If there is any structure that represents Buddhism everywhere it would be the CHEDI, stupa, or pagoda. The word stupa probably is derived from a Sanskrit word for “worship” and the word pagoda from another Sanskrit word for “a dwelling for divinities”. The word “chedi” comes from yet another Sanskrit word, but is used only in Thai or to refer to Thai forms of these mountain structures.
The purpose of a chedi is to bury holy items, particularly ashes of dead persons. But in Buddhist parlance in Thailand they might may refer to the Lord Buddha while containing some other relic, such as inscriptions of sayings of the Buddha, or the ashes of disciples of the Buddha including royalty and renowned Buddhist monks.
Chedi come in all shapes and sizes, from a single cup of sand to the immense Phra Pathom Chedi in Nakhon Pathom, 70 miles west of Bangkok, said to be the world’s tallest (at 120 meters). The earliest stupa were in India, and the most famous were hemispherical, attributed to King Asoka in the third century BC (third century BE) but actually proliferating in the Kanishka era, first or second century AD. In Thailand the classical form of a chedi is bell-shaped on a square base. Many chedi are positioned on bases with layers that gradually become round as they go higher, and are topped with a spire consisting of some thirty rings. Other chedi might be tall, slender, four-sided pyramids with notches holding Buddha statues. Those harkening back to the Cambodian-Khmer era are sometimes called “corn-cob” shaped, properly “prang”. Some of the oldest chedi in Thailand are from the Cambodian cultural era. To the dismay of art historians and archeologists the tendency has been, when chedi become unstable, to encase them in a larger structure of an entirely different form.
Donald Swearer quotes Adrian Snodgrass as saying, the stupa is “a network of homologous symbols, myths, rituals and doctrines that include the stupa as reliquary and memorial, cosmic mountain and navel of the universe, mandala-field from which demonic forces have been expelled, generative womb (yabbha), and an ascending pathway to liberation.” [Swearer, D. 1995. The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia, 2nd ed. Bangkok: Silkworm Books. P. 76]. Joseph Campbell was impressed with the dissonance between the Buddha’s pessimistic teaching about the nature of life and the figures found on the earliest stupa. Campbell reports, “…opulently carved stone gates and railings on which all of the earth and vegetation genii of the ageless folk tradition appeared in teeming abundance.” He describes, “pot-bellied dwarfs support great architraves, whereon are beasts, gods, nature sprites, and human beings adoring symbols of Buddhas, past and future. Winged lions squat like guardian dogs. Earth demons shouldering heavy clubs guard the Sun Wheel of the Law. Everywhere flowering vines and lianas pour from the mouths and navels of mythological monsters….” [Campbell, J. 1962. The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology. New York: The Viking Press. P. 299.] This effusion of color and life is still vivid in Thai Buddhist temple art. But one form has been suppressed. “…the most prominent single figure in the ornamentation of all the early Buddhist monuments, rivaling in prominence even the symbols of the Buddha and nirvana, is the lotus goddess, Shri Lakshmi. The Indus Valley goddess of the tree, giving birth to the plant world, has thus dramatically returned and she is to be known as present or represented, it would seem, in every woman in the world. She is the goddess of the Bodhi-tree – the same who, in the legend of Adam, was Eve.” [pp. 301, 302] Whereas in the case of Adam and Eve the serpent is Eve’s lover and is cursed, in the Parshvanatha myth and in the Buddhist narrative the Naga is a protector...”the goddess Lotus, Shri Lakshmi, the goddess of the life force, in serpent form.” [p. 302]. Shri Lakshmi has been minimized in Thai Buddhist temples, although the Bo tree remains a central symbol and the goddess has been re-named Mae Toranee (literally the “mother of the physical world”) seen wringing out her recently shampooed hair to create a flood to delay the demonic hoards intending to interrupt Gautama’s meditation.
Buddhist narrative infers stupa were created for the first time for the purpose of interring relics of the Lord Buddha. They were sacred reliquaries. Actually, there were burial mounds before 2000 BC, and stupa were of that type, gradually being modified to express Buddhist ideology. Swearer clarifies pre-Buddhist heritage, calling stupa Indra-kila or World Pillars, reflective of the Vedic myth of Indra’s act of creation. “Indra’s demiurgic act was to slay the demon [Vrtra] and to release the waters, while at the same time separating heaven and earth by ‘pushing them apart’ and ‘propping up the sky’ at the world’s axis, commonly visualized in India as well as other traditions as a World Tree or World Pillar … with his raising of the heavens, Indra ‘pegged’ the floating Primordial Mound to the bottom of the Cosmic Ocean, thus ‘fixing’ or ‘stabilizing’ our universe; the peg he used was the ‘Indra-kila,” metaphysically synonymous with the World pillar.” [Swearer, p. 77]. This cosmological design was quite similar to the newer of the two creation accounts in the Hebrew Bible, the very first account in the Holy Bible. There was originally water, but creation consisted in dividing the water above from the water below. A central holy mountain (later identified as Mount Zion) served as a column to hold the bubble aloft and keep the water away from the earth, unless a deluge was unleashed.
