UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Stūpas in medieval China : symbols of the Buddha, sacred buildings, or tombs? Sze, Tak Pui


By studying textual material from a new prospective, this dissertation aims at uncovering how Chinese Buddhists understood Buddhist stūpas and whether they worshipped them. Though stūpas are not Buddhist inventions, they frequently appear in Buddhist scriptures, depicted as important Buddhist objects of worship symbolizing the Buddha after his nirvāṇa (or other Buddhist holy people) and representing his presence. Since stūpa worship is said to be of great importance to Buddhists’ cultivation, Buddhist vinaya literature contains a number of precepts regulating devotional acts performed for these objects that are intended to distinguish them from those of non-Buddhist cults and to limit worship to only those set up for the Buddha and other Buddhist holy people. These teachings concerning the connotations of stūpas and the importance of worship of them, however, did not prevail in Chinese Buddhist society. Then, how did Chinese Buddhists perceive and treat stūpas? This is what this dissertation focuses on. With the investigation scope limited to the Six Dynasties, it first provides a glimpse into the form of stūpa worship presented in Buddhist scriptures, and then discusses the ways in which Chinese people understood stūpas in capital cities and whether their belief in Buddhist relics and Aśokan legends evoked their worship. Finally, it examines whether funerary stūpas for the Buddhist order and laymen in China were set up according to the Buddhist scriptural tradition of stūpas. This dissertation shows that the ways in which Chinese people in the Six Dynasties understood stūpas were markedly different from those presented in Buddhist scriptures. They generally did not view them as the Buddha or other Buddhist holy figures, but as sacred buildings and even tombs. Instead of the Buddhist scriptural tradition of stūpas, their understanding of stūpas was more noticeably influenced by their own immortality belief, funerary customs, and ancestral worship. Stūpas established in the Six Dynasties were detached from their original symbolic meanings valued by Buddhist scriptural compilers, and were therefore of little significance in representing the Buddha. In terms of their symbolic meanings, they could hardly qualify as Buddhist stūpas defined in Buddhist scriptures.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International