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Embodying the Dharma

Buddhist Relic Veneration in Asia

Edited by David Germano and Kevin Trainor



Buddhist Relic Veneration in Asia

Edited by


State University of New York Press

Published by


© 2004 State University of New York

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Embodying the Dharma : Buddhist relic veneration in Asia / edited by David Germano and Kevin Trainor. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-7914-6217-X 1. Gautama Buddha—Relics. I. Germano, David. II. Trainor, Kevin.

BQ924.E43 2004













for Sonam


and Lhamokyi

D. G.

for Anne

and Andrew

K. T.






Introduction: Beyond Superstition Kevin Trainor



Buddhist Relics in Comparative Perspective:

Beyond the Parallels John S. Strong



Living Relics of the Buddha(s) in Tibet David Germano



Buddhist Relics and Japanese Regalia Bernard Faure



The Field of the Buddha’s Presence Jacob N. Kinnard



Signs of the Buddha in Northern Thai Chronicles Donald K. Swearer



On the Allure of Buddhist Relics Robert H. Sharf





We would like to thank the American Academy of Religion for support- ing the Buddhist Relic Veneration Seminar, 1994–1997. Thanks are due, as well, to all the seminar participants, including Yael Bentor, Robert Campany, Steven Collins, Bernard Faure, Charles Hallisey, Jacob Kin- nard, Susanne Mrozik, Brian Ruppert, Juliane Schober, Gregory Schopen, Robert Sharf, John Strong, Donald Swearer, and Stanley Tam- biah. We would also like to thank Nancy Ellegate, Laurie Searl, and the State University of New York Press for their assistance and the two anonymous reviewers who provided several helpful suggestions for improving the volume. We are also grateful to the University of Vermont Asian Studies Pro- gram for their support, and to the University of Virginia and the Tibetan and Himalyan Digital Library for hosting the Buddhist Relic Traditions Web site developed in conjunction with this volume (URL:http://iris. Robert Sharf’s essay, “On the Allure of Buddhist Relics,” was pub- lished under the same title in Representations 66 (Spring 1999): 75–99, and is © 1999 by the Regents of the University of California. It is reprinted by permission of University of California Press. An earlier version of Donald Swearer’s essay, “Signs of the Buddha in the Northern Thai Chronicles,” was published in Wannakam Phutasasana\ \ Nai Lanna\ \ (Buddhist literature in northern Thailand), ed. Phanphen Khru’ngthai\ (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1996). It appears here by per- mission of Silk Worm Press.




The treasuring of relics as memorials or souvenirs of the dead is a natural exhibition of emotion to which no objection can be taken, but, when the relics are believed to possess intrinsic magical properties, the veneration of them passes into rank superstition, open to every kind of abuse and fraud. The transition from the sentimental to the superstitious veneration of relics invariably takes place in all countries, so that the innocent senti- ment is forgotten while the superstition develops a vast mythology. 3

Both MacCulloch and Smith found it appropriate to evaluate norma- tively beliefs and practices centered on relics, and both concluded that relics, on the whole, tend to do much more harm than good. It is also sig- nificant that both scholars, in disparaging relic veneration, employed “superstition,” a word that contemporary scholars of religion tend to eschew, at least in their published reflections. The connotations of the cat- egory “superstition,” and the shift in interpretive perspectives that has led to its abandonment as a legitimate analytical term, merit further consider- ation here, since they reveal a good deal about the circumstances that gave rise to this book on Buddhist relic veneration and the shift in scholarly ori- entation to which it contributes. The etymology of superstitio, the Latin word from which the English superstition derives, is a matter of some debate, and scholarly attention has recently focused on uses of the word by both pagan and Christian writ- ers in the centuries before and after the rise of the Christian movement. Michele Salzman provides an overview of the etymological discussion, noting that scholars have identified a range of early meanings of the term, including “a state of religious exaltation,” the posture of one standing over a defeated opponent, and the condition of one who has survived an event and become a witness, all of which can be derived from the basic sense of “standing over.” 4 By the first century BCE, the word had developed strong negative connotations and was employed to criticize “excessive fear or awe of the gods” or “an unreasonable religious belief.” 5 The term eventually gained juridical force, and Christianity was persecuted as a superstitio. While scholars disagree about the precise reasons for Christian persecution, L. F. Janssen notes that Christianity was seen as an affront to the Roman social order in several respects. By seeking an individual salvation that superceded familial and social bonds, and by refusing to venerate the gods that ensured the integrity and longevity of Roman society, Chris- tians marked themselves as a community apart, one easily seen as sub- versive. 6 During the fourth-century Christianization of the Roman Empire, ‘superstitio,’ while consistently used to critique the beliefs and



practices of those beyond the pale of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, was interpreted differently by pagans and Christians. As Salzman observes, “pagans used and defined superstitio with its traditional meaning—irra- tional or excessive religious awe, credulity, divination, magic—but their Christian contemporaries used superstitio to mean the morally incorrect beliefs of pagans.” 7 When the authority of the Christian church was more securely established at the end of the fourth and early fifth centuries, ‘superstitio’ was used in the Theodosian Code to legislate against pagans, Jews, and Christian heretics. 8 As this brief overview suggests, ‘superstition’ meant different things to different people in antiquity. What remained constant was the use of the word to mark and defend communal boundaries. Those deemed supersti- tious were liable to exclusion, either because of disordered affections or cognitive error. Thus a person or group could be branded superstitious both because of an excess of emotion and for attaching a laudable emotion to the wrong object. In early English-language usage, the term was fre- quently employed by Protestant reformers to characterize Catholic clerics and the rituals over which they officiated. For example, in Thomas Nor- ton’s 1561 translation of Calvin’s Institutes, the great reformer asks:

“Shall we denie that it is a superstitious worshippying, when men do throwe themselues downe before bread, to worship Christe therein?” 9 In this instance, Catholics are criticized for misdirecting their commendable devotional sentiments. Instead of attaching them to Christ, their appropri- ate object, they direct them to the eucharistic bread, falsely believing that Christ is somehow directly and materially present in the consecrated host. Here the problem is cognitive: for Calvin there are neither biblical nor epistemological grounds for worshipping the communion bread. In the context of Reformation polemics such as this, ‘superstition’ is employed to distinguish between false and true religion, thus defining membership in the community of the faithful. In the eighteenth century, those espousing Enlightenment ideals used the term to criticize religious belief and practice more broadly. In this latter context, strong emotion could be seen as intrinsically harmful to the exercise of human reason, with the disciplines of science and philosophy providing the most effec- tive remedy. Thus Adam Smith, commenting on the importance of public education in a well-ordered state, observes in his Wealth of Nations: “Sci- ence is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition; and where all the superior ranks of people were secured from it, the inferior ranks could not be much exposed to it.” 10 David Hume likewise warns of the dangers of enthusiasm and superstition, both of which he attributes to



human emotions and ignorance, but he also identifies a key difference between the two. Superstition, in contrast to enthusiasm, is much more favorable to the rise of “priestly power.” He notes: “As superstition is a considerable ingredient in almost all religions, even the most fanatical; there being nothing but philosophy able entirely to conquer these unac- countable terrors; hence it proceeds, that in almost every sect of religion there are priests to be found: But the stronger the mixture there is of superstition, the higher the authority of the priesthood.” 11 In these Enlightenment critiques of superstition, we see the emergence of another community, one critical of religious belief, emotion, and practice in gen- eral and in search of rational explanations for “superstitious” religious behavior. Once again, ‘superstition’ serves to mark those outside the community. In this case the criterion of membership is not some particu- lar form of religion but instead is a commitment to a rational and empir- ical mode of inquiry. The modern community of scholars standing within this tradition of Enlightenment thought forms the immediate context for understanding why Buddhist relic veneration has until the last fifteen years or so received scant attention from scholars of religion. Nineteenth-century scholarship on Buddhism tended to minimize the important role that relic veneration played in the history of Buddhist traditions throughout Asia or, when it was noted, to represent it as evidence of the popularization and decline of the Buddha’s original teachings. This narrative of popularization and decline finds vivid expression in the writing of T. W. Rhys Davids, an early scholar of Buddhism whose work was very influential, among both academics and the broader public. 12 Writing a century ago in the North American Review, Rhys Davids draws upon the image of the Hindu festi- val of Jagannatha in Puri to illustrate the decline of the Buddha’s teaching under the force of popular superstition. Noting the forgotten heritage of Buddhist teaching in the region, he contrasts the philosophical and ethical purity of early Buddhist teaching with what he regards as the devotional excesses of Hinduism. Where Buddhist teaching counsels self-restraint and nonviolence, the cult of Jagannatha whips up a frenzy of devotional fervor that sometimes results in the death of pious devotees who throw themselves beneath the wheels of the gigantic processional chariots in the hopes of liberation. He writes:

When we call to mind how the frenzied multitudes, drunk with the lus- cious poison of delusions, from which the reformation they had rejected might have saved them, dragged on that sacred car, heavy and hideous



with carvings of obscenity and cruelty—dragged it on in the very name of Jagan-natha, the forgotten teacher of self-control, of enlightenment and of universal love, while it creaked and crushed over the bodies of miserable suicides, the victims of once exploded superstitions—it will help us to realize how heavy is the hand of the immeasurable past; how much more powerful than the voice of the prophets is the influence of congenial fancies, and of inherited beliefs. 13

Here, the linkage between emotional excess and superstition comes to the fore, as Rhys Davids mourns the decline in rationality that, in his view, attended the adoption of Buddhism by the great emperor Aóoka in the third century BCE under whose patronage Buddhism expanded and gained broader popular influence, a time he characterizes as “the beginning of the end.” Drawing a parallel between the broad historical trajectories of Christianity and Buddhism after they were adapted to the needs of empire and their membership expanded exponentially, he depicts the decline as inevitable. Like many other nineteenth-century scholars of Buddhism, he also compares Buddhism with Hinduism. Where Buddhism is for him, at least in its original form, characterized by rational analysis and emotional restraint, Hinduism is marked by ritual and displays of emotion. Such comparisons contributed to the tendency to downplay the role of devotion and ritual in early, “authentic” Buddhism. Rhys Davids concludes his survey of Buddhism on a more positive note, however, pointing to signs of a Buddhist revival in Asia, particularly in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), a revival connected to the recovery of the authentic Buddhist textual tradition. This revival was in part a response to attacks on Buddhism disseminated through an active cam- paign of Christian missionary propaganda. Segments of both the lay and monastic communities in Ceylon took up the challenge and, beginning in the 1860s, began to publish their own literature to rebut Christian attacks on Buddhist teachings. 14 The conflict also gave rise to a series of widely publicized debates between Buddhist monks and missionaries, one of which drew the attention of Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, one of the founders of the Theosophical Society. Olcott played a formative role in efforts to establish a system of Buddhist education, and the curriculum in these schools was deeply influenced by European and American represen- tations of Buddhism dependent upon textually based reconstructions of the Buddha’s original teachings. Rhys Davids writes:

Books in manuscript, on the time-honored palm leaves, had been deemed enough when their position was not attacked. Now they are



printing and circulating their books, as the Christians do; they are found- ing schools for both sexes; they are establishing boards of education, even high schools and colleges; and their sacred books, no longer left only in the hands of student recluses, are printed and circulated at

On the other hand, the labors of European and American scholars are making accessible, also on this side, the ancient texts, and are even beginning to translate them in to European languages, and to analyze and summarize their contents. Though the Buddhists do not in the least agree with us, whose aim is not controversial at all, but only historical, they are beginning not only to make such use as suits them of our results, but to imitate our methods. 15

We can see an analogous disparagement of Buddhist ritual in contrast to supposedly more authentic forms of Buddhism in the work of Paul Carus, who, like Rhys Davids, had a powerful influence on popular views of Bud- dhism in Europe and North America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Carus’ interest in Buddhism was greatly stimulated by the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, a forum in which representa- tives of Buddhism, including the charismatic Sri Lankan Buddhist reformer Anagarika Dharmapala and the Japanese Rinzai Zen master Soyen Shaku, addressed overflowing audiences who knew little of the complexity and diversity of Buddhist traditions. Carus, who held a doctorate in classical philology from the University of Tübingen, never held a university position; he was, however, a prolific author whose writings, especially his Gospel of Buddhism, exercised a great influence in the United States and abroad. 16 While Carus never formally converted to Buddhism, he found its teachings in large part consonant with the evolving “science of religion” that he advo- cated. In addition to popularizing Buddhist teachings through his own writ- ings, he published the work of many Buddhists under the auspices of the Open Court Publishing Company and in The Open Court, the journal he edited, which aimed at “conciliating Religion with Science.” 17 He also main- tained an extensive correspondence with Buddhists in Asia and materially supported their missionizing in the United States. 18 Carus’ correspondence with the Sri Lankan monk and Sanskritist, the Venerable Alutgama Seelakkhandha, illuminates the distinctive character of his personal enthusiasm for Buddhism, as well as its limits. After Ven. Seelakkhandha offered to send Carus some relics of the Buddha, Carus communicated his ambivalence toward the Buddhist practice of venerat- ing the Buddha’s material remains. He notes in his letter that he would welcome a relic because it “would show me the reverence in which the



Ceylonese hold their master and his saints” but asks that the monk provide specific information about the relic, including where it was discovered; he also promises to provide a more detailed statement of his views on relic veneration. He writes again the next day with a lengthy clarification of his position, expressing his concern that the gift will deprive Ven. See- lakkhanda of a treasured devotional object for the sake of one who would “value these relics for historical reasons only.” He continues:

According to my conception of Buddhism the most sacred relics we have of the Buddha and his saints are the words which they left,—the su\tras and all those ideas which we verify in our own experience as valu- able truths. Words, thoughts, and ideas are not material things, they are

ideal possessions, they are spiritual. It is true that they are transferred by material means in books and MSS. and by the vibrations of sounds, but

it is not the book or the MS. or the sound waves that are sacred, but the

ideas which are conveyed by them. Thus, all the treasures which I regard


holy are of a spiritual kind, and not of a material kind. The worship


relics, be they bones, hair, teeth, or any other material of the body of


saint, is a mistake. They do not possess any other value than the

remains of ordinary mortals. The soul of Buddha is not in his bones, but

in his words, and I regard relic-worship as an incomplete stage of reli-

gious worship in which devotees have not as yet attained to fulll [sic] philosophical clearness. Now certainly it is of interest to me to have evi- dences of the religious zeal of Buddhists. The keeping of sacred relics is a symptom of their devotion, but that is all I see in the use of relics. 19

Ven. Seelakkhandha remained undeterred; he sent not only relics but also a detailed response to Carus’ views on relic veneration. Carus pub- lished a revised version of that response in The Open Court under the title, “A Buddhist Priest’s View of Relics.” In this article, Ven. Seelakkhandha provides an overview of Sri Lankan Buddhist views of relic veneration. Regarding the relic that he sent to Carus, he writes:

The relic I am sending you is one thus obtained from the ruins of a Dageba at A[nuradha]pura and has been kept with me with great vener-

ation,—offering flowers, incense, etc., morn and eve. I believe this to be

a genuine relic of the Buddha. We reverence Buddha’s relics as a mark


gratitude to Him who showed us the way to salvation and as a token


remembrance of the many personal virtues (bhagavat, arhat samyak-

sambuddha) which His life illustrated; and those of His disciples (i.e., Rahats) for similar reasons, and also to keep us reminded of their noble exemplary lives as results of Lord Buddha’s invaluable doctrine. 20