The chedi in the temple on Doi Sutape just west of Chiang Mai (within walking distance, as countless pilgrims and university freshmen can attest) is indisputably the most prominent chedi in Chiang Mai and one of the ten most important in the country. Doi Sutape Temple has been designated a Phra That พระธาตุ indicating that the item interred within the chedi is a relic of the Lord Buddha. Furthermore, it is a validation of Lanna royalty. It takes facile thinking to accomplish this, inasmuch as the Lanna kingdom began in the 14th century AD and Buddha relics had long been identified and claimed before that. Swearer describes how this all was covered in The Legend of Phra That Sutape. In essence, as it relates to how a Buddha relic came to be on Sutape Mountain in the historical past, the story is that in the “Universal Past” the Lord Buddha walked through the Northern Thai region which was the kingdom of a pair of giants who had a son who was enlightened by the Buddha. To preserve the immediacy of the Buddha’s presence, which was likely to fade over time, the Buddha gave the giant’s son a hair from the back of his hand and instructions about how to enshrine this relic. By the time of the founding of the Lanna kingdom that shrine had collapsed and just a spiny plant was left to mark its location. 1875 years after the Buddha departed, through a series of dreams involving the Kings of Sukothai and Lanna the shrine and relic were located and sent to Chiang Mai. To fulfill a prophecy the relic was to be sent onward to an unknown place on the back of a sacred elephant. When it came time for the departure it was found that the relic had miraculously divided into two, so one part was sent on the journey and another retained in the city of Chiang Mai. The elephant took off toward Doi Sutape and paused at the base before continuing on toward the summit where a hermit resided. The elephant recognized the hermit and the sacred spot on which he sat. The elephant ended its journey, kneeling reverently before the hermit after making three circuits and trumpeting loudly. So the location of the temple was identified and construction began. [See Swearer, D., Sommai Premchit, and Phaithoom Dokbuakaew, 2004. Sacred Mountains of Northern Thailand and Their Legends. Bangkok: Silkworm Books, pp. 72-83]. Through dreams and miracles the particular and physical aspects of the Lord Buddha multiply and travel enabling the Buddha to become immediate and universal not only symbolically but super-physically.
Not all chedis are entitled to be designated Phra That. Some contain relics that only indirectly relate to the Buddha in person. In fact not all temples are entitled to have a chedi. But it is instructive how a temple acquires one. A few years ago Wat Ta Pong, in the village next to our village, began construction of a chedi. The construction commenced with digging nine holes for nine pillars to hold up the chedi. On the auspicious day and hour, hundreds of faithful lined up to drop their personal astrological charts on copper, silver and gold sheets, money, sacred objects, and cursed objects (to be thus sanctified) into the holes which were filled with concrete. The solid pre-fabricated chedi was put in place layer by layer. And finally a “heart” was installed in a hole near the top. This object was provided from the sacred trove prepared for such use by the headquarters of the Supreme Patriarch in Bangkok. It was a lineal descendant of a relic of the Lord Buddha, rendered so by arcane rites.
I learned more about such “hearts” while attending a festival in the village of Jom Jaeng just across the valley from our house. The festival lasted for two days and consisted of removing the “heart” from Wat Jom Jaeng and itinerating it through the village. On the second afternoon a large parade escorted the “heart” back home. The occasion was used for presenting other offerings including a pair of “lions” (actually mythological beasts called chinthe by the Burmese who donated the art form to North Thailand) to guard the entrance to the temple proper. I was told at that festival that sometimes the “heart” takes it upon itself to go for visits, and at other times is visited. Many people report having seen these visitations in the form of bright balls of light that float and propel themselves from place to place. This morning (as I type this), five women from our village testified that they have seen just such balls of light. Only one person in the group denied having personally seen such a phenomenon.
What this says is that a chedi is more than a mausoleum for retaining relics of the dead. Like Buddha images (certain ones, at least, see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/awakening-buddha), chedi are more than the physical material from which they are constructed and more than reminders of abstract principles. There is something supernatural about them, something real but hard to describe. Still, it is real, by common agreement.
There are four faith domains in Thailand: religion (Buddhism in this case), personal spirituality that promotes growth and insight, veneration of super-social persons and institutions, and recognition of supernatural forces. Here in North Thailand it seems clear that all these aspects of faith are served by chedi. Moreover, no one domain predominates. Chedi are what they are, and by implication Northern Thai Buddhism is what it is, by virtue of the fact that these domains overlap and converge. Chedi are objects for pilgrimage to make merit and to gain additional faith and insight (spiritual growth). They are validators of the land and its lords as well as reliquaries of historical data (veneration). Chedi contain and control supernatural forces. And, of course, they serve their primary purpose of recalling the Lord Buddha, his teaching and his disciples. In a way that is completely impervious to dispute, the Lord Buddha is not simply symbolized in a chedi, he is present.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.