The Merits of Circumambulating Stupas


    The unsurpassed, deep, profound, subtle, wonderful Dharma
    In hundreds of thousands of millions of eons, is difficult to encounter,
    I now see and hear it, receive and uphold it,
    And I vow to fathom the Tathagata’s true and actual meaning.

To benefit all sentient beings, please resolve on the attainment of the precious and supreme Bodhicitta.

Today, I will take advantage of this class to introduce the benefit of circumambulating the Buddhist stupas. Most Buddhists are aware of the great benefit generated from circumambulating a stupa. However, some people may remain ignorant on this respect if certain details are not introduced. So today I will talk to you on this subject briefly.

The stupa represents the holy mind of all Buddhas. Historically, stupas exist before Buddha Sakyamuni – in The Hundred Actions Sutra, there was a king called Chakpa. In his previous life, he built a sharira stupa (a stupa in which a relic of Buddha abides) following the nirvana of Krakucchanda Buddha. In the time of Kassapa Buddha, there was a King Zhizhi who also built many stupas. When Buddha Sakyamuni renounced the secular life and became a monk, he did so in front of the stupa of Brahma Tathagataya. The Swayambhunath Stupa in Nepal also existed before the appearance of several Buddhas. In this respect, the history of stupas differs from that of Buddhist statues and sutras.

In India, after the nirvana of Buddha Sakyamuni, King Aśoka built 84,000 stupas around the world; Nagarjuna also built a sharira stupa; there is also a Buddhist stupa at Bodh Gaya in India. There are many Mahayana and Theravada stupas in India. When stupa was introduced to Tibet, King Trisong Detsen built many stupas including the Samye Stupa in Ü-Tsang, and the stupa later was spread to the Amdo and Kham regions and gradually, the entire Tibet. The Qiyun Stupa at the White Horse Temple in Luoyang is one of the earliest stupas in the Han region. It was built in the Han Dynasties. However, some people claim that the Putong Pagoda dates earlier than it. In any case, after the Buddha’s nirvana, stupas spread all over Jambudvipa (or the southern continent in the Buddhist cosmology), and many faithful ones presented offerings and prostrated to these stupas. Especially the sharira stupas built by King Aśoka is a great field of merit for all human and non-human, paying reverence and presenting offerings to it grant great merits.

When it comes to the categorization of stupas, there are the eight great stupas in India, and in Tibet, Kalachakra stupas are more commonly worshipped. According to the rituals of the esoteric school of Buddhism there are many different types of stupas. There are some stupas in Padmasambhava’s termas that are used for practicing the Dharma. According to the Mahayana texts such as the Nirvana Sutra, Buddhist stupas differ to those of Sravaka and Pratyekabuddha in terms of shape and its divine power. The stupa embodies the mind of the Buddha, according to Guhyasamâja Vajra, “A stupa is a palace where the Buddhas abide.” Therefore one must consider the stupas as the palaces of all Buddhas. In Explanation of the Root Precepts of Theravada Buddhism, it is written that “the Stupa is the Dharmakaya”. In this respect, according to the Sutra of the Great Accumulation of Treasures (aka the Maharatnakuta Sutra), “There is no difference between the merit of those who make offerings while I am alive and those who make offerings to a stupa after my nirvana. And wherefore? For the Buddha is the pure manifestation of the Dharmakaya, and not Nirmanakaya or the physical body.” Therefore, the stupa is a symbol of the three jewels, it is a quintessential representation of Buddha’s Dharmakaya, and embodies the mind of Lord Buddha.

There are many stupas where Buddhism prevails. Take Thailand for example, whether you go to the mountains or the cities, you can see many stupas along the way. Likewise, in Tibet, one can see white stupas everywhere. The stupas in Thailand are gilded with gold and therefore have golden color, but perhaps due to the fact that we Tibetans are poorer and cannot afford gold, white stupas are more common over here. I have heard the story of a chief government officer who came here to make an inspection, and said very discontentedly: “why are there so many white stupas? I am not comfortable about it!” (This is probably a manifestation of his negative karma. In normal circumstances, a person should be joyous at the sight of so many stupas.) We Tibetans have a tradition – when a Tibetan sees a stupa, a monastery or a monk, he will get off the horse, take off his hat and join his palms. If he’s in a hurry, and cannot approach to prostrate, then he will join palms inside the car, on the horse or on the road from afar. Such an action grants great merits.

