Nepal: The Story Behind the Stupa

the Great Boudha Stupa in Kathmandu

On the northeastern outskirts of Kathmandu, tucked away from the dust and chaos of the city, stands the Great Boudha Stupa, a Buddhist monument towering more than eight stories into the sky. At the heart of the legend of the Great Boudha Stupa in Kathmandu, we find the pure aspiration of a “poultry-woman,” Jadzim, and her four remarkable sons.

Stupas originated in Buddhist architecture as reliquaries containing the sacred remains of masters but, in time, came to symbolize the Buddha’s enlightened mind itself. The structures are pervasive throughout the Buddhist world and are constructed at power points of geomantic significance, where they serve as objects for reverence, worship, and offering. The Tibetan word for stupa, chorten, literally means “the support of offerings.” So great is the renown of the Boudha Stupa that it is known colloquially in Tibetan as simply Chorten Chenpo, “the Great Support of Offerings,” the greatest of all stupas. In Nepali language, the stupa is most often called Boudhanath, “the Lord of Awakening,” for the monument is said to radiate the very energy of the Buddha’s fully awakened mind. The structure rises into space like the perennially snow-capped Himalayas that surround it, making the stupa the sacred center of the Kathmandu Valley, the jewel at the heart of Nepal’s natural mandala.

While historians date the current structure to the fourteenth century, the faithful trace the stupa’s origins much further back, to a mythic time predating even Buddha Shakyamuni and the current cycle of the Buddhist teachings. For followers of Tibetan Buddhism, this site in Nepal is nothing less than the genesis of their entire unique tradition, the wellspring from which Tibet’s tantric Buddhist lineage emerged. From here, it is said that the immeasurable power of devotion and pure aspiration reverberated through countless lifetimes and across the Himalayas to allow Buddhism to fully take root in the kingdom of Tibet.

The meaning of the story of Jarung Khashor overrides any obsession with verifiable historical fact; the metaphoric truth takes precedence over the literal.

The story of the Boudha Stupa comes to us through a scripture entitled Liberation on Hearing: The History of the Great Stupa of Jarung Khashor, a sacred text that was hidden in Tibet’s first monastery Samye and rediscovered by the master Yolmo Ngakchang Shakya Zangpo in the fifteenth century. The text is an example of the broader Tibetan Buddhist literary genre of terma, “treasure text.” In the West, the most famous example of the genre is the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead (more literally translated as Liberation on Hearing During the Intermediate State). The majority of terma, including these texts, are said to have been composed in the eighth century by Guru Rinpoche, the great Indian tantric master responsible for fully establishing Buddhism in Tibet. Terma contain esoteric teachings that Guru Rinpoche intended for future discovery by his reincarnated disciples, known as tertons, “treasure revealers” such as Yolmo Zangpo, and the genre contains a voluminous corpus of teachings intended for future disciples.

Terma serve as physical demonstrations of the eternal relevance of Tibet’s ancient traditions. Tibetans maintain that Guru Rinpoche foresaw the dark time that would envelop Tibet and cause the destruction of much of the dharma. He and his consort Yeshe Tsogyal therefore hid teachings throughout Tibet and the Himalayas, with the foresight that such scriptures would be required to benefit future generations when the original teachings declined. The genre of terma points to a continuous and ongoing tradition of revelation within Tibetan Buddhism, one that frequently returns to the mythic moment of Guru Rinpoche at the royal court of eighth-century Tibet. It is as though eternity itself condensed in this golden Buddhist era, to be rediscovered by adept disciples practicing throughout later times and places.


Boudhs Nekhor
Like many stories in great literature, the one told to us in Liberation on Hearing: The History of the Great Stupa of Jarung Khashor occurs within a narrative frame. In the mythic moment of eighth-century Tibet, the thirty-eighth Tibetan king, Trisong Detsen, and twenty-five fellow disciples of Guru Rinpoche have all assembled within the recently constructed Samye, the “Unchanging, Spontaneously Accomplished,” the first monastery of the nascent Buddhist nation. The king proclaims that the great monastery has caused the teachings to “spread like the sun rising on the snow-capped mountains” within Tibet and has transformed the country from a barbaric land to one in which all people have access to the sacred teachings. He draws a parallel between this moment in Tibet and that of the previous Buddha Kashyapa, noting that the current Tibetan golden age was the result of the vast aspirations made in previous lives by those presently assembled, when they had all been born in Nepal during the era of this earlier Buddha and had together vowed to build the Great Stupa of Boudha. The king then implores Guru Rinpoche to recount this story in detail so as to increase the confidence, faith, and inspiration of those assembled and to affirm their aspiration that Samye, like the Boudha Stupa, will become a sacred monument to perpetuate the dharma across the vastness of time and space.

The setting of the frame story is of such grandiosity as to challenge the imagination. At this moment in the eighth century, the Tibetan empire was the largest in all of Asia and had just begun the cultural transformation that would see it emerge as the epitome of Buddhist civilization. The monastery itself was a symbol of Tibet’s newfound international prestige and Buddhist cosmopolitanism, with the three stories of the central cathedral designed according to the traditional architectural styles of India, China, and Tibet. The entire monastic complex of Samye symbolized a three-dimensional mandala of Indian cosmology, with the central cathedral acting as Mount Meru, the axis mundi of the universe, surrounded by four buildings representing the four continents. Inside this magnificent main structure, King Trisong Detsen and the twenty-five practitioner–scholars sit at the feet of Guru Rinpoche, imploring him to explain how they have come to gather here, in Tibet’s first monastery, from where the dharma spreads like the light of the rising sun. How startling, how utterly unexpected, and how beautiful, then, that the story Guru Rinpoche tells centers around a low-caste poultry woman from Nepal.