This exchange effectively illustrates the complex intercultural negoti- ation of authority and meaning that characterized the attempts of nine- teenth- and early twentieth-century European and American scholars to understand and represent Buddhism. Western scholars depended heavily on the assistance of Buddhist monks to gain access to Buddhist texts and to master the languages in which they were written. At the same time, these scholars worked within a cultural milieu imbued with a profound confidence in the power of reason and scientific inquiry to uncover the truth, a milieu deeply shaped by the history of the conflict between reli- gion and reason, and they saw themselves as heirs to a tradition of critical inquiry that put them in a privileged position to uncover the Buddha’s original teachings on the basis of philological and historical analysis. Moreover, the picture of early Buddhism that was emerging from their studies of Buddhist scriptures seemed to reveal a philosophical orientation and a mode of emotionally detached analysis that resonated sympatheti- cally with the moral and intellectual discipline of Western academic cul- ture. Buddhist relic veneration therefore elicited a kind of cognitive dis- sonance. The role of relics in fostering an emotional attachment to the person of the Buddha and the ritualism to which they gave rise, to say nothing of the miraculous powers attributed to them, seemed out of char- acter with what these scholars regarded as the most profound and admirable ideals of the Buddha’s original teaching. Such practices could easily be regarded as, in Rhys Davids’ case, evidence of the historical cor- ruption of the tradition under the influence of popular weakness and prej- udice, or as, in the case of Paul Carus, examples of “an incomplete stage of religious worship.” In other words, they were superstitious. They were judged inauthentic, either on the grounds that they were not part of the Buddha’s original teaching or because they appeared incompatible with the norms of an evolving science of religion. In effect, both Rhys Davids and Carus sought to explain relic venera- tion away rather than elucidate its role in the history of Buddhism and in the Buddhist communities of their day. This perceived incompatibility between the reconstructed origins of the Buddhist tradition and ritualized devotion to the Buddha’s bodily remains has defined, until the last fifteen years or so, the basic discourse within which relic veneration has been interpreted and has, in many cases, led scholars to simply ignore the prac- tice altogether in their accounts of Buddhism. At the same time, it must be noted that there is some evidence of ambivalence toward relic veneration within early Buddhist tradition itself. In the Maha\parinibba\na-sutta, a locus classicus for discussions of Buddhist relic veneration, one finds pas-



sages nestled together that seem to provide contradictory perspectives on the value of relic veneration and who should engage in it. Consider, for example, the scene in which the Buddha has just settled himself between the twin sala\ trees at Kusinara\ \where he will attain his ulti- mate passing away from the cycle of rebirth. The sala\ trees are in blossom out of season, showering down sala\ flowers upon the Buddha, along with mandara\ blossoms, sandalwood powder and heavenly music. The text describes these as a form of offering (tathagatassa\ puja\ ya)\ . In response the Buddha informs Ananda| that these sorts of offerings fall short of the high- est form of honor and veneration, defined as “the monk or nun or male or female lay-disciple who lives following the Dhamma in its fullness, fol- lowing the proper way of life, walking according to the Dhamma.” 21 The commentary elucidates this statement with a quotation from the Buddha, who says that he did not make the resolution to become a Bud- dha at the feet of Dipanækara Buddha for the sake of garlands, scents, music, and song. The commentary observes that if the Buddha had not objected to this sort of offering, characterized as “worship with material things” (amisa-pu\ \ja\), his followers would not have perfected moral virtue, concentration and insight, but instead would have occupied themselves with worshipping. It notes that not even a thousand monasteries equal to the Maha\viha\ra, nor a thousand cetiyas equal to the Maha\cetiya, 22 would be adequate support for the well-being of the sa\sana (Buddhist teachings and institutions). It thus concludes: “Now right practice is proper worship for the Tatha\gata, and surely it is laid down by him and is able to support the sa\sana.” 23 A little later in the Maha\parinibba\na-sutta, we find a discussion of what should be done with the Buddha’s body after he has passed away, and the Buddha states explicitly that his remains should be cremated in a manner befitting a great universal monarch (cakkavattin). This includes elaborate rites for preparing the body, cremation, and the erection of relic monuments (thu\pas) in public places to enshrine the remaining relics. He concludes: “Those who there offer a garland, or scent, or paint, or make a salutation, or feel serene joy in their heart, that will be to their benefit and well-being for a long time.” 24 Yet even as this passage seems to recom- mend the value of relic veneration, it appears to enforce a clear separation between the roles of sangha members and the laity in funeral preparations. For the Buddha also addresses the following words to his faithful atten- dant A|nanda: “Do not trouble yourselves, A|nanda, with sarêra-pu\ja\of the Tatha\gata; rouse yourselves, A|nanda, strive for the highest goal, attend to the highest goal, live heedful, zealous, resolute on the highest goal. There



are wise nobles, wise brahmans and wise householders who are devoted to the Tatha\gata; they will perform sarêra-pu\ja\of the Tatha\gata.” 25 This passage has typically been interpreted as evidence that members of the earliest Theravada sangha were initially prohibited from participat- ing in relic veneration. The evidence for this is in part negative: the Ther- avada Vinaya (monastic code), in contrast to the Vinayas of some other Buddhist fraternities, says nothing about relic veneration. 26 The problem, again, is the presence of contradictory evidence, for the Mahaparinibba\ na-\ sutta also provides a detailed account of the role of the great elder Mahakassapa\ in the cremation ceremony. When the Mallas attempt to light the funeral pyre, they are obstructed by the devas in attendance until Mahakassapa\ and his entourage of five hundred monks arrive on the scene. Mahakassapa\ venerates the Buddha’s body by placing his head on the Buddha’s feet, which, according to the commentary, miraculously emerge from their coverings. The funeral pyre then spontaneously ignites. Appar- ently, in this instance, Mahakassapa’s\ devotion to the Buddha’s body is deemed appropriate, even though he is both a monk and an arahant. 27 Once again, the text seems to juxtapose contradictory perspectives on the appropriateness of relic veneration for members of the sangha. Taken together, these passages can be read as evidence that authoritative Ther- avada tradition both affirmed the value of relic veneration and at the same time cautioned that it should not be the primary preoccupation of members of the sangha. This is hardly a rejection of the practice altogether, how- ever, and the hypothesis that members of the sangha were prohibited from participating in relic veneration goes well beyond the evidence. In some respects, we can see a parallel between the theory that sangha members were explicitly prohibited from participation in the relic cult and the widely accepted hypothesis that there was for centuries a prohibition against representing the body of the Buddha in paintings and images, what is generally called the “aniconic” period in early Buddhism. Here again part of the evidence is negative: no images survive from the first several centuries of the Buddhist movement. This, coupled with early representa- tions that depict the Buddha’s physical presence through symbols such as a royal umbrella or his throne of enlightenment, led to the widely accepted assertion that early Buddhists were prohibited from representing his bod- ily form out of respect for his nirvanic status. As with the dubious asser- tion that early Buddhist monks and nuns were initially prohibited from participating in relic veneration, however, the theory of an aniconic period is driven more by presumed doctrinal ideals than by compelling material evidence. 28 Indeed, when the centrality of the practice of relic veneration



during this period is taken into account, the existence of a prohibition against representing his physical body seems even less likely. The reexamination of both the role of relic veneration and of the so- called aniconic period in early Buddhism can be seen as aspects of a wider reorientation taking place in Buddhist studies, a reorientation that is reshaping the study of religion more generally. As the art historian David Morgan has noted, scholars of religion are increasingly turning their atten- tion to “visual culture.” 29 This interest in the visual diverges from the long- standing attention devoted to art and architecture by earlier generations of scholars in that it attempts to integrate material objects more fully into their social and cultural contexts at the local level. This integrative approach includes increased attention to how these objects and their atten- dant rituals orchestrate cognitive and affective dimensions of experience and to their role in articulating a wide range of power relationships, including social class, gender, and dynamics of colonial interaction. Con- sider, for example, how different a Buddhist reliquary appears when viewed in a museum display case and when seen upon the head of a lay donor carrying it in an enshrinement procession to the empty relic cham- ber of a new stupa where it will soon be permanently enclosed (see figure 1.1). In contrast to appproaches that have highlighted the particular fea- tures of isolated artifacts in relation to idealized aesthetic norms or as examples of historically and culturally delimited styles, the study of visual culture helps to illuminate the role that particular objects play in shaping the dynamics of local power relations. Such an approach turns our atten- tion to the fact that both the display case and the stupa take their respec- tive places within and through a set of ritualized cultural practices. Each culturally privileged location lends itself, as well, to distinctive forms of knowledge and meaning. What might be called the “rematerializing” of religion through increased attention to the bodies of religious practitioners and their ritual- ized interactions with material objects has taken place alongside a move- ment of theoretical deconstruction that has rendered increasingly suspect the categories of “religion” and the “religions.” If the discipline of reli- gious studies could once be seen as clearly defined by the privileging of a unique experience (e.g., the “numinous”) or a distinctive interpretive cat- egory (e.g., the “sacred”), this is no longer the case, and there is consider- able disagreement within the field about what, if anything, sets scholars of religion apart from those who study religion from within the disciplines of history, sociology, or anthropology. In addition, the “religions” (e.g., Bud- dhism, Islam, Christianity), once commonly defined by abstract belief