The specific benefits of building stupas have been explained in detail in The Benefits of Constructing Stupas Sutra. The Avadana Sutra enumerated 10 merits of building a stupa, such as those who build stupas will not be reborn in remote places, nor will they suffer from extreme poverty, nor will they hold erroneous views against Buddhism, etc. The Sutra of Constructing Stupas and Prolonging Lives also elaborated upon the seven benefits such as those who build a stupa will not die suddenly and violently. Therefore, according to the Mahayana texts, we should build stupas if conditions allow and we have the capability. In Tibet, many people from the monasteries or villages resolved to build stupas. One year, HH Jigme Phuntsok called forth all his disciples to build stupas extensively, which was responded extensively and resulted in constructing over 10,000 stupas. (I have forgotten the exact number, it is a very big number anyhow.)

In comparison, in the Han region nowadays, people are building fewer stupas. If you have the capability in the future, you should build a stupa somewhere, so that those who see it, circumambulate it or prostrate to it will attain enlightenment eventually. Lord Buddha has taught us the multitude of benefits of building stupas in the Vimala Suddha Prabhasa Mahadharani Sutra and said that “those who have committed the five acts of evil leading to the avici hell, should he pass in the shade of a stupa, or catch sight of a stupa from afar, or hear the chimes of the bells of a stupa, or hear of the name of a stupa, will be purified of the five heinous crimes, or any other hindrance of karma.” Therefore, the benefits of building stupas are inconceivable.

Of course, a rather strict standard is applied to the construction of stupa. If it is beyond one’s capability, then it is also advisable to buy a small stupa, which is relatively easy. The Buddha spoke about many types of stupas in The Benefits of Constructing Stupas Sutra and told us that even if a stupa is the size of a jujube leaf, or as thin as a needle, it is still able to bring vast merits. Such small stupas are sold in many Buddhist shops. (Is our shop going to make a fortune? Do you sell stupas? No? Too bad…forget it.) Normally relics or religious objects are inserted into stupas, if you don’t have the mantras to put inside the stupa, you can put the four verses from the Sutra in the stupa, which also counts as a form of relic. Then put it on the altar, and it becomes an embodiment of the Three Jewels. If a person really does not have the capability to build a stupa, then offer other people miniature stupa made of gold, silver, wood, stone or glass, insert relics, and form karmic link with him. Such an action also has great benefits.

Let alone the stupas with standard measurements, even those built by children when they are playing games can bring enormous merits. It is said in Lotus Sutra, “The little children who piled up here and there heaps of sand into stupas, those who have done such actions have all reached enlightenment.” Sometimes when little children play, if they have some roots of beneficence, they will form a good connection with statues or stupas of Buddhas, which will become the cause of their eventual enlightenment. This reminds me of my own childhood, I think I had rather good karma. When I was playing with some children from the neighborhood, though we lived in a valley where there was no sand, we often pretended some sharp stones were stupas, and scattered flowers in front of them. Sometimes I found little white bones, some of which had pointed tips, some round, and I pretended they were stupas or statues, and prostrated and made offerings to them. I hadn’t read The Lotus Sutra then, but I had many similar experiences like this. I think they can gradually become the cause of enlightenment.

Mending stupas brings forth great merit as well,as it was written on Mahasangha-vinaya, “Alms giving with thousands of kilos of real gold is not as much merit as mending a stupa with a ball of mud in distracted mind.” The merit accumulated from donating thousands of kilos of pure gold to poor people is not as vast as the merit of taking a ball of mud and patching it to the cleft on a stupa. So last year I and several fellow Buddhists mended the stupas by the gate of the Institute. We were all aware of the great benefits it brings.

While building stupas, it is preferable to follow the guidelines. However, there is still great merit even if one does not follow them. At the time of the Buddha, the Honored Sumanas built and prayed to a stupa at a remote place, and in the stupa he inserted some hair and nails of Lord Buddha. At that time, five hundred Arhats resided there, and took the stupa as the true Buddha, and circumambulated it and prostrated to it in mornings and evenings. In this mountain there also lived 500 rhesus monkeys, who, after watching the devout rites of the Arhats every day, fashioned a stupa out of mud and prostrated to it in mornings and evenings as well. Later, the mountain was flooded, the monkeys could not escape and were all drowned. The rhesus monkeys reincarnated into five hundred devas in the heavenly realm, who saw with their divine sights that the cause of their celestial birth was due to the building and worshiping of the stupa made of mud in their previous lives. Out of gratitude, they descended to the human realm and circumambulated seven times around the remains of the rhesus monkeys, scattered flowers on them and made offerings. They later heard the Dharma from Lord Buddha and attained holy fruit.

Generally, a statue or a stupa must be constructed according to universal guidelines. However, as stupas are holy objects, even building a non-standard stupa can be a source of immaculate merit. Try to imagine, the stupas built by the children in the Lotus Sutrais definitely non-standard, and has all kinds of irregular shapes; the rhesus monkeys that we have just mentioned, no matter how skilled they are, the stupas they have built cannot be comparable to those built by humans. Furthermore, children have a playful spirit, and rhesus monkeys only intended to imitate, and while doing so, they did not intend to gain the liberation, nor did they revere it as a holy object. However, due to the fact that the object of their action was a stupa, great merits were attained anyhow. Therefore we should not depreciate carelessly such a profound doctrine of cause and effect.

