Sunday, July 26, 2009

Of Stupas and Appleseeds

If you sit down and read the variety of texts that, as an ecclesiastical matter, appear to govern the building of stupas, after you wade through all the "thou shalt nots," you would never build one.

Take the issue of siting, for example. The texts all say that the stupa should be oriented to the east. Trouble is, "east" is a highly flexible issue. Just to begin with, is that magnetic east, or geographic east?

If you take my summer camp as an illustration, the magnetic declination is 12 deg. 37' E, changing by 0 deg. 5' W every year. So, you would set the baseplate orienting arrow on your compass 12 degrees west, to compensate for the plus 12 degrees declination. That would give you geographic east. However, one hundred years ago, those numbers were 15 deg 21' E, changing by 0 deg. 3' W every year -- so you can see, this too is impermanent. If you like to play around with such things, there is a handy online tool, here.

Why east?

I think we've touched on this before, but in general, there is a long-standing prejudice arriving from classical Indian spiritual engineering (not Chinese feng shui, no matter how much anybody argues). Chinese feng shui may be the reason why temples are oriented as they are in Tibet -- and for that we need thank the Chinese princess -- but we are not talking about temples. We are talking about stupas. Stupas do not originate in Tibet, nor do they originate in China. Stupas originate in India, and in India, they are oriented to the east.

Reputedly, this is where the Shakya clan
put their share of the Buddha's relics.

The best English-language resource I have yet to see on the subject is Pema Dorjee's Stupa and Its Technology: A Tibeto-Buddhist Perspective (Delhi, 1996). You can still find this from time to time. If nothing else, it is a powerful demonstration that even the authorities can't agree on the best way to build stupas.

By the way: when I say "oriented east," I mean that the gawo is oriented east. Also, when the tree for the tsokshing is cut, the eastern quadrant of the tree is marked, and this orientation is kept when the tsokshing is carved, painted, inscribed, and then placed inside the stupa, i.e. the eastern face of the tsokshing is oriented to match the east-facing gawo.

These are teeny-tiny little details, excerpted from a catalog of hundreds (if not thousands) of other teeny-tiny little details -- hence, leading to the development of "stupa specialists," or lamas who are spiritual compradores, brokering sandalwood trees, tsa-tsa molds, precious substances, and engineering challenges that discourage the weak-willed.

There are also some entrepreneurs out there, interested in the finer things of life, who are devoted to making complicated that which ought to be a simple act of faith. Well, why not... if it makes them happy.

Actually, building stupas is like making millions of dollars. It is easy after the first million.

When I was a child, I was quite taken with the story of Johnny Appleseed. You remember that story? He went from place to place, planting apple trees? I have been thinking about that story for years.

Stupas should be like that.

Still got built, didn't they?

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