some several hundred feet tall, were the earliest Buddhist architecture preserved in India and served as memorials for deceased religious leaders and teachers. Stupa, or chorten in the Tibetan language, means a “support for worship.” Stupas symbolize the Buddha Shakyamuni's enlightened mind, prescribed path, and continued presence after his final transcendence.
Large stupas are a key component of Buddhist monastic complexes and often attract many religious pilgrims. To show their respect, worshippers participate in ritual circumambulation, which involves walking around the stupa counterclockwise, with the right shoulder closest to the structure. This act is intended to bring the participant merit and inspire them to follow the Buddhist path more effectively. The sacred interior of monumental stupas can be entered through passageways at the four cardinal points. These areas may contain relics or other ritual objects such as paintings, sculptures, and sacred texts meant to represent the Buddha or other religious figures for whom the stupa was built. The spread of Buddhism carried the form of the stupa throughout Asia, where it was reinterpreted as the domed chortens of Tibet and the pointed pagodas of China, Korea, and Japan.
Smaller stupas, such as this sculptural work, are commonly used as objects of meditation and can be placed on the altar of a temple alongside Buddha sculptures and volumes of sacred text. Both monumental architectural and small sculptural stupas adhere to strict rules of proportion. The main sections are the base, dome, and crowning, which respectively represent the throne, body, and crown of the Buddha. The rising tiers symbolize the Buddha’s path toward enlightenment. The sun and moon at the top represent the union of compassion and wisdom, and the upper-most flame references the highest form of enlightenment.
Buddhism originated in India and is based on the teachings the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, or Enlightened One. The Buddha was born into the shakya clan, and the name Shakyamuni may mean “glory of the Shakya” or “sage of the Shakya.” He taught that all life is suffering, but renouncing desires and the self can lead to a state of enlightenment beyond both suffering and existence.
Over time, diverse interpretations of the Buddha's teachings led to a variety of sects. Although no longer widely practiced in India, Buddhism has spread through South and Central Asia and as far as Japan through trade and missionary activity. Today it is one of the world’s largest religions.
Buddhist teachings are based on the Four Noble Truths: all existence is suffering, the cause of suffering is desire, to renounce desire is to renounce suffering, and one can achieve renunciation by following the Noble Eightfold Path. This path includes right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism
The two main religious traditions of Tibet are Bön and Buddhism. According to traditional Tibetan accounts, there was significant competition between the two. Modern scholarship, however, presents a more complex relationship in which they were heavily dependent on one another.
Bön is considered an indigenous Tibetan religion that competed with Buddhism after its introduction in the seventh-century and continues into the present day. Bön is largely unexplored by modern scholars but believed to have focused on the imperial cult of a king, who was thought to have supernatural powers. Unlike Buddhism, which focuses on ritual, metaphysical doctrine, and monastic discipline, Bön emphasizes religious authority and history. Bön religion is heavily influenced by the Himalayan landscape and believes that humans are victim to a variety of spiteful demons and temperamental local gods, who are the main cause of suffering in life. Some elements of the Bön religion have been borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism and some of its original wrathful deities and demons were converted and tamed to serve as the guardians of Buddhism. In this sense, the two religions borrow from one another.
Buddhism was introduced to Tibet by its first emperor, Songtsen-gampo (617 – 649 A.D.). Vajrayana Buddhism, also known as Tantric Buddhism, developed from the earlier sect of Mahayana (MAH-hah-YAH-nah) Buddhism and is still practiced in the region today. Vajrayana is based on the Tantra, a 1500 year old set of Indian spiritual practices that emphasizes esoteric knowledge and practices to speed the path towards enlightenment.
A key distinction between Tantric Buddhism and previous forms is the concept of a more rapid progression towards the achievement of enlightenment. Tantric Buddhists believe that Buddhahood can be attained in a lifetime rather than after many reincarnations. To aid followers along this accelerated path, master teachers or gurus directed meditation involving magical words, symbols, and ancient radical spiritual practices, such as ritual cannibalism and copulation with dead bodies. The purpose behind the Tantric practices is to transform the mind and body and transcend ordinary emotions of fear and disgust. New deities inspired by Hinduism appeared as well, such as males and females in sensual embrace and wrathful protectors, in addition to a myriad of bodhisattvas.
Tantric Buddhism began in Nepal and spread to Tibet in the seventh century and Mongolia in the thirteenth century. Buddhism flourished side-by-side with Hinduism in Nepal, intimating influences between the two religions, and the Nepalese people continue to practice both Hinduism and Buddhism today. The integration of Hindu and Buddhist iconography in Nepal later infiltrated Tibet, and Tantric Buddhism was incorporated into the preexisting Bön tradition as Buddhism spread.