Once the stupa was built, what are the benefits of circumambulating it? According to Chaitya Pradakchina Gatha, “all the devas and dragons, yakshas and ghosts, will approach and make offerings, if you circle around the stupa clockwise.” All devas and dragons, yakshas and ghosts will come close to you and make offerings to you, and they will not harm you intentionally. Many other benefits of circumambulating the stupa is mentioned in the sutra, please read it if you have some spare time.

You must pay attention when you circumambulate a stupa, you must do so in a clockwise direction. Avatamsaka Sutra or the Flower Garland Sutra also says, “circumambulate three times in a clockwise direction”. It is obligatory to circumambulate clockwise, if you do it counter-clockwise, not only will you not be gaining any merit, but you will be generating negative karma by doing so. When we went to Mount Wutai, we circumambulated the white stupa all day long. At that time we saw many Buddhist practitioners and even some monks who were circumambulating counter-clockwise. Among us was a lama called Yangyi. His task every day was to prevent them from doing so. Once he held a young girl by the hand and told her not to circumambulate this way, but he did not speak Chinese, so he just tugged her hand and scared the girl, who kept shouting “stop dragging me, stop dragging me!” As a matter of fact, this lama had a very pure intention – he had built many stupas in the area of Daofu, and often printed prayer flags. He was in his 60s or 70s at that time and was not familiar with the lay Chinese customs,he merely stood there and asked people not to circumambulate in the wrong way. Hence, stupas must be circumambulated clockwise, otherwise the consequence is terrible, and this point is also specified in Chinese Buddhist sutras.

Great merits result from circumambulating clockwise. It is written in a Buddhist scripture, that once upon a time, there was a group of merchants who set off for a quest for treasures by sea, and on their way came across a whale. When they were about to be swallowed, they called the Buddha’s name loudly. The whale shut its mouth and died. This whale later was reborn as a human, with the name Shariputra, who came to a monastery and became a monk when he was very young and eventually achieved the fruition of Arhat. What was the cause of his attainment of the holy fruition? As it turns out, he was a fly in his previous life, and was attracted by the smell of cow dung near a stupa. Fortunately, the fly flew around the stupa in a circle. Another saying has it that the fly stopped on the cow dung which was flooded and floated around the stupa. With the merit of this act, he achieved the holy fruition at the time of Buddha Sakyamuni.

Therefore, please do not underestimate the merit of making one single circumambulation or even making only one prostration to a stupa, because the stupa is a holy object of immeasurable power, and even a small good deed can purify our sins and accumulate merits. In the Casket of Secret Relics Sutra it is written that “Those who should be punished to Avici Hell, if they make one prostration to this Stupa or walk around this Stupa once in clockwise direction, they will reach enlightenment.” Therefore, when you come across a stupa, you must circumambulate it, do not just take a picture and then leave right away.

In case you cannot find a stupa, some monasteries have the reliquaries of masters of Dharma, if this master is a true accomplished monk of great virtue, then you must circumambulate his reliquary as well. (After HH Jigme Phuntsok entered nirvana, no reliquaries were built, but a stupa was constructed at the place where His Holiness was born, and every time we went there, we prostrated to it.) In case there isn’t any reliquary of an eminent master, then you can circumambulate the statues of Buddha in monasteries. In Tibetan monasteries, the statue of Buddha is usually attached to the back wall, which leaves no room for walking around it inside the temple hall. But in most of the Chinese temples, a space is left for people to pass by behind the statue. Walking around the statue of the Buddha enables the cultivation of tremendous merits. In the Sutra of the Buddha Lecturing King Prasenajit, it is said that “if it is with a pure mind that a person circumambulates a stupa or an image of the Buddha, then in the next life, even the enemies will respect this person, and this person will possess merits and virtues, and become a Mahayana Dharma vessel.” If one circumambulates a stupa or an image of the Buddha, then the demons, heretics, obstacles or enemies that hinder one’s path of practicing the Dharma will disappear, and one will possess all merits and virtues, thereby becoming a Mahayana Dharma vessel. Seen from the surface, one circle around a stupa does not seem like a big deal, but in fact, the merit is very big. In the past, when people visited Patrul Rinpoche, he used to say all the time: “Just my luck! You won’t let an old man have rest. Why don’t you go and circumambulate the relic stupa of my Lama Jigme Gyalwai Nyugu? What is it good for to hang around with my corpse? ” In The Words of My Perfect Teacher, Patrul Rinpoche talked about the former lives of Almsgiver Huajie and Tibet’s first seven monks. When Almsgiver Huajie became a monk at the age of 100, many Arhats did not know that he was in possession of the seed for immediate enlightenment. Only the Buddha himself knew. In fact, at the time of Kassapa Buddha, he was a pig who ran around a stupa when he was chased by a dog. With this seed of goodness, he obtained the holy fruit of nirvana eventually. The seven monks were seven worms on the tree, who fell in the water, in which there was an old stupa. The worms were carried away by the current and circumambulated the stupa clockwise for seven times, and this became their seed of enlightenment.

