From The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen translated by Michael H. Kohn; © 1991 by Shambhala Publications, Inc. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., www.shambhala.com
Skt. (Pali, thūpa; Sinh., dagoba; Tib., chöten), lit., “hair knot”; characteristic expression of Buddhist architecture, one of the main symbols of Buddhism and a focal point in temples and monasteries.
Originally stūpas were memorial monuments over the mortal remains of the historical Buddha and other saints. They also served, however, as symbolic reminders of various decisive events in the life of Shākyamuni Buddha. Thus stūpas were built at Lumbinī, Bodh-gayā, Kushinagara, Sārnāth, and so on. At the latest by the time of King Ashoka (3d century BCE) the veneration of saints had become a general custom; the stūpas from his time are still preserved.
Not every stūpa contains relics in the proper sense; in their place sacred texts and representations are also enshrined, which confer their sa&credness on the stūpa. Stūpas are often purely symbolic structures; examples are Borobudur and the three-dimensional mandalas of Tibet.
The veneration of stūpas, in which the Buddha is “present,” has been known since the early period of Buddhism. Such veneration is usually expressed by circumambulating the stūpa in the direction of the sun’s course but also through other forms of worship (pūjā). It is not, however, the relics themselves that are venerated; rather the stūpa serves as a support for meditation and as a symbolic reminder of the awakened state of mind.