procession on the right is an elder monk, and on the left, a young layman standing in for his father , a wealthy contributor who wasthe unable to participate in the procession. Out of respect the young man holds the reliquary on the top of his head, th e symboli-physically highest and purest part of the body. Both the monastic and lay communities are represented here; the former group typical ly acquirescally


by Kevinwhile

latter group is responsible for construction of the relic monument. Photographfor


the relics

(da\ gaba in Sinhala)FIGURE 1.1. A inrelic southernenshrinement Sri Lanka,procession 1985. At thefor heada new
(da\ gaba in Sinhala)FIGURE
1.1. A
Sri Lanka,procession
1985. At thefor
new relic



systems derived from canonical scriptures, are now increasingly frag- mented along the fault lines of regional and local cultures. Relic veneration as a focus of study provides an advantageous position from which to view the shifting boundaries of the discipline of Buddhist studies. On the one hand, it lends itself to broad comparative analyses, since many religious traditions include some variation on the practice of venerating the bodily remains of the “special dead.” 30 On the other hand, attention to specific relics, that is, the actual objects that are the focus of veneration, invites careful attention to local histories and to the interplay of social and cultural forces within a relatively circumscribed field. For example, Buddhist relic veneration can be investigated as a dis- tinctive form within a broader set of religious practices organized around the material remains (corporeal relics) and material representations (images) of authoritative religious figures. Following this line of inquiry, one could, for example, compare Buddhist and Christian relic practices with an eye toward illuminating important differences between the two traditions (an approach developed by John Strong in this volume). Or one could examine the category of “relic” itself as a means of highlighting cul- tural differences between Euro-American scholars and the Asian traditions that they study (see the chapter by Robert Sharf). One can also frame a comparative analysis in a manner that high- lights points of similarity between different traditions. For example, it is precisely the materiality of relics that makes them such useful and effec- tive signifiers of authoritative presence, for both practitioners and schol- ars. As material objects they lend themselves to particular strategies of consolidation, dissemination, and controlled access and thus have fre- quently been employed by ruling elites, both lay and monastic, to further their respective interests (see figure 1.1). At the same time, relics and the structures that enshrine them provide the archeologist and historian with empirical data, and scholars are increasingly following the “relic trail” in their attempts to chart the ebb and flow of power relations in Buddhist societies (see the chapters by David Germano and Bernard Faure in this volume). Relics have also served to articulate a distinctive Buddhist geography punctuated with cultic centers and tied together by pilgrimage routes and have played a key role in the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia (see Donald Swearer’s chapter) and, more recently, into Europe and North America. If relics have furthered the construction of a meaningful and coherent Buddhist landscape, they have also defined particular kinds of relation- ships to the past and future. It was a common trope of nineteenth-century



scholarship on “the East” to contrast the “Western” sense of history with its absence in South Asia. It is interesting to note how Buddhist relic tra- ditions relate to this discourse of historical consciousness. There are, for example, aspects of Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition that suggest a prefer- ence for the repetition of timeless patterns in the biographies of various Buddhas and the histories of their relics. Even the Theravada tradition, so often contrasted with the Mahayana because of its attachment to the his- torical Buddha Gotama, identifies him as only the most recent in a long line of previous Buddhas and highlights the common features in the lives of all Buddhas, past and future. Likewise, the Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka (the Maha\vamsa) records that Gotama’s relics were enshrined at precisely the location where the relics of three previous Buddhas were preserved. 31 In contrast to these ways in which relics appear to emphasize repetition of static patterns, Buddha relics have also served as signifiers of the transient and corruptible nature of the bodies of individual Buddhas whose corporeal remains arise and disappear. In Theravada tradition, the disappearance of a particular Buddha’s relics, along with the memory of his teachings, provides the necessary conditions for the arising of the next Buddha. In the case of Gotama, it has become an accepted tradition that his teachings and relics will last five thousand years after his final passing away. At the end of this period, his relics are expected to depart from their places of enshrinement throughout the world and congregate at Bodh- gaya, the place of his enlightenment. There the relics will assemble in the shape of Gotama’s body, rise up in the air, and spontaneously combust, disappearing once and for all from the samsaric realm. Even if this event is itself a particular instance of a broader pattern of how Buddhas arise and disintegrate, the material remains themselves are unique and perishable (see figure 1.2). And, until their climactic reassembly and disappearance, they are tangible points of connection to the person of Gotama Buddha. As such, these relics are regarded as effectively equivalent to the liv- ing presence of the Buddha for the purposes of devotion and gaining merit. As Jacob Kinnard observes in his chapter, relics enable a particular kind of relationship to the past teacher. Their tangible presence in cultic sites, sites which are themselves part of a broad cultural network of polit- ical and economic forces, brings the present-day Buddhist devotee into the past time of the Buddha. It is precisely through these “memory-sites” 32 that Buddhists are reminded of what the Buddha did for them and are able to express through their ritual performances an appropriate sense of their dependence upon and gratitude toward him. These acts, in turn, are under- stood to create a future set of possibilities. The meritorious deeds (karma)


passing away, all the Buddha’s bodily relics will travel from the places where they have been enshrined and reassemble in the formfinal

in southern Sri Lanka in 1985. The chief monk informed me that these were donated by other monks when they learned that h isument


Gotama Buddha’to

years afterAccording





by Kevinbursting

one Theravadawas

flame and disappearing forever. Photographhis



body before


FIGURE 1.2. A collection of bodily relics the Buddha and the saints,” that is, arahants,
FIGURE 1.2. A collection of bodily relics
the Buddha and the saints,” that is, arahants, prior to their enshrinement in a new relic mon-“of



and their accompanying moods and motivations are expected to shape the devotee’s future in such a way that he or she in a future rebirth will encounter the living presence of the next Buddha. These relic enshrine- ments are, in addition, memory-sites of a different sort for archeologists and historians who make use of them as evidence for reconstructing the history of Buddhism. Many of the issues related to relic veneration that are highlighted in this volume are also relevant to sculptures and paintings of the Buddha. Jacob Kinnard’s essay, in particular, examines the relationship between physical objects connected with the bodies of Buddhas (body parts and things with which they came into physical contact) and physical represen- tations of Buddhas. There are clearly a number of salient differences between these two basic ways of representing Buddhas. For example, relics are typically hidden away in relic monuments or reliquaries and images are usually open to view. Moreover, the means through which relics and images are produced and gain authority are quite different. It is the physical continuity of a bodily relic or relic of use with the body of a Buddha that defines its venerability. While in practice bodily relics might seem to proliferate almost without limit, they are in principle numerically finite and thus subject to a kind of inherent material scarcity. Images are subject to no such material constraints; they can be manufactured end- lessly as long as they bear the appropriate iconographical features, and consequently they lend themselves to different strategies of production and control. And, as Robert Sharf notes in his chapter, relics and images have quite different aesthetic qualities. Despite these important differences, however, relics and images share a number of striking similarities. First of all, both relics and images are among the primary material means through which Buddhas continue to be “embodied” after their passing away, and thus they fit our general theme of “embodying the Dharma.” This fact is reflected in the classic Ther- avada taxonomy of venerable “memorials” (cetiyas in Pa\li, caityas in San- skrit), which differentiates three distinct categories: those containing bod- ily relics, those defined by relics of use, and those that are “commemorative” (a category identified with images); this classification first appears in the fifth-century CE Pa\li commentaries. 33 Second, some images contain bodily relics and could thus be classified under more than one category of material mediation. Even when images do not actually incorporate bodily relics, they are commonly located within temple com- plexes alongside relic monuments, and both are typically the focus of devotional rituals. In this respect, images, like bodily relics and relics of



use, lend themselves to defining particular spaces that are associated with the presence of Buddhas, spaces that evoke and orchestrate devotional attitudes and behaviors. The study of images alongside relics thus high- lights some of the distinctive ways in which both Buddhist studies and the study of religion are increasingly shaped by efforts to rematerialize their subject matter through a focus on embodiment. It was in response to some of these interpretive shifts within the dis- ciplines of religion and Buddhist studies that David Germano and I orga- nized a multiyear seminar on Buddhist relic veneration under the auspices of the American Academy of Religion. The seminar met four successive years during annual AAR conferences beginning in 1994, with fifteen scholars contributing papers. The present volume is comprised of seven of those essays in revised form. This volume is, to date, the only extended analysis of Buddhist relic veneration bringing together contributions from scholars exploring a broad diversity of Buddhist cultural traditions, including India (Kinnard), Thailand (Swearer), Tibet (Germano), Japan (Faure), as well as essays framed primarily in comparative and theoretical terms (this introduction, Sharf, Strong). The chapters in this text also span a wide range of historical periods and reflect a variety of theoretical approaches. While there are many ways these pieces could be thematized and compared, for instance, on the basis of regional focus, sectarian affil- iation, or historical period, I will discuss them under the following rubrics:

taxonomies, royal appropriations, performative presences, textualizations, and comparisons.