So if you have the opportunity, you should let your parents circumambulate a statue of the Buddha or a stupa, those who tie an auspicious bond in the teaching of Buddha Sakyamuni will be enlightened in the teaching of Buddha Maitreya. If they don’t believe in Buddhism, you can trick them into walking around the stupa. If it’s a child, then entice him by offering him a candy and asking him to follow you around the stupa. If they are your parents, you can say, “Do you want to go on a tour? I know a good place.” Then slowly take them to circumambulate a stupa – “Alright, end of the tour!”

In the surface, circumambulating once around a stupa doesn’t seem like a great deal, but in fact only the Buddha knows its merits. In The Sutra of Wisdom and Foolishness (Damamukl Nidana Sutra), it is written, “Do not think small virtuous things are not worth your attention. Even small drops of water can accumulate and fill a big vessel.” As an old saying goes: a tower is built up with sand, a mountain is piled up with dust, the ocean is merged from rivers, and virtue is accumulated from good deeds. Virtue needs to be accumulated little by little; it is impossible to instantly gain all provisions required for becoming Buddha. Even learning starts at kindergarten, and slowly progresses to supervisor for doctoral students. It is rather difficult to obtain a doctor’s degree without even finishing the kindergarten. Though we must believe in our Tathagata, we mustn’t be too arrogant, and the little virtuous acts still need to be done. Liu Bei from the period of Three Kingdoms said to his son Liu Chan at his deathbed, “Do not forsake an act of kindness for its humble scale, nor commit an act of evil for its humble scale.”

Therefore, no matter where you see a Buddhist temple or a monastery, an image of the Buddha or a stupa, at least circumambulate thrice if you don’t have much energy or time to do more. Sometimes there are some survey groups or working groups who visit the Institution. Among these people, those who have virtuous roots suggests that they should not only look at the Web of Grand Illusion Mandala, but also walk around it and see how it feels. Then they take photos here and there, and unintentionally circumambulating the stupa. If even the non-religious people are like this, as Buddhists we should attach more importance to it all the more. When we have time, we should chant some mantras, prostrate or circumambulate a statue of the Buddha or a temple. If there isn’t any, then we should consider the stupas that we have acquired as a purified object, and circumambulate it.

Such circumambulation was considered highly important by many Indian masters. When Master Atisha arrived in Tibet, Dromtonpa and his other disciples asked him, “Why do you attach such great importance to circumambulating stupas in contrast with all other virtuous acts?” Master Atisha told them, “Among all relatively virtuous acts, there is none that brings about more merits than circumambulating stupas, because it is the amassment of good karma of the body, the mind and the soul. In India, there were people who attained enlightenment by circumambulating cities or holy temples, and there were some who recuperated from sickness or attained enlightenment by circumambulating the holy image of Avalokitasvara… Therefore, everybody should circumambulate with diligence!” After this, Lama Dromtonpa did as he was told and circumambulated every day. When his legs were not so nimble anymore in his later years, it is said that he circumambulated with the help of a carriage (probably similar to a wheelchair). He persisted on circumambulating thrice until the day he passed away. When Master Atisha was circumambulating the stupa in Bodh Gaya, sometimes he received oracles from the Tara, sometimes he received oracles from other Dakinis. From these stories we can tell that Atisha attached much importance to circumambulation. The Three Noble Brothers of the Kadampa lineage circumambulated stupas or scripture halls as well. According to certain biographies, the great masters Patrul Rinpoche, Mipham Rinpoche and Master Tsongkhapa also spared no efforts in circumambulation.

In Tibet, circumambulating a stupa is a very joyous act. In this respect, Tibetan people have more advantages compared to other ethnics. Take the great white stupa of Mount Wutai for example, it is a divine stupa of the Han region, so normally Han people should be the majority there, but it is said that nowadays most of the people circumambulating the stupa are Tibetans. When China was not open up yet, there were only Tibetan people in front of the great Boudhanath Stupa (Jyarung Khasyor Stupa) of Nepal, besides Tibetans, very few Nepalese, Indians or any other nationalities were circling the stupa. Similar situation can be found at Bodh Gaya as well. Especially in Thailand, many people do not know about circumambulating stupas at all, some people even circumambulate counter-clockwise. At that time I really couldn’t bear the fact that even these merits documented in Buddhist scriptures are ignored in a place where Buddhism is so prosperous. I even wrote it down in my travel journals.

