To Find the Stupa Within

Sajda Van Der Leeuw analyses the Heart Sutra, a Buddhist text featured in the Imagining the Divine exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum.

Durch alle Wesen reicht der eine Raum:
Weltinnenraum. Die Vögel fliegen still
durch uns hindurch. O, der ich wachsen will,
ich seh hinaus, und in mir wächst der Baum.

One single space pervades all beings:
an inner-world-space. The birds fly silently
through us. Oh, I who want to grow,
I look outside, and inside of me grows the tree.

Excerpt, Notebooks, Rainer Maria Rilke


The opening of the Imagining the Divine exhibition this October did not only bring a great number of deeply intriguing objects to the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford, but it also embodies one very important idea.[1] By gathering works of art that are shaped by some of the world’s major religions – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism – into one exhibition space, the visitor of the exhibition seems to be invited to not only look for that which is visible, but also for that which is invisible: that which connects all religions. Moreover, the exhibition is an important reminder that religions have never been completely disconnected from each other, ‘that they were not, and are not, so distinct after all’, thus reminding practitioners of all religions about that ‘what unites us’.[2]

By showing the vibrant exchange of images and ideas between these different religions, this exhibition visually presents a rich and complex answer to the main question that has shaped it: “What is the divine, and how can the divine be imagined – how can it be visualised?” Indeed, this is the question that, in its positive or negative, all of the objects in the exhibition speak to. Yet no artwork could ever give us a full stop answer. Instead, the artworks and objects of the exhibition invite us to come closer, to look longer – they hold the gaze and lead it beyond the object, image, or text. To what, one might ask? What is there beyond the visible and invisible, sayable and unsayable? And, after each artwork has led us further, past its visual imagery or inscriptions, what is left to be said about this “beyond”, this central idea of “the divine”?

One of the objects in the exhibition does formulate a (partially textual) answer to this question, intuiting that which lies beyond the visible and sayable, by means of one single word: Śūnyatā (often translated as “emptiness”, or “voidness”). The object in question is an intimate, calligraphic copy of the Heart Sutra, translated from the original Sanskrit into Chinese by the famous Buddhist traveller Xuanzang (ca. 602-664), which was found along with thousands of other books, manuscripts and scrolls in the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Western China at the beginning of the 20th century (see figure 1).[3]

Figure 1: Chinese translation of the Prajāpāramitāhrdaya – the Heart Sutra
c.9th century, Dunhuang, China. Ink on paper. H.47 cm
The British Library, London. Or.8210/S.4289 recto.

The Heart Sutra is attributed to Siddhārtha Gautama, who is now more commonly known as the Buddha. The Heart Sutra is not only considered one of the most important sutras, but it is also one of the shortest ones (in Sanskrit it has only fourteen lines). Yet when translated into Chinese, it needs 260 characters to be fully expressed, each of which has been hand-painted onto this small scroll (about 47 centimetres long) that is currently on view at the Ashmolean.[4] What makes this object unique, however, is the skilful way in which the content of the sutra has been put into relation with the shape of a stupa. A stupa is a mound-like Buddhist structure that usually takes the shape of a temple or pagoda, in which relics were often interred, yet which remains physically inaccessible to the worshipper (in contrast with a pagoda, although a stupa does also function as a place of meditation in most cases).

Xuanzang’s stupa figure – formed by the handwritten ancient Chinese characters – shows an empty centre in the middle of the text and is flanked by two candle-like ‘pillars’ of four characters, which signify the title of the sutra, and which are crowned by a red flame drawn on top. All the way up, two characters are placed in the central space above the stupa figure, which seem to mean something like “No wisdom, no gain”.[5] Besides the more esoteric meaning of this heading, this might also refer to the person who would try to read the sutra on this scroll, since no one who would not have previous knowledge about the content of the Heart Sutra would know where to start reading it.

