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Secrets of the stupa

Jeffrey Durham, Assistant Curator of Himalayan Art at the Asian Art Museum, discusses the secrets of the Svayambhu stupa in the Asian Art Museum's collection. For more information on the Svayambhu stupa: education.asianart.org. Created by Asian Art Museum.

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Video transcript

here at the Asian Art Museum we have one of the most interesting models of what stupa or a monumental reliquary in the united states what you're looking at right here is that specific replica and it's a replica of a temple called the svayam boudnath temple in Kathmandu in Nepal now svayam boudnath means the Lord who is self arisen in other words who has created itself so this Monument is understood to be self created but in a very special kind of way let me describe that to you by talking about some of the features of this very object first of all one of the things that may strike you about this stupa is that it has a very strange form look how the center of the stupa has steps that go inwards and then come back outwards at each of the four cardinal points whenever you see this shape you're looking at a structure called Mount Meru Mountain mayor is understood to be the central point of the Buddhist cosmos and Hindu cosmos as well it you might compare it to the Mount Olympus of the Indian in Tibetan traditions so whenever you see that forum you know that it's at the center of the cosmos now what do you suppose is on top of that center of the cosmos Mountain well if you take a look at this scalloped formation just on top of the surface there what you'll see is a double Lotus bunch of lotus leaves on the bottom and a bunch of lotus leaves on the top now whenever you see that form the Lotus is like a hieroglyph for something that's self-generated think about it whenever you see a Lotus on a pond you can't see its stalk you can't see its seed all you see is that blossom coming up so an endo to that and thought whenever you see that Lotus it's a hieroglyph for something that is self generated now in the present context you're saying what something like a stupa could be self-generated because as it turns out a stupa is in fact a building it's a monumental reliquary it's an edifice in which the remains of deceased meditators are often placed so the thing here that self-generated is that hemispherical structure that don't like structure on top of those two lettuces that's what spontaneously manifested and that is the most important part of the stupa now when you take a look at that top structure you're going to see that it's got four different sides to it and on each one of those four different sides you're going to find a buddha who's in a different sort who has a different sort of hand position so on the eastern side of this stupa you'll find a buddha who's touching the earth on the western side of the stupa you'll find a Buddha is meditating on the northern side of the stupa you'll find a Buddha who's saying don't fear on the southern side one who's giving you a gift and then at the very center you'll see a Buddha who's teaching however if you look at this stupid closely you'll notice quickly that it is impossible to see the center of the stupa so where is this particular Buddha if you look very closely and that's really the key here if you look closely at the stupa you're going to find this central Buddha on that cubic structure right there now I say you may find that central Buddha but my suspicion is that he'll find you first look very closely and see what you see on that cubic structure there on top of the dome what you'll see is two eyes looking back at you from all four sides this is the Buddha viro China at the center of the cosmos sometimes in sanskrit he's called sarva vid which means all-seeing and you can understand why he would be because he's at the center of the cosmos and looks out in all directions now above that cubic structure you'll see a tower that ascends up to the top levels of form form worlds and the formless worlds up into emptiness at the bottom underneath you'll see the four sides of the continents that comprise the world that we live in they're understood to be four sides to this continent and on each one of those sides you'll find a guardian figure who is responsible for preventing any kind of negative forces from affecting what's going on right here now we talked a moment ago about how this structure is understood to be self generated so what story do the Nepalese tell about how this stupa was self generated as it turns out in the collection of the Asian art museum we have a wonderful tonka painting that depicts how this took place now to make a very long story very short what happened was that a bajillion years ago way in the past an ancient Buddha planted a seed in the Katmandu Valley which at that time was a lake that seed grew into a guess what into a lotus a spontaneously generated Lotus and on top of that Lotus there grew the monument that you see right here and into that monument came five different colored rays of light one for each of the five Buddha's and today the Nepalese understand those Buddha's as still residing within this stupa they never went anywhere they're still there now there's one catch in order to keep the power of those five Buddhas in this particular Monument the monument must be renovated periodically and this is done in a specific way and in quite a dangerous way as well the object that you're looking at right here has been gilded that is coated with gold through a process known as mercury gilding it's very dangerous and produces mercury vapors interestingly enough three years ago in Katmandu the monument itself was renovated using the same process and get this 20 kilograms of gold so to renovate one of these monuments to turn it back into its new condition is no small undertaking but when you think about the idea that this is the center of the cosmos in the beginning of the process that leads to enlightenment then perhaps it makes a good deal of sense to spare no expense you