I hope that by virtue of this lesson, whenever you see a Buddhist stupa you will not only look at it, but also circumambulate it for at least three times, no matter how busy your schedule will be. When HH Jigme Phuntsok was circumambulating holy mountains, no matter how tight the schedule was, he would at least make three rounds. When you drive by a stupa in a car, you should also drive around it once. On my way to Barkam, there was a stupa near Jinchuan that was consecrated by HH Jigme Phuntsok. Every time I was passing by it I would drive around it once. I hope that whenever you see a stupa, you will make it a habit to circumambulate it. If you are making a pilgrimage to a Buddhist stupa, you should circumambulate diligently.

In fact, the Han region also has a history of circumambulating stupas. In Tang Dynasty, there was a senior monk called Master Zilin, when he wanted to renounce the secular life he encountered heavy obstacles, his parents strongly objected to it, so he had to flee to Guang’ai Monastery of the Eastern Capital where he became a monk. Many years later, he went back to his hometown only to find out his mother already passed away and his father blind. Grievous, he went to the Yue Temple to recite the Lotus Sutra in order to find out in which realm his mother was reborn. That night, the Lord of the Eastern Peak said to him in his dream that his mother was reborn in a bad destiny, but if he make a pilgrimage to the sharira stupa of King Asoka Monastery, his mother will have a chance at emancipation. He then set off right away on his pilgrimage and prostrated there in tears and grief, and when he prostrated for forty thousand times, he saw his mother in the sky with his own eyes, telling him that she had already left the bad realm for the heavenly realm.

Furthermore, in Qing dynasty, there was a “head-touching monk” of Baotong Monastery in Wuchang, who was able to heal any big or small disease with his light touch of his hand. Why does his hand have such miraculous healing power? It is said that there was a pagoda in this monastery which he circumambulated daily, touching the bricks of the pagoda with his hand, reciting in silence The Mantra of the Great Compassion. Because he ceaselessly circumambulated for ten years, and never stopped for a single day, his hand obtained such miraculous power.

Be it Tang Dynasty or Qing Dynasty, there were many cases of great masters circumambulating Buddhist stupas. Now we should also advocate this, especially to the lay Buddhist practitioners. They should circumambulate Buddhist statues or stupas in the monastery more often. Nowadays in monasteries there are many people prostrating or burning incense, but very few of them circumambulates. One day we went to pay homage to the physical body of the Sixth Patriarch. At that time we circumambulated many times, but there were still many people who did not come and circumambulate. I had no other idea but to call out:”Come and circumambulate with me!” So they followed me, and circumambulated for a few times. Then many of them wanted to stop, not because they thought that no merits can result from this act, but many of them were not aware of the immensity of the merits that they can acquire. In fact many Han Buddhist masters attached great importance to this. Senior monk Benhuan was 100 years old last year, the other day I went to pay him a visit, after the meal he said, “Let’s go circumambulate the statue of Buddha!” He walked very fast; sometimes we could not keep up with his pace. Therefore, Han people should attach more importance in popularizing circumambulation, otherwise many people will have an inadequate notion in this aspect.

When circumambulating, what should we recite? When HH Jigme Phuntsok took us to circumambulate the great stupa in Bodh Gaya, we recited a verse from The Practices and Vows of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva – “May the power of action be purified, the power of afflictions be destroyed, the power of evil influence of Mara be subdued, and the power of the deeds of Samantabhadra perfected”. HH Jigme Phuntsok taught us about many great merits of reciting this verse, and said that if we can perfect these four powers, the practice of any Dharma will succeed. Therefore, when you circumambulate in the future, unless you have your own special way of circumambulating which is quite fine, it is advisable to recite this verse from The Practices and Vows of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva.