The central concern of David Germano’s chapter, “Living Relics of the Buddha(s) in Tibet,” is the classification of material objects and their rela- tionship to fundamental Buddhist doctrines on the intrinsic Buddha-nature of all beings in the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Toward this end, Germano examines texts from the eleventh- century Seminal Heart (snying thig) tantric literature, as well as the writ- ings of Longchenpa (kLong chen pa), who systematized the tradition in the fourteenth century. Germano identifies a general heightening of what he terms “funerary Buddhism” as one moves from the early Great Perfec- tion literature, where funerary practices are “aestheticized” by rendering them less corporeal, into later strata of the textual tradition where one finds elaborate correlations between meditational attainments and a wide range of embodied physical signs and corporeal remains.



These manifestations are ultimately grounded in Seminal Heart teach- ings about the presence of the Buddha-nature in all things. Germano details how this Buddha-nature manifests itself within the consciousness of religious adepts and imprints itself on their bodies, giving rise after their deaths to small spheres that continue to multiply. These bodily signs are not merely the continuing presence of departed saints; they are, as well, manifestations of the ongoing process of religious realization within the bodies of those striving for enlightenment. Such ideas and practices should not be regarded as merely the remnants of an ancient textual tradi- tion; Germano provides anecdotal evidence of their continued relevance to Tibetan practitioners today. His essay demonstrates the remarkable diver- sity and centrality of relics in Tibetan Buddhist tradition and the integra- tion of relic practices with aspects of Buddhist tradition from which they have often been divorced by Western scholars, including abstract doctri- nal reflection and meditation.


Bernard Faure’s chapter, “Buddhist Relics and Japanese Regalia,” exam- ines the role that Buddhist relics played in struggles for political supremacy in Japan during the fourteenth century. Faure’s chapter adopts a broad interpretive framework, exploring the multiple dis- courses that were centered on Buddhist relics and their attendant rituals in Japan. He traces, as well, the diverse forms in which relics were phys- ically manifested, including wish-granting jewels, imperial regalia, and vital essence. Faure also provides historical background on the Buddhist relic cult in China, noting the important role of supernaturals, especially na\gas (superhuman beings usually depicted as serpents in India and dragons in East Asia) and their subterranean kingdoms into which relics sub- merge themselves and later resurface. As the title of his piece suggests, one important dimension of a relic’s potency is linked to its oscillation between invisibility and visibility, isolation and access. Faure also iden- tifies a number of important dynamics in the Japanese appropriation and transformation of relics, including their association with fertility, rain making, and apotropaic powers that could be used to sap the potency of one’s enemies. As he notes, relics in the Japanese context functioned as “floating signifiers” whose fluid yet potent associations could be used strategically for a diversity of political ends according to the changing circumstances in which Japanese rulers found themselves.



His analysis thus illuminates the need to carefully contextualize the sig- nificance and function of Buddhist relics in terms of local contestations of power and authority.


Jacob Kinnard’s chapter, “The Field of the Buddha’s Presence,” con- tributes to an understanding of the notion of the Buddha’s “presence” in images and relics by drawing out the cognitive, affective, and behavioral force that they exerted on Buddhists living in India during the period of Pa\la rule (eighth through the eleventh centuries). Drawing upon Pierre Bourdieu’s work, he maintains that our efforts to comprehend the presence of a Buddha image require us to reconstruct, as much as possible, the material circumstances and the implicit behavioral norms that shaped how Buddhists identified and interacted with that image. Thus the meaning of an image is not simply inherent in its aesthetic form, but instead emerges relationally as a given worshipper interacts with it in a ritualized setting. Kinnard turns to a number of textual sources, starting with the Pali\ canon, in order to reconstruct the “layered system” of inherited beliefs and practices that provided the context for recognizing and interacting with relics and images. These sources point to the religious significance of see- ing the Buddha during his lifetime and highlight the importance of ritual- ized remembrance and visualization techniques. He suggests that Buddha images served not so much to make the Buddha present as to make the viewer past, that is, to project the viewer back into a time when the Bud- dha was alive and performing powerful deeds on behalf of those with whom he interacted. Noting that the field in which devotees interacted with Buddha images could embody contradictions and tensions, he demon- strates how an image such as the Asèamahapra\ tiha\ rya,\ depicting the eight great events in the life of the Buddha, could simultaneously serve as a memento by means of which a pilgrim called to mind a powerful religious journey, as a token venerated in lieu of such a journey, and as a physical embodiment of the Buddha’s entire life and collection of teachings.


Donald Swearer’s chapter, “Signs of the Buddha in Northern Thai Chron- icles,” draws our attention to chronicle texts that have not received ade- quate scholarly attention in the West. Beginning with an overview of some of the types of historical sources produced in Thailand, Swearer turns his



attention to a particular northern Thai chronicle called “The Chronicle of the Water Basin,” which describes the Buddha’s travels through that region, emphasizing in particular a mountain north of Chiang Mai known today as Doi Chiang Dao, the “Mountain of the Abode of the Stars.” While the chronicle itself appears to bring together three distinct kinds of stories, all three share a common physical referent: the sacred mountain hallowed by the Buddha’s visit in the past, present repository of his material signs, and future site of the coming righteous world ruler. The chronicle records that when the Buddha visited the mountain, his presence there gave rise to a broad range of material signs, including cor- poreal relics, a footprint, and various images (corresponding to the three basic categories of devotional memorials recognized in Theravada tradi- tion). Most striking among the corporeal relics produced during his visit were relics comprised of substances ordinarily considered highly pollut- ing. At one point the site where the Buddha urinated became “the Holy Footprint Bathroom Resting Place.” In another place, mucous dripping from the Buddha’s nose floated up into a nearby tree and the mucous-cov- ered leaves were gathered as relics. While the character of the first relic is somewhat ambiguous, since it could be classed as either a corporeal relic or a relic of use, the second case suggests that even the Buddha’s nasal effluvia are worthy of veneration. Swearer concludes his essay by distinguishing three distinctive levels on which this text constructs the Buddha and his material signs. The first of these he characterizes as magical or instrumentalist, the second as cos- mological, and the third as ontological. On the first level direct contact with the Buddha during his lifetime or later through his material signs brings worldly blessings and increases one’s store of merit. On a second level the Buddha’s presence organizes a cosmic order centered on the sacred mountain. On a third level the material signs of the Buddha tran- scend the limits of historical time and serve as the Buddha’s living pres- ence. On this third level, Swearer notes, the Buddha is “read” from his material signs and emerges as a living reality.