In fact, the sutra starts in the middle of the stupa figure, just underneath the empty space that forms its centre, with the first character of the sutra, which means “to see” or “to observe” (see no. 1, figure 2). From there, one is able to follow the almost invisible red-dotted line to the next character and so on, thus being able to read the Heart Sutra, connecting the written characters of the sutra that zigzag through the figure of the stupa, going up and down, and from right to left, until the end (no. 259), which is the character next to the first character of the sutra, underneath the empty central space of the stupa figure.

Sutra scroll with numbers - beginning and end
Figure 2: The Heart Sutra with indicators of the order of the characters superimposed.

Hence, the placement of the Chinese characters, linked together in a specific order by the red-dotted line, clearly conveys an intricate artistic idea, which brings the content of the Heart Sutra (the meaning of this specific sutra) together with the material form of a holy stupa. It is obvious that the placement of the Chinese characters has been done with a lot of consideration for the place of the characters, which often embody a specific location in the overall figure of the stupa. The most important symbolic place, for instance, is given to the character that forms the top of the stupa figure, which is also the 130th character (so halfway through the sutra). This character means “emptiness”, and thus relates back to the central empty space of the stupa figure, as well as linking directly to the content of the Heart Sutra. One sentence of the Heart Sutra famously states that: ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form, so too are feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness’. One therefore has to agree that, as Jaś Elsner has argued, ‘the empty spaces between the characters are as much part of the form of the stupa as the black letters themselves.’[6]

Xuanzang’s idea to combine content and form in such a way that they express this central idea of the Heart Sutra is part of a larger tradition, in which a direct link is visualised between the Buddha-nature and emptiness. The empty centre of the stupa not only alludes to the inner domains of an actual stupa, the place where the holy relics were kept, but it also points to the inner domain or centre to which the Heart Sutra tries to guide its readers: that it is possible to find this “empty space” inside oneself, which would mean that one has to go beyond form and content – to find one’s “Buddha-nature” in the centre of one’s own being. This idea is exemplified by two other, similar sutra scrolls, that were found together with this scroll in Dunhuang, that show a picture of the Buddha drawn-in to the empty middle space (one of which is shown in Figure 3).[7]  Indeed, this iconography is consistent with other, sculptural depictions of the Buddha, who is often shown as seated inside a stupa figure, showing a direct analogy between the notion of Śūnyatā and the Buddha (Figure 4).

Image 3 - Heart Sutra Blog - Talking Religion
Figure 3

Yet how can one transcend these oppositions of form and emptiness, sayable and unsayable, word and image? How can one go beyond the dualistic world and reach that place that the scroll indicates – that place which is often called ‘the divine’? The answer to this question seems to lie in the practical use of this sutra scroll: the way that this object both comments upon and demonstrates the notion of emptiness, thus bringing an experience of that notion alive, albeit levelled to the understanding and experience of the reader of the scroll. After all, an intrinsic part of the scroll is that it was meant to be used – to be recited by a practitioner of Buddhism. If one imagines how this text would, at first sight, have confounded the reader (as it still confounds those who master the ancient Chinese language), and would demand a prolonged look from the person intending to read out the Heart Sutra aloud (as is the Buddhist practice), the significance of the stupa shaped text starts to unfold itself.

Reading this sutra means: to come to a more quiet, inner state, contemplating the object in front. Literally and figuratively, to ‘find a beginning’, both in terms of the text on the scroll, and inside the Buddhist practitioner him-/herself. Symbolically, when the practitioner would have found the beginning of the sutra, underneath the empty central space, (s)he would also have acquired, at that moment, the right inner place to start reading out the sutra. Yet how would this practice lead the practitioner ‘beyond’ this object (the scroll) and the text of the Heart Sutra? How would (s)he be guided onto the path of the divine, towards the empty centre where the Buddha resides?