The merit of circumambulating stupas is immense, if you have the time, you should go and circumambulate a stupa. There are stupas all over our Institute, among which the Mandala stupa is the most special one. When it was being built, HH Jigme Phuntsok hid 100 extremely beneficial Termas of Buddhist statues and ancient Indian statues inside. Also buried inside were holy articles of immeasurable values that grant salvation upon seeing, upon hearing, upon touching, such as the relic of Namchos Migyur Dorje, which were blessed by himself and many other great Lamas. Nothing but seeing the Mandala alone is greatly beneficial. In Esoteric Buddhism there are many doctrinal evidences regarding this, Vajrapani said, “those who saw the Mandala will be purified of eleven kinds of fundamental samayas and 25 kinds of branch samayas, and attain the incredible body, speech, mind, merit and activities of the Tathagata.” In Tantra of Salvation Upon Hearing, it is said that “those who see the Mandala will achieve enlightenment within 7 rebirths.” It is also written in The Tantra of Peace and Wrath that “those who haven’t seen the Mandala personally but have heard the name of Mandala of the Main Deity will avoid rebirth in hell.” Therefore, when the time allows, I hope everyone can visit and circumambulate the Web of Grand Illusion Mandala personally blessed by HH Jigme Phuntsok himself. (Many of the male and female practitioners go there often, but it’s so windy up there that they have almost become Africans.)

When circumambulating, you can recite the name of Ratnaketu Tathagata, or recite the circumambulation mantra, which can multiply the merit by one thousand times. The circumambulation mantra is:


(Remember as best as you can, if not then it cannot be helped! When we were chanting The Warrior Songs of King Gesar, at the end of every song it was written, “Remember as much as you can, if you didn’t, then it’s impossible to be repeated.”)

According to related teachings, there are many merits in circumambulating the Mandala of the peaceful and wrathful Yidams. It is written in The Tantra of Stainless Confession that “whoever prostrates to the Yidam of the peaceful or wrathful Mandala of the Web of Grand Illusion, all broken vows can be purified, all negative karmas that lead to unremitting hell can be cleared.” HH Jigme Phuntsok often quoted this doctrinal evidence. In fact, this doctrine can be found not only ["can not only be found" doesn't sound right]in The Tantra of Stainless Confession,but also in many ritual procedures of Termas. If we prostrate the peaceful or wrathful Mandalas with reverence, the fundamental and secondary samayas can be purified, and even the most terrifying five sins leading to unremitting hells can be purified as well. The practitioners here in present are so close to the Mandala of the Web of Grand Illusion, it would be a pity if you never circumambulate it after a long stay in the Institute, much like an old lady who is born in Lhasa but dies without ever having seen the statue of Jowo Buddha.

There are some people who think that circumambulating stupas, reciting mantras, chanting the name of Amitabah or turning the prayer wheels are for people with lesser capacity or foolish people, or good deeds meant for old people. What we need to do is to study the Five Major Shastras[the shastras are not specific to Tibetan Buddhism, nor specific to exoteric Buddhism], and we don’t need these kinds of practices. Such way of thinking is unreasonable. In Ten Ground Sutra, it is written, “even Bodhisattvas from the first to the ninth ground must make offerings and pay reverence to the image of Buddhas of Three-Yugas”. Let alone ninth level, we have not even reached the path of accumulation or the path of preliminary practices, therefore should not easily destroy the beneficent roots of worldly actions. Bodhisattva Ground Shastra taught many principles on how Bodhisattvas must honor and make offerings to the Tathagata. Even the great Bodhisattvas must act this way, we who have not yet entered the path of the Mahayana should not underestimate any good deeds by all means.

Perhaps certain people think they are great Bodhisattvas, but that needs some observation. There used to be an old Lama named Kerang. Once HH Jigme Phuntsok was teaching us about the merit of Bohdi-citta and said, “You have all obtained the sanctified precepts of the Bodhisattvas, therefore from now on you can be called great Bodhisattvas.” So he called himself “great Bodhisattva” every day. Once someone was scrupulous about his words, so Lama Kerang said in all seriousness, “are you saying that a great Bodhisattva like me will tell lies? Impossible!” Someone else asked, “Are you really a great Bodhisattva?” “Of course! Didn’t HH Jigme Phuntsok tell us already? I am a great Bodhisattva.” I wonder if you all think that you are great bodhisattvas. In fact real great bodhisattvas are those who have reached the eighth ground or higher, and then they can be called great Bodhisattvas.

Some people are not even close to the path of accumulation,but already figure they no longer need to recite any more mantras or chant the name of Amitabha, nor do they need circumambulation, for these are the acts of people with low capacity. Such thoughts are unreasonable. Whatever we do, we must measure our actions with the speech of Buddha, if Buddha said it is meritorious in Mahayana doctrines, then there will be absolutely no doubt or deception about it, we must believe it 100% and do as Buddha had taught us. It is written in The Sutra of Samadhi King,”Even if the sky and the stars plummet from the sky, and the land and the sea, the cities and towns have collapsed, the void is indifferent but the heart changes, and the Tathagata never utters an untruthful word.(The Tibetan translation differs slightly to the Chinese version.)” This means, even if stars, the sun and the moon fall from the sky, the sea dries out and the land falls apart, Tathagata will never tell a lie. Therefore, with sanctified belief, we must trust all Buddha’s Vajra speech; we have no reason to doubt what the Buddha said. If at some point we are confused, this is only due to our own ignorance that we cannot understand. If we can truly understand, the words of the Buddha cannot be untruthful. It is with this kind of reverence that we should circumambulate Buddhist stupas.