John Strong’s chapter, “Buddhist Relics in Comparative Perspective:

Beyond the Parallels,” examines Buddhist and Christian relic veneration, identifying a number of differences in how relics function in the two tra- ditions. His analysis is organized around seven basic themes: approaching and touching; seeing and experiencing; dioramas and biography; rou-



tinization and mass production; collecting and counting; patterns of distri- bution; and eschatologies. Illustrating each of these activities with narrative accounts from dis- parate cultures and historical periods, he develops several working hypotheses as the basis for further comparative exploration. His tentative conclusions are as follows: (1) Christian relics are commonly venerated in very physical terms (e.g., a kiss), while Buddhist relics tend to be mirage- like (evoking the presence of the Buddha’s absence); (2) visions of Chris- tian relics are granted, while Buddha relics are visualized through the devotees’ own efforts; (3) Christian relics evoke Christ’s incarnation, a movement from absence to presence, while Buddhist relics represent the Buddha’s whole life story and embody a transition from his presence to his absence (i.e., his parinirvana); (4) Christian relics tend to proliferate on the analogy of eucharistic transubstantiation, while Buddhist relics tend to multiply through a process of textualization; (5) Christian relics are col- lected as a means of reducing time in purgatory, while Buddhist relics mutliply in direct proportion to one’s accumulated merit; (6) Christian relics accumulate centripetally at the center, which controls their dissem- ination (Rome), while Buddhist relics exhibit a tendency toward system- atic distribution (centrifugality); (7) in the end time, Christian relics become “eternal bodies,” while Buddhist relics disappear, embodying impermanence. Robert Sharf’s chapter, which concludes this volume, adopts a self- reflexive stance, seeking to illuminate what it is that draws Western schol- ars to the study of Buddhist relics. He begins his inquiry by reflecting on Lévy-Bruhl’s work on “primitive mentality,” noting that some of the basic interpretive issues raised by his work are still very much with us. Stated simply, should the study of diverse cultures proceed on the basis of an assumed commonality, in particular a shared human rationality, or should it advance by highlighting the incommensurability of distinct cultures? As this pertains to the study of Buddhism and, in particular, the study of relics, Sharf suggests why we may be so enamored of our new view of Buddhists routinely engaged in relic veneration. Such a representation goes far to diminish a popular romanticized view of Buddhism as a pure, rational philosophy and restores to the tradition a quality of otherness as we envision Buddhists engaged in the sanctification of something utterly profane and loathesome: the bodies of the dead. He asserts, moreover, that this fascination with the bones of the Bud- dha evidenced in the work of some contemporary scholars of Buddhism extends beyond a concern to improve our understanding of Buddhism and



has to do, as well, with some profound existential questions grounded in our own cultural milieu. While acknowledging that both Buddha images and bodily relics can be usefully regarded as kindred forms of representa- tion with many functional similarities, he cautions against a tendency to treat them as simply equivalent to each other. In contrast to images, which tend to be aesthetically appealing, relics, as human remains, elicit a response that can best be described as visceral. At base, Sharf argues, relics pose fundamental questions about the nature of physical embodi- ment and the problem of human identity in the face of death. While he cautions that we must be hesitant to assume that our questions are neces- sarily those that lie behind the concern for relics manifested by disparate communities of Buddhists over more than two millennia, we do well to explore the complex of cultural and personal motivations that give rise to and inform our study of the subject.

Where then do these chapters leave us? It would be surprising if a collec- tion with such a broad cultural, historical, and theoretical focus gave rise to a few simple generalizations. But I think we can conclude by returning to the theme with which I began this introduction: we clearly have moved well beyond a time when relics can simply be relegated to the category of superstition, a characterization that has served to foreclose rather than enable scholarly investigation. The pieces in this volume present a com- pelling case for using relics as a thematic focus for the investigation of aspects of Buddhist tradition that have remained inadequately explored. If these chapters, with their diverse voices and at times discordant themes, do not provide us with a harmonious chorus, they nonetheless forcefully testify to the multiple ways in which the study of relics enables us to move beyond static, spiritualized representations of Buddhism to those with more flesh on their bones. This volume remains very much a work in progress, in part because we have only begun to examine the great diversity of Buddhist relic practices, but also because this volume itself is part of a broader Internet-based col- laborative project dedicated to collecting and disseminating resources for the study of Buddhist relic traditions. The Buddhist Relic Traditions Web site, which is hosted by the Tibetan and Himalyan Digital Library ( and the University of Virginia, is presently collecting visual media, translations of relic-related texts, and bibliographical infor- mation on relic practices, including a full set of bibliographic references for



the chapters in this volume. This site is intended to serve as a clearing house for relic-related research, and those who are interested in participat- ing in the project are encouraged to consult the Web site for further infor- mation about how to contribute materials from their own research (URL:


1. Gregory Schopen, “Relic,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed.

Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 256–68.

2. J. A. MacCulloch, “Relics (Primitive and Western),” in Encyclopaedia of

Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,

1919), 658.

3. Vincent A. Smith, “Relics (Eastern),” in Encyclopaedia of Religion and

Ethics, ed. James Hastings (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1919), 659.

4. Michele R. Salzman, “‘Superstitio’ in the Codex Theodosianus and the Per- secution of Pagans,” Vigiliae Christianae 41 (1987): 173.

5. Ibid., 174.

6. L. F. Janssen, “‘Superstitio’ and the Persecution of the Christians,” Vigiliae

Christianae 33 (1979): 158.

7. Salzman, “‘Superstitio’ in the Codex Theodosianus and the Persecution of

Pagans,” 176.

8. Ibid., 182.

9. John Calvin, The Institution of Christian Religion, trans. Thomas Norton

(London: R. Wolfe and R. Harrison, 1561) quoted in the Oxford English Dictio- nary, 2nd ed., s.v. “superstitious”; for a modern translation, see John Calvin, Insti-

tutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1412.

10. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of

Nations (Edinburgh, 1776), bk. 5, ch. 1, pt. 3, art. 3, Adam Smith Institute, 23 Feb-

ruary 2002,

11. David Hume, Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. T. H. Green and

T. H. Grose, 2 vols. (London: Longman, Green, 1882), 1:147f.

12. As the founder of the Pali Text Society in 1881 and an indefatigable editor

and translator of Pa\li Buddhist canonical texts, Rhys Davids made a formative contribution to Buddhist studies in the West. He taught Pa\li and Buddhist litera- ture at University College, London, from 1882 and was instrumental in the estab- lishment of the School of Oriental Studies there. He later became the first to hold the chair in comparative religion at the University of Manchester (1904–1915).



His perspectives on Buddhism reached a broader public through his books and his contributions to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and popular journals.

13. T. W. Rhys Davids, “Buddhism,” North American Review 171 (1900): 522.

In this article, Rhys Davids refers to making a statement similar to this “nearly

twenty years ago” (no citation given).

14. For an authoritative treatment of Sri Lankan Buddhist responses to Christ-

ian missions, see Kitsiri Malalgoda, Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, 1750–1900:

A Study of Religious Revival and Change (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).

15. Davids, “Buddhism,” 523–24.

16. According to Carus’ biographer, Harold Henderson, under Carus’ direction

Open Court Publishing Company published thirty-eight books on Buddhism between 1893 and 1915, fifteen of them authored by Carus; see Harold Hender- son, Catalyst for Controversy: Paul Carus of Open Court (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993), 89.

17. Ibid., 44.

18. The most famous and influential of his protégés was D. T. Suzuki, a stu-

dent of Soyen Shaku who worked for Carus for eleven years as an assistant editor and translator after his arrival in the United States in 1897. While still a student of

Soyen Shaku, Suzuki translated Carus’ Gospel of Buddhism into Japanese, and he was immediately put to work helping Carus translate the Dao De Jing into Eng- lish; see Henderson, 102–03.

19. Ananda, W. P. Guruge, From the Living Fountains of Buddhism: Sri Lankan

Support to Pioneering Western Orientalists (Colombo: [Government of Sri Lanka] Ministry of Cultural Affairs, 1984), 382. The italicized marks of emphasis are from Guruge’s text.

20. Paul Carus, “A Buddhist Priest’s View of Relics,” Open Court 11 (1897):


21. T. W. Rhys Davids and J. Estlin Carpenter, eds., Dêgha-Nika\ya, 3 vols.

(London: Pali Text Society, 1889–1910), 2:138. “Yo kho A|nanda bhikkhu va\ bhikkhunê va\ upa\sako va\ upa\sika\ va\ dhamma\nudhamma-paèipanno viharati samêci-paèipanno anudhamma-ca\rê, so Tatha\gatamsakkaroti garukaroti ma\neti pu\jeti parama\ya pu\ja\ya.” Curiously, the commentarial gloss on this passage includes scent and garland worship among the activities that constitute following the dhamma in its fullness for the laity; see the fuller discussion in Kevin Trainor, Relics, Ritual, and Representation in Buddhism: Rematerializing the Sri Lankan Theravada Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 51–52.

