An Individual Uses Words for Expression. A Civilization Expresses Itself in Architecture.

By | 5/4/2023

The crowning architecture of the pagodas found at various centers in our tradition is the Burmese stūpa with its unique rising, tapering shape. These stūpas provide a vivid reminder to meditators of the debt of gratitude we owe to Burma for preserving the technique of Vipassana over the millennia. With a deepening sense of appreciation, the right kind of devotion is fostered and the practice enhanced.

To a meditator, this unique architecture is much more than ornamental; it is purposeful. It not only commemorates the historical Buddha but more importantly, serves as a reminder of what all Buddhas teach: the Dhamma.

The early pagoda designers in Burma were influenced by Indian stūpas, ancient hemispherical burial mounds used to commemorate the life of a noteworthy person. Over the generations, the Burmese developed their own aesthetic style for such memorials, the results of which we can see today in the Shwedagon pagoda pictured here.

Some of these early designers were surely aware of the Buddha’s teaching that the true way to pay reverence to the Triple Gem lay not in worship nor in ornamentation, but in practice. They must have had this injunction in mind as their pagoda design elements developed, and that they were motivated to not only arouse devotion but to encourage practice. Research has found strong supporting evidence for this from Burmese sources, most notably Dhammazedi Sayadaw U Kaw-Thala, aka U Kosala. These findings may be used as the basis for looking at the pagoda from the standpoint of Dhammanusati, recollection of the Dhamma.

When viewed in this way, the pagoda becomes a vivid and constant reminder of the practice of Vipassana. Let’s look more closely at its architectural elements that support this idea (see illustration below).

From its broad base, the pagoda moves elegantly upward in an increasingly refined way culminating at the top in a single pointed diamond. In the same way, the practice of Dhamma takes one steadily in one upward direction, from the gross to the subtle, culminating in the ultimate goal: the end of suffering.

The broad base of the pagoda, 1. pan tin khone, stands for the stage that most of humankind occupies, namely that of suffering due to ignorance, or Dukkha.

Moving upward the next three sections, 2. pyit sayan (square terraces), represents the cause of this suffering: craving, aversion and ignorance. At the next higher point. 3. shi-hmyount (octagonal terraces), one is beginning to become aware of the true nature of these three causes of suffering and is looking for a way out.

The next stage, 4. khaung laung mhout, is a very prominent part of the pagoda shape. Here, the meditator is actively engaged in escaping suffering. Commonly referred to as 'the bell,' this shape is perhaps better taken as an inverted alms bowl, the baik mhout. This is a potent symbol. A bhikkhu’s very life depends on the alms bowl. To turn it over and refuse alms food for whatever reason is a very serious rejection. Here the shape of the overturned bowl represents the stage of Dhamma practice where the meditator now refuses to continue with a mind unrestrained, which merely perpetuates suffering by creating new saṅkhāra.

Instead, by Vipassana practice, one now attempts to change the old habit of blind reaction to pleasant and unpleasant experiences. To accomplish this, the meditator strives for the constant and thorough understanding of impermanence at the level of bodily sensations (sampajañña). Represented by the inverted alms bowl, the meditator is taking determined steps to come out of abject craving and aversion.

Girdling the inverted alms bowl are three bands, 5. kha-sie, that represent the fundamentals of this new path, namely sīla, samādhi and paññā. These bands and the upturned bowl together represent setting out on the path with a strong foundation. They are the underpinning for the next higher stage, 6. phoung yit where seven bands represent the seven stages of purification, satta vissudhi. This section also represents the seven graduated stages of Vipassana practice culminating in the total purification of mind.

Moving upward, the next elements are, 7. kyar mhout (inverted lower lotus) and 9. kyar lan (inverted upper lotus). Represented by the lower stage, kyar mhout, one is still capable of creating new saṅkhāra but in the upper one, kyar lan, this is no longer possible. Thus, the important transition point represented here as a necklace of orbs, 8. kye lone is the nibbānic experience, or gotrabu nana, the transcendence of mind and matter. Following the initial experience of nibbana, or sotāpanna, the meditator returns to the sensual field but is no longer able to create any new saṅkhāra sufficiently strong to result in rebirth in a lower plane. Like the lotus which flowers in fetid water but sits above it, the Vipassana yogi at this stage remains still tethered to the world but now decidedly apart from it.

Next, we come to the prominent curved cylinder known as the banana bud, 10. hnget pyaw bu. Once it gives fruit, a banana bud cannot produce any new fruit. This section represents the stage where the meditator has passed through higher stages of development and has reached the point where all saṅkhāra have been burned off. This person have now reached the summit, the stage of arahant, where new birth is no longer possible in any plane of existence.

This crowning of human experience is shown reverently by 11. hti taw, the ornamental umbrella. Atop the entire edifice sits 12. sein bu thaw, the diamond bud signifying total eradication of all defilements, the ultimate goal of the purification process.

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