As of what to visualize while circumambulating, it is written in the teachings of Songtsen Gampo. For example, when we are circumambulating the statue of Avalokitasvara, we should imagine that, “exterior” wise, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are all merged into the statue of Avalokitasvara, “interior” wise, all Lamas of the lineage teaching are all merged into the statue of Avalokitasvara, and “exoteric” wise, Dakinis and the Yidams are all merged into the statue of Avalokitasvara, and then chant “OM MANI PADME HUM” while circumambulating. During circumambulation, the light illuminated from Avalokitasvara merges into ourselves, all sins committed through body, speech and mind are purified. Many people of great virtue have said that one can certainly broaden his scope of contemplation, but if not possible, at least visualize this part. For example, if you circumambulate a stupa today, then visualize that this stupa is the aggregation of the blessing from the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of all ten directions. While circumambulating, the light radiated from it sanctifies all the bad karma committed during immeasurable past Kalpas. It is recommended to recite the mantra of circumambulation. If (I am really not a big fan of But) you can’t, then chant OM MANI PADME HUM or the hundred syllable mantra, or the mantra of Vajrasattva. When I circumambulated, I generally recited the Vajrasattva mantra, because I have committed too many karmic hindrances in the past immeasurable kalpas and the current life, and therefore should rely on such a mandala of the holy honored one to purify our sins. Each time we visualize the light radiated from the mandala, the sins committed by our body, speech and mind can be all purified.

As to the number of times of circumambulation, HH Jigme Phuntsok used to say, the superior ones should circumambulate more than 10,000 times, the intermediary ones more than 1000 times, the and inferior ones more than 100 times. The seventh Dalai Lama Kelzang Gyatso said, “The number of times of circumambulation should be like the 500,000 applied practices, so 100,000 is the best number.” As ordinary people, the more we circumambulate the better. Do not just circumambulate three times, and be already out of breath, and say, “I can’t do it anymore, I’ll just go home!”. Some people don’t feel breathless at all when committing bad karmic hindrances, but when it comes to the good deeds, their bodies cannot take it anymore, or they start to have bad mood.

Buddhist statues and stupas are true wish-granting jewels; they have great benefit and blessing for the current and the next lives. If we can have solid understandings of this, then relying on it, we can surely get rid of karmic hindrances, broaden the scope of our wisdom prolong lifespan, and all wishes can come true. This is the unimaginable blessing power of the Three Jewels. We have doctrinal evidence and theoretical evidence; therefore, the accomplished ones of the past attach great importance to circumambulating stupas and statues of the Buddha.

I hope that in the future, when you circumambulate, your heart remains pure, and consider the stupa as the stupa of treasure which is the accumulation of the merits of the Buddha’s body, speech and mind. The other day when I was on a trip to Qinghai, there was a Buddhist stupa inside which was the hair of King Tri Ralpachen. We thought it was a great opportunity for circumambulation, and had an extraordinary feeling about this. When I was circumambulating, tears quietly streamed down, because King Tri Ralpachen was a King who revered Buddhism very much. Whenever he saw a monk, he spread his hair on the floor, and let the monk walk on it. Hidden in this Stupa was his precious hair, I am very blessed to have seen such a stupa in this life.

In fact, supreme objects such as stupas are everywhere; it’s just that we are too ignorant to know their value. Now that we have understood more about it, we should do as such – firstly circumambulate as many times as we can when we see a stupa, and if the time allows, circumambulate day and night. When I was studying in Garze Normal School, there was a Kyabje palace hall (meaning the hall of the protector). I circumambulated every morning, during the day and in the evening. So we must not stop at one or two circles but circumambulate as much as we can. Secondly, as was written in Buddhist Scriptures, we must circumambulate clockwise, this is aimed at certain few Buddhist practitioners. We must remember these two points. After circumambulation, we should chant some simple or extensive dedication texts, devoting merits to the enlightenment of all sentient beings.

Of course, making offerings in front of, prostrating to and even cleaning stupas brings much merit as well, but due to the lack of time, I won’t talk about it here extensively. In short, the merit of circumambulating stupas is immeasurable, we must develop unswerving faith!

For practicing the Samantabhadra’s acts of wisdom;
I now dedicate all my cultivated beneficent roots
To adhere to them by diligent studies.
Extolled by all Buddhas of Three-Yugas,
Such are the most magnificent Aspirations;
I now dedicate all my cultivated beneficent roots
To obtain the supreme acts of Samantabhadra.