22. The Maha\viha\ra was the central monastery of the community that came to

be identified with orthodox Theravada tradition in Sri Lanka; the Maha\cetiya is presumably the great cetiya in Anura\dhapura built by Duèèhaga\manê≥ , which is said to enshrine one-eighth of all of the Buddha’s relics.



23. Buddhaghosa, Sumanægala-vila\sinê, ed. T. W. Rhys Davids, J. Estlin Car-

penter, and W. Stede, 3 vols. (London: Pali Text Society, 1886–1932), 2:578. “Samma\paèipatti pana Tatha\gatassa anucchavika\ pu\ja\, sa\ hi tena paèèhita\ c’eva sakkoti sa\sanamca sandha\retum.”

24. Davids and Carpenter, eds., Dêgha-Nika\ya 2:142. “Tattha ye ma\lamva\

gandhamva\vannakam(variant: cunnakam) va\a\ropessanti abhiva\dessanti va\, cit- tamva\pasa\dessanti, tesamtambhavissati dêgharattamhita\ya sukha\ya.”

25. Ibid., 2:141. “Avya\vaèa\ tumhe A|nanda hotha Tatha\gatassa sarêra-puja\ya,

inægha tumhe A|nanda sadatthe ghaèatha, sadattham anuyuñjatha, sadatthe appa- matta\ a\ta\pino pahitatta\ viharatha. Sant’ A|nanda khattiya-pandita\ pi bra\hmana- pandita\\ pi gahapati-pandita\ pi Tatha\gate abhippasanna\, te Tatha\gatassa sarêra- pu\jamkarissantêti.” “Sarêra-pu\ja\is ambiguous; it can be rendered either “corpse-veneration” or “relic-veneration.” Gregory Schopen argues convincingly that it should be taken in the former sense; see Gregory Schopen, “Monks and the Relic Cult in the Maha\parinibba\nasutta: An Old Misunderstanding in Regard to Monastic Buddhism,” in From Benares to Beijing: Essays on Buddhism and Chi- nese Religion in Honour of Prof. Jan Yün-hua, ed. Kiochi Shinohara and Gregory Schopen (Oakville: Mosaic Press, 1991).

26. I argue against this interpretation in Trainor, Relics, Ritual, and Represen-

tation in Buddhism: Rematerializing the Sri Lankan Theravada Tradition, 56.

27. For an overview of Theravada biographical tradition about Maha\kassapa,

see G. P. Malalasekera, Dictionary of Pali Proper Names (1937; reprinted, Delhi:

Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, 1983), 2:476–83. He is also profiled in Thera Nyanaponika and Hellmuth Hecker, Great Disciples of the Buddha (Boston: Wis- dom Publications, 1997), 107–36. Maha\kassapa is also counted as the first in the succession of Indian Zen patriarchs.

28. For a survey of the aniconic controversy in Buddhist studies, see Klemens

Karlsson, Face to Face with the Absent Buddha: The Formation of Buddhist Ani-

conic Art (Uppsala: Uppsala University Library, 1999).

29. David Morgan, “Visual Religion,” Religion 30 (2000): 41–53.

30. This term is Peter Brown’s, whose work on Christian relic veneration has

had a considerable influence on some scholars of Buddhism. See, for example, his Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: Univer-

sity of Chicago Press, 1981).

31. For example, the Maha\vamsa records that the relics of three previous Bud-

dhas were enshrined at the site of the Maha\thu\pa in Anura\dhapura; see Maha\vamsa 15.56. A parallel tradition is associated with the nearby Thu\pa\ra\ma thu\pa, which is traditionally regarded as the first thu\pa built by King Deva\na\piy- atissa after Buddhism was established in Sri Lanka in the third century BCE. The

Dêpavamsa, which predates the Maha\vamsa, favors the latter site, as does Bud- dhaghosa’s introduction to his commentary on the Vinaya; see Dêpavamsa 15.25–64 and The Inception of Discipline (The Vinaya Nida\na), 76 f., 199 f. The



tradition recorded in the Maha\vamsa may reflect an attempt to enhance the pres- tige of King Duèèhaga\mani who is credited with the construction of the Maha\thu\pa.

32. I have appropriated this term from an unpublished paper presented by

Charles Hallisey to the AAR Relic Seminar.

33. This appears in the commentary to the Ka\linæga-bodhi Ja\taka, which iden-

tifies three types of memorials (cetiya\ni): sa\rêrika (bodily), pa\ribhogika (through

use), and uddesika (commemorative); see the Ja\taka, together with its Commen- tary, ed. V. Fausböll (London: Pali Text Society, 1877–1897), 4:228–29. A simi- lar classification can be found in the commentary on the Khuddaka-Paè\ha; see Khuddakapaè\ha, together with its Commentary, Paramatthajotika\ I, ed. Helmer Smith (London: Pali Text Society, 1915), 221–22. It is widely accepted that com- memorative relics (images) were the last to be added, as is suggested by the occur- rence of a twofold classification without images in the Milindapañha; see Milin- dapañha, ed. V. Trenckner (London: Pali Text Society, 1880), 341. See Walpola Rahula’s discussion of the history of image veneration in Sri Lanka in his History of Buddhism in Ceylon: The Anura\dhapura Period, 3rd Century BC–10th Century AC, 2nd ed. (Colombo: M. D. Gunasena, 1966), 121–28.



John S. Strong



Buddhist temples claiming to house various tooth relics of the Buddha. The first was the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, Sri Lanka, which I first went to in 1969. As I filed past the open doors of the inner sanctum, along with other pilgrims, I caught a brief glimpse of the outermost of the famous relic’s reliquaries. But I did not see the Buddha’s tooth itself; it was con- cealed from view, set, we are told, in the innermost of seven nesting con- tainers, which encase and protect it. For my notions of what the Kandyan tooth actually looked like, I could only rely on the disparate descriptions of more privileged persons. 1 Second, in the summer of 1972, in the Western Hills outside of Bei- jing, I visited the new Buddha’s Tooth Relic Pagoda, built in the 1960s just prior to the Cultural Revolution. Together with our hosts from the Chinese Buddhist Association, my wife and I climbed a spiral staircase and emerged in a chamber specially constructed to house the relic. The tooth, said to have been that which long ago was brought from Khotan to Chang’an, had been found in the ruins of the old pagoda, destroyed dur- ing the Boxer rebellion. But did we see it ? Alas, though we were able to come up quite close to the altar, the tooth itself was effectively concealed in its reliquary, behind a glass window that was frustratingly opaque. 2 For several years, I thought little about my failures to see the Bud- dha’s tooth on these occasions. Not seeing a relic seemed normal to me or, at any rate, perfectly acceptable, for I viewed the Buddha in nirvana in the




words of the Heart Sutra as “gone, gone, gone beyond.” Then, in 1993, my wife and I had a chance to visit another tooth of the Buddha, at the Sen- nyu\-ji temple in Kyoto. We wrote and asked for permission to enter the usually locked reliquary hall (shariden), and, on the appointed day, we were kindly ushered into the building. But again, we did not see the tooth. Though its magnificent reliquary was open for close-up inspection, the relic itself was kept elsewhere. For security reasons, it had been removed permanently to a storehouse. 3 This time, however, the failure to lay eyes on the actual relic did occa- sion some reflection, for, about a month earlier, I had been in Rome, vis- iting the ancient basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, and there I real- ized that not all relics are routinely “unseen.” All alone, in the Chapel of the Holy Cross, I was able to go right up to the relic cases, and inches away, I could gaze to my heart’s content upon three slivers of the wood on which Jesus was crucified, upon one of the spikes that had nailed him to the cross, upon two thorns from his crown of thorns, upon the titulus—the inscription plate—that Pontius Pilate had set up above his head, declaring, in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, that this was “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” There too was the finger bone of Doubting Thomas—the very fin- ger that that apostle had stuck into the wounds in Jesus’ flesh after the res- urrection; and there, on a side wall, was the whole beam from the cross of the good thief Dysmas who had been crucified by Jesus’ side. All of this and more was on display, open to view, in reliquaries designed to expose rather than enclose, and labeled in six different languages. Moreover, close-up photographs were available in the basilica shop along with amulet replicas of each of the relics. 4 It has been customary, in the comparative study of relics, to empha- size or imply similarities between Christian and Buddhist traditions. 5 Sometimes, the pursuit of these similarities has been very fruitful. Many years ago, for example, Leonardo Olschki creatively elucidated certain parallels between the tale of the Buddha’s begging bowl (seen by Faxian in Peshawar) and a Uigur story about the stone crib of the baby Jesus (a corner of which he broke off so as to have something to give the three Magi in exchange for their offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh). 6 More recently, Gregory Schopen has made brilliant use of the work of Philippe Ariès on Christian patterns of burial to help us understand better the cult of Indian Buddhist relics and their stupas. 7 At a more general level, Robert Sharf has pointed out that, lately among scholars, “Buddhism has come to bear an uncanny resemblance to medieval Christianity [with] its saints, relics, and miraculous images.” 8



