Patheos Watermark

You are running a very outdated version of Internet Explorer. Patheos and most other websites will not display properly on this version. To better enjoy Patheos and your overall web experience, consider upgrading to the current version of Internet Explorer. Find more information HERE.

Religion Library: Buddhism

Sacred Space

Written by: Julia Hardy

The earliest example of sacred space in Buddhism is the stupa. Early accounts indicate that the Buddha's cremated remains were first placed under a mound at a crossroads, and then removed and divided among a number of Buddhist groups (some sources say eight, some say eleven, some say twelve), each of which enshrined their portion of the relics in a stupa. According to legend, the great king Ashoka later divided these remains and distributed them to 84,000 stupas throughout his realm and beyond.

In the first centuries of Buddhist presence in South and Southeast Asia, monuments were also built to mark important moments in the Buddha's life such as his place of birth or the location of his first sermon. Ashoka started the practice of making pilgrimage to these sites, a practice that was taken up by many of the faithful. With time, large temple complexes grew up around these stupas.

Later, stupas were also built to house the remains of famous monks, sometimes containing their cremated remains, and on rare occasions, the entire mummified body of a monk who had died while deep in meditation. Stupas were believed to radiate the presence of the person whose remains were enshrined there, as the enlightened mind was believed to continue even after the body was gone.

Eventually the stupa itself was regarded as a manifestation of the sacred, and many different types of objects were placed within them. As Buddhism expanded in South and Southeast Asia, temple complexes grew up around some of these stupas. Elaborate stone railings were built around the stupas, upon which moments in the life of the Buddha and the Jataka tales were carved. To walk around these railings was to recreate the experience of these events, almost as if one were actually there. While the Buddha himself was no longer physically present, he was kept alive for the faithful in these sacred places.

The Great Temple at Borobudur, in Java, Indonesia, is in essence an enormous stupa that represents the cosmos. Built sometime during the 8th or 9th centuries C.E., the temple was lost for centuries, but was rediscovered in the 18th century. The base of the Great Temple is a pyramid shape, within which are five concentric square terraces. Above the base is a cone-shaped core surrounded by three circular platforms, around which are seventy-two openwork stupas, each containing a statue of the Buddha. The entire building is topped by another, larger stupa. Pilgrims circumambulate the many levels of the temple at Borobudur as an act of devotion. All along the way they encounter statues of the Buddha and stone carvings representing the stories of Buddha's past lives from the Jataka tales, as well as reliefs that depict the operations of cause and effect. Thus a journey around Borobudur was an experience of the life and teachings of the Buddha.