The two most important centers of Himalayan and Tantric Buddhist art are Tibet and Nepal. Like the religion, the art of these areas was largely influenced by both India and China. Himalayan art typically consists of gilded and non-gilded bronze sculptures and thangkas or paintings on cloth.
Himalayan art is almost exclusively religious in nature and primarily consists of objects that serve ritual and spiritual purposes. Many of these works are objects of veneration that are placed in monasteries. These objects serve as both visual aids for meditation and protective forces endowed with divine energy. Objects are believed to have religious power, imparted at consecration, and worshipers often visualize themselves as possessors of the strengths of the deity depicted.
1. Examine the form of the stupa and describe it using adjectives. What shapes do you see? What symbols do you see?
2. Stupas are meant to represent the body of the Buddha. The main sections are the base, dome, and crowning, which respectively represent the throne, body, and crown of the Buddha. Consider what certain body parts represent in your culture (i.e. head= knowledge, eyes= window to the soul, etc.).
3. Stupas are reliquaries that serve as sacred containers, or monuments of the Buddha and deceased Buddhist teachers. What other monuments or memorials can you think of that honor important figures from the past? (i.e. Lincoln Memorial, Mount Rushmore, etc.) Consider also small memorials, such as gravestones, that many people have made.
Stupas as reliquaries honoring deceased Buddhist teachers. Research the Janus reliquary guardian figure
from the Kota culture in Gabon, Africa to learn more about how reliquaries are used in this culture.
2. During worship and meditation, worshippers circumambulated or walked around stupas. Create concrete poetry based on the idea of circumambulation. Use the circle and concentric patterns of circles or a spiral as the form of your poem. Let the words of your poem reflect feelings and reactions to the Stupa.
The shapes of a stupa represent the body of the Buddha. View the image of Seated Buddha
and invite students to trace the outline of the seated Buddha with their fingers, or make an outine drawing of the figure. Discuss how the shapes of the Buddha’s body in a seated position relate to the form, shapes, and proportions of the stupa. Remember that the Buddha’s body is abstracted. Next, create a self-portrait that is transformed into a series of abstract shapes. Partner with a classmate and trace each other’s forms on large sheets of butcher paper. Exaggerate, stylize, and abstract the forms into abstract shapes. To extend this experience, transform the abstraction into a 3-dimensional sculpture using clay.
Stupas have specific rules of proportion that correspond to the body of the Buddha. Have students compare Seated Buddha Subduing Mara
and the Stupa
. What portion of the stupa represents the Buddha’s head? Torso? Next, divide students into pairs and have each lay down on a large sheet of butcher paper while their partner draws the outline of their body. Then, have students consider their own proportions. How many heads create the length of their body? How many eyes the width of their face?
|Listen to Lama Dudjom Dorjee discuss stupas.|
Béguin, Gilles. Buddhist Art: An Historical and Cultural Journey. Bangkok: River Books, 2009.
Cummings, Joe. Wassman, Bill. Thurman, Robert A. F. Buddhist Stupas in Asia: The Shape of Perfection. Lonely Planet Publications, 2001.
Dorjee, Pema. Stupa and Its Technology: A Tibeto-Buddhist Perspective. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Dehli, 1996.
Pal, Pratapaditya. Art of the Himalayas: Treasures from Nepal and Tibet. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1991.
Pal Pratapaditya. On the Path to the Void: Buddhist Art of the Tibetan Realm. Mumbai: Marg Publications, 1996.
Pal Pratapaditya. Tibet: Tradition and Change. Albuquerque, NM: Albuquerque Museum, 1997.
Shimada, Akira. Hawkes, Jason. Buddhist Stupas in South Asia. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Thurman, Robert. The Jewel Tree of Tibet: The Enlightenment Engine of Tibetan Buddhism. Free Press, 2006.
Books for Students:
Dolphin, Laurie. Our Journey from Tibet. Dutton Juvenile, 1997.
Hyde-Chambers, Frederick. Hyde-Chambers, Audrey. Tibetan Folk Tales. Shambhala, 2001.
Levy, Patricia. Cultures of the world – Tibet. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2000.
Newman, Bruce. A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism. Snow Lion Publications, 2004.
Spilsbury, Louise. Spilsbury, Richard. World Cultures: Living in the Himalayas. Heinemann-Raintree, 2007.
Wilkinson, Philip. Morgan, Peggy. Buddhism (Eyewitness Book). DK Children, 2003.
This resource packet has information about Tibetan art.
Learn more about Tibetan Buddhist art from the Metropolitan Museum’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
This resource packet is a reference guide to Himalayan art.
This resource packet from the Asian Art Museum discusses Hindu and Buddhist art.
On this website, the British Broadcasting System gives a lengthy description of Buddhism.
This is a short essay on Buddhism and Buddhist art.
This video from the Minneapolis Institute of Art discusses Buddhism.
On this site, you will find descriptions of several major world religions.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”