Guru Rinpoche recounts that in an earlier aeon during the time of Buddha Kashyapa, in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, a low-caste couple raised chickens for a living. The two had a daughter whom they simply called Jadzima, “she who herds poultry.” Jadzima maintained her parents’ profession and her namesake and in time gave birth to four sons from four different outcast men. The father of her oldest son was a horse keeper, the second a swine herder, the third a dog keeper, and the youngest another poultry farmer. Despite her lowly profession and tarnished reputation from having born four sons to four different men, Jadzima worked hard raising her chickens and was able to accumulate wealth, establishing each of her sons as respectable householders. She resolved to use her remaining wealth to build a great stupa which would contain the relics of Buddha Kashyapa and all previous buddhas. She went before Nepal’s king to request land to build this monument to faith.


Boudh stupa in Kathmandu
She went before Nepal’s king to request land to build this monument to faith.

On arriving before the Nepalese king, she explained her life story and expressed that she wanted nothing more than to build a great stupa where limitless beings could come to accumulate vast merit, a monument to serve as a support for the eternal wisdom-mind of the buddhas. She requested the king grant her land on which to accomplish this virtuous aspiration.

The king was dumbfounded, contemplating the extraordinary woman before him. Born poor and of low caste, a single poultry-woman who brought up four sons born of four fathers and established them as respectable householders, all with the wealth from raising chickens—and now she wanted to use her remaining fortune to build a great stupa for the benefit of all. “How amazing,” he thought, before exclaiming, “Let it be done (Jarung)!”

With the land granted and permission secured, Jadzima and her sons began construction. Once the structure rose from to a height of three tiers, the local aristocrats became intensely jealous; despite all their wealth, they had never generated such an aspiration as this poor, single poultry-woman. They saw the rising structure only as a testament to their own miserliness and shame. They went before the king to demand he stop the construction and order each stone of the stupa to be returned to where it came from. The great king refused, explaining how Jadzima’s request was so astounding that his exclamation of permission (“jarung”) simply slipped from his tongue (khashor). He would not rescind permission for such a virtuous project. This accounts for the stupa’s name in literary Tibetan: Jarung Khashor (“Let it be done,” slipped from the tongue).

For the next four years, construction continued unceasingly until all but the stupa’s dome was completed. Jadzima realized her life was nearing its end, so she gathered her four sons by her side, requesting they complete the stupa, fill it with the relics of all the buddhas, and then perform an extensive consecration. This, she assured them, would provide a field of merit for infinite sentient beings, fulfill her wish and the wishes of the buddhas, and allow for the accomplishment of something vastly meaningful for this and future lives. With these final words, she passed away. The scripture tells us at the moment of her death, music resounded and flowers rained down from a sky filled with streams of rainbow light. These were all signs of her attainment of buddhahood from the virtue she had accumulated.

The sons resolved to fulfill their mother’s vast aspiration and continued their work. After another three years, the stupa was completed. As they placed the life-tree at the structure’s center, thereby fully consecrating the stupa, Buddha Kashyapa along with all the buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions are said to have appeared in the sky before them to celebrate the completion of this great accomplishment. At this moment of consecration, the text states, “From the awakened forms of the gathered buddhas, countless light rays shone so that for three days there seemed no difference between day and night.”


the thirty-eighth Tibetan king, Trisong Detsen
the thirty-eighth Tibetan king, Trisong Detsen

For Jadzima’s vast aspiration having been fulfilled with such pure, altruistic motivation, the assembled buddhas and bodhisattvas promised the four sons that their own individual aspirations would also be fulfilled. The eldest brother, the son of the horse keeper, aspired to be born as king in the northern land of Tibet to establish the teachings of the future Buddha Shakyamuni. He was born as King Trisong Detsen, the royal establisher of the dharma. The son of the swineherd aspired to be born as a pure, fully ordained monk who would uphold the holy monastic order in Tibet. He became the great abbot Shantarakshita, the first abbot of Tibet. The son of the dog keeper aspired to be born as a master of mantra, to thereby tame malevolent forces and help his brothers protect the dharma in Tibet. He was born as Guru Rinpoche, the great tantric master who subdued all of Tibet’s hostile beings through the power of his mantras. The youngest brother, the son of the poultry keeper, realized that his three older brothers might be born in different locations and therefore aspired to be born as one who could connect them and allow them to reunite in their future lives. He was born as the royal minister Nanam Dorje Dudjom, the king’s minister responsible for inviting Guru Rinpoche to Tibet. This, as Guru Rinpoche explained, is how they all came to be gathered at this moment in Samye monastery in Tibet, so many lifetimes after their completion of the Boudha Stupa in Nepal.

As with many mythic stories in the Tibetan tradition, the meaning of the story of Jarung Khashor overrides any obsession with verifiable historical fact. To paraphrase the great literary critic Northrup Frye, no one reads Macbeth to learn about Scottish history, but rather to better understand humanity; the metaphoric truth takes precedence over the literal. The story of Jarung Khashor teaches the unfathomable nature of pure aspiration, which has the power to transform even the humblest of us into great beings capable of vast benefit. Just as Guru Rinpoche recounted this story to generate confidence, faith, and inspiration at the royal court of eighth-century Tibet, Tibetans continue to tell this narrative as proof of the immeasurable power of aspiration, which can cross mountains and lifetimes to benefit others.
Patrick Dowd

About Patrick Dowd
Patrick Dowd is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. His research focuses on the culture of Tibetan language within the world of Tibetan Buddhism. He has spent several years studying, researching, and collaboratively working with Tibetan communities in Tibet, Nepal and India.

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