Reflection Questions

  1. What does the Buddhist stupa represent? What are the merits of building, mending and circumambulating a stupa? Please demonstrate with specific doctrinal evidences.
  2. Is there merit if one builds a stupa or circumambulates it with a scattered mind? Why?
  3. If you don’t have a stupa in your surrounding, how should you do to accumulate merit in this respect? How can you help your parents and friends to accumulate this kind of merit?
  4. From ancient times till today, what kind of attitude did the great Buddhist masters held towards circumambulation? How do you feel about this?
  5. What should you recite when circumambulating? How should you meditate? After knowing the extraordinary merits that can generate from a stupa, what two activities will you do?
  6. What kind of Buddhist stupa have you seen? What were you doing at that time? After studying this lesson, what will you do in the future? How can you tell more people about the merit of circumambulating stupas clockwise?


[1] The Swayambhunath Stupa is the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. According to historical documentations, when human lifespan was 10,000 years, a crystal stupa of a foot tall is formed naturally from the wisdom of Buddhas; in the time of Krakucchanda Buddha, the entire Nepal was an ocean, this stupa rose from the ocean; at the time of Kanakamuni Buddha, this stupa was called the stupa of unimpeded speech of the realm of reality; at the time of Kassapa Buddha, Master Jide expanded the external form of this stupa in order to protect it, until today, this stupa still stands.

[2] According to historical documentation, the construction of the Putong stupa of Hebei Province began in Emperor Ming Yongping Year 12 of the Eastern Han Dynasty (69 AD), and was finished on January 15th of Yongping Year 15, two years earlier than the stupa of Baima Monastery of Luoyang.

[3] The Avadana Sutra cited ten karmic rewards of building stupas: 1.One does not born in border lands; 2. One does not suffer from poverty; 3. One does not receive the body of ignorance and erroneous views; 4. One receives the throne of 16 great kingdoms; 5. One’s life is long; 6. One obtains the Vajra Indestructible Power; 7. One obtains immeasurably vast and grand blessedness and virtues; 8. One receives the compassion of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; 9. One has complete three kinds of supernormal awareness, 10. One will be reborn in the pure land.

[4] According to The Merit of Building Stupas to Prolong Life and Accumulate Merits, when one builds stupa with a pure mind, the merits that one accumulates are as such: 1. One will not be poisoned in this life, one’s life will be long, one will not die a sudden death, and eventually obtain the incorruptible body. All ghosts and gods dare not approach, all foes will disperse; 2. One will be free of all diseases; all sentient beings will be joyful upon seeing one; 3. The tainted precepts of one will be purified, the ones who are not submissive will become tamed, the unclean ones will become purified, the abstinential rules ones broke will be mended; 4. The four great prohibitions and the five kinds of evil acts leading to avici hell that one has offended will be canceled. All karmic hindrances accumulated through the immeasurable past Kalpas will be purified; 5. If one wishes to give birth to a male offspring, he will be blessed with virtue and health; 6. One will be constantly protected by the four celestial kings; 7. Even if the stupa is destroyed and becomes mote, and the mote is carried by wind across forests, mountains, rivers and oceans, all sentient beings that touch this mote will never be reborn with impure bodies and will always be able to see the Buddha.

[5] Abstain from all unwholesome deeds, perform wholesome acts, purify one’s own minds-this is the teaching of the Buddhas.” Or “All phenomena arise from causal factors, and the Buddha says it is the cause; these phenomena end as the causal factors are gone, and this is the saying of the great shaman.” Both verses are fine, but the latter is more widely used.

[6] The 7 trial monks: the first group of Buddhist monks in the history of Tibet. At that time, Trisong Detsen wanted to observe whether Tibetans could uphold the precepts, so he ordained seven people to become monks as a trial, following Shantarakshita who used precepts of Sarvastivada. And they are: Ba Selnang, Ba Trizhi, Pagor Vairocana, Ngenlam Gyelwa Choyang, Kohnlui Wangpo Sungwa, Ma Rinchen Chog and Lasum Gyalwa Jangchub. In historical documentations of Tibetan Buddhism, there are many different sayings regarding the names of these seven monks.

[7] The Grand Illusion Web Mandala is also a stupa. It is classified as a Mandala stupa.

[8] The Namchos Migyur Dorje is the Tibetan name. He vowed to cure diseases with his remains. “Namchos” means the Heavenly Dharma sect that belongs to the Nyingma White Jade sect.

[9] According to Gongtang Danbi Zhunmei, the author of The Maxim of Water and Wood, the merit can be magnified by 1000 times. However there are also sayings that it can magnify merits by 10000 times.

[10] There are other ways of chanting this circumambulation mantra.