The Dalai Lama, in a talk given in Taormina, Sicily, Italy on the 16th of September 2017, commented on a stupa statue and his ideas about the stupa, which might give us some insight into these questions. As the Dalai Lama recalled, he visited a Japanese Buddhist centre to attend a celebration of their newly erected stupa – an enormous, newly built structure close to the local temple. Since the Dalai Lama was asked to give a speech at this celebration, he believed it necessary to comment on the essential meaning of the stupa, by saying that: ‘an external stupa is there simply to remind us, because the real stupa needs to develop within our [own] heart.’[8]

Indeed, the same can be said about our object and how its external form relates to the intrinsic meaning of the Heart Sutra: its form is there only as a reminder that, if one follows the path, one is able to go beyond form and thought, word and image. One can reach the centre of the stupa inside oneself: to uncover that surging emptiness that urges one to become connected, to go beyond thoughts and ideas, to tame the mind so that one’s own Buddha-nature is shown. It is a divine emptiness in which individual personality (the idea of ‘I’) gets transformed and starts to take part in a collectively shared ‘inner-world-space’ (Rilke). Indeed, it could be said that it is that space, to which the artworks and objects in the Imagining the Divine exhibition seem to point: the space which connects all religions (the etymological origin, religare, signifying this capacity to connect). Inside this space, there are only shared values, like love, trust, and forgiveness – the birds of hope that connect us to the eternal essence of humanity. It is there that life begins.

figure 4
Figure 4: Votive plaque showing the Buddha seated inside a stupa. Ashmolean Museum EAX.417. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.





[1] I would like to thank my friend, Dr. Dan Du of the University of Georgia, United States of America, for her time to help me with deciphering the order of the Chinese characters of the Heart Sutra Scroll, the Buddhist object that is the main focus of this essay.

[2] Lizzy Diggins, ‘Imagining the Divine Review – Engrossing and Important’, Cherwell, October 30, 2017.

[3] See Jaś Elsner, ‘Word as Image’, in: Imagining the Divine, exhibition catalogue, p. 80-85.

[4] In fact, this scroll only shows 259 characters, and I would like to thank Jaś Elsner, who pointed out that number 22 and 223 are ‘fake’ characters, which are put in to hold the structure together. Which three characters are ‘missing’ is thus a question not yet answered.

[5] Translated into English by Dr. Dan Du of the University of Georgia, United States of America.

[6] Jaś Elsner, ‘Word as Image’, in: Imagining the Divine, exhibition catalogue, p. 80-85.

[7] In fact, this scroll was one of four that all seem to have been arranged on the same model. This one is accompanied by another scroll, also with an empty centre, as part of the British Library, while there are also two scrolls (both with a painted Buddha figure in the middle) in the Bilbiothèque Nationale de France. These four scrolls were all found at the same spot in Dunhuang. I am indebted here to Jaś Elsner, who writes in his article ‘Space/object/landscape: Reflections on the Sacro-Idyllic in Roman Painting’ (forthcoming), that it is unclear if these deities were drawn later inside the empty centre of the scrolls or if they are of the same date as the written characters.

[8] Dalai Lama, speech in Taormina, Sicily, Italy, 16th of September 2017.

One thought on “To Find the Stupa Within

  1. Good early morning, This essay and inner look at what begs individuals in communication with differing religious theologies to hopefully find a means of comparative meditation, to resolve the inconvenience of closed religious theologies and or topics the various religious bodies have acquired and expect adherence to these doctrinal views, sometimes limiting the outlook to what Empires of Faith blogs, essayists and lecturers have been hypothesizing on. The entrance into a more generous and open discussion on world religious beliefs formed through out the centuries of mankind in various regions of the development of these cultures and or identities of communities – countries or sections of historic life. China, Middle East, Cradle of
    Civilization… ?
    My sister’s grandchildren are Buddhist but their father is a Evangelical Christian USA citizen, the children are Thai Americans. I have not met them, nor have I understood Buddhism, but this essay has been very influential in determining my desire to understand these two young children and their differences in education and religious background they are 7 and 9 years old and live in Thailand. My sister tells me of her time three months visit to her home in Bangkok and the Buddhist temples and lifestyles. I only feel limited by not understanding. Thanks, atk

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