In this chapter, I wish to try to go beyond parallelisms between Chris- tian and Buddhist relic traditions, in order to isolate some of their distin- guishing characteristics. I do so in part as a result of my own studies and personal experiences these past few years of both Buddhist and Christian relics, and in part out of a conviction that, in comparative religion, the elu- cidation of differences is as fruitful an exercise as (and perhaps an easier task than) the explanation of similarities. I approach the task, however, with some trepidation. The fields both of Christian and of Buddhist relics are so vast and varied that it is clear that counter-examples to any claim I wish to make are almost always possible. For instance, I have just implied, through the above account of my personal experiences, that Buddhist relics (at least Buddhist tooth relics) are generally not to be seen by worshippers, while Christian relics are. But what about the good pilgrim Ennin who tells us that in 841, he not only saw one of the four tooth relics of the Buddha then enshrined in Chang’an but also physically handled it? 9 And what about those occasions, in modern Southeast Asia, when relics are viewed uncovered? 10 Conversely, on the Christian side, what about the ruling of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that relics of Christ- ian saints were on no account to be removed from their reliquaries or publi- cally exhibited? 11 And what about the passage in Canon Law that prescribes that relics be enclosed and sealed in containers and fastened with a silk cord, which, if broken, may result in suspension of the worship of the relic? 12 In what follows, therefore, I want to try to be wary of generalizations. I shall proceed anecdotally, offering a series of contrasting stories about Buddhist and Christian relics, admitting that many of these texts are only partially representative of an overall tradition whose full complexity is such that, were I to take it into account, I would probably quickly be led into qualifications, mitigations, and contradictions. Nonetheless, it is my hope that, as Wendy Doniger once put it, “stories reveal things that are not easily gleaned from the harder disciplines,” especially if we can remember that “stories are not designed as arguments, nor should they be taken as arguments.” 13 My conclusions about these stories, therefore, take the form of sometimes fairly narrow hypotheses, still rooted in the concrete, rather than abstract principles, universally applicable to all cases everywhere.



A. I shall start with the tale of the Roman Christian noblewoman Paula, whose pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the late fourth century is described



in detail in an obituary letter written by St. Jerome. His narrative is inter- esting not so much for the topographical and geographical information it contains but for its account of Paula’s reaction to and worship of various

relics she visited. As he puts it, in Jerusalem, “she

visiting all the places with such burning enthusiasm that there was no tak- ing her away from one unless she was hurrying on to another. She fell down and worshipped before the Cross as if she could see the Lord hang- ing on it. On entering the Tomb of the Resurrection, she kissed the stone which the angel [had] removed from the sepulchre door; then like a thirsty man who has waited long and at last comes to water, she [embraced and] faithfully kissed the very shelf on which the Lord’s body had lain. Her tears and lamentations there are known to all Jerusalem—or rather to the Lord himself to whom she was praying.” 14 Paula’s passion—her desire to embrace, to kiss, to cling to the relics she visited (all in one fashion or another connected with death)—is extra- ordinary when seen in the context of Jewish and Roman views on impu- rity, 15 but in Christian circles, it was by no means anomalous. As John Wilkinson points out, physical contact—touch—was, in her world, thought to unite a person with what he or she touches, and “the classic ges- ture of contact [was] the kiss: the Hebrew verb nashaq means both ‘touch’ and ‘kiss,’ in Greek and Latin the words for ‘kiss’ and ‘venerate’ are often identical, and the frequently-used phrase, to ‘venerate the holy places’ therefore carries within it the connotation of contact.” 16 The kiss, of course, was not the only way that this desire for closeness with a relic expressed itself. St. John Chrysostom, a contemporary of Paula who would have approved of her actions, counseled his flock to “retire to the tombs of martyrs and shed there torrents of tears; break open your heart, embrace the sarcophagus, affix yourselves to the reliquary Take the holy oil and anoint your whole body with it, your tongue, your lips, your neck, your eyes.” 17 In this vein, it comes as no surprise to read of a noble woman from Carthage who banged her head in adoration so hard against the reliquary containing part of the body of St. Stephen that she broke it open: rather than recoil in horror at what she had done, she thrust her head inside and laid her cheek on the bones, bathing them with her ecstatic tears. 18

started to go round

B. At about the same time as Paula was in Jerusalem, the Chinese pilgrim Faxian was visiting the so-called Cave of the Buddha’s Shadow, in what is today Afghanistan. The story of the relic in this cave at Nagaraha\ra is intimately connected to the apocryphal tale of the Buddha’s conversion of



the na\ga Gopa\la there. Worried that he might lose his faith once the Bud- dha who had just tamed him left the area, Gopa\la asked the Blessed One to leave some token of himself right there in his na\ga’s cave, as a safe- guard against backsliding. There are several versions of what the Buddha did next, but the net result was that he left an image of himself, more a luminous reflection than a shadow, on the rock wall of the cave, where it came to be venerated by generations of subsequent pilgrims. 19 Interestingly, this shadow relic seems to have had a sort of miragelike quality. “Looking at it from a distance of more than ten paces,” declares Faxian, “you seem to see [the] Buddha’s real form, with his complexion of gold, and his characteristic marks in their nicety clearly and brightly

displayed, [but] the nearer you approach [it] the fainter it becomes, as if it were only in your fancy.” 20 Much the same story is told a half-century later by Daorong who claims to have seen the shadow from a distance of fif- teen feet, but as he drew nearer, it gradually disappeared, and, when he touched the spot with his hand, there was nothing there but the rock wall. 21 It could be argued, of course, that we should not make too much of these examples, that we are dealing here with some natural phenomenon, in this cave at Nagaraha\ra, some reflective surface on the rock wall that caught the light from certain angles and caused a glow in the depths of the grotto. Nonetheless, the miragelike quality of this shadow relic struck a chord in the Buddhist devotional world. It was, in fact, the shadow’s very ephemerality that artists attempting to make copies of it sought to repro- duce. Although Faxian declares that artists commissioned to copy the shadow were unable to do so successfully, soon after his time, in the 450s,

a Sri Lankan monk on his way to China claimed to have been able to

reproduce it in a painting. It had, we are told, the same qualities as the

original: from a distance of ten paces, it shone like fire, but the closer one got to it, the more its brightness faded. 22 The contrast between these accounts and the touchable-kissable Christian relics in Jerusalem is, of course, striking. For Paula and the other pilgrims, the mode of devotionalism seems to have been “the closer the better.” For Faxian and his compatriots, physical contact is not what

is put at a premium; indeed, the closer one gets to the relic, the more it

fades away. Discussions of Buddhist relics and images have been much preoccu- pied with questions of presence and absence. 23 The state of the Buddha or any other saint after death is an issue that the tradition either declined to discuss or that it left “bristling with contradictory negations.” 24 As Na\ga\rjuna put it, in Stephan Beyer’s memorable translation, the Buddha



in nirvana “isnt is, isnt isnt, isnt is & isnt, isnt isnt is & isnt.” 25 Nonethe- less, as Gregory Schopen has made very clear, “the relic and the Buddha do not appear to have been thought of as separate things.” 26 Thus, the very first relics of the Buddha—the hairs given by him to the merchants Tapassu and Bhallika—were meant to make possible the veneration of the Buddha in his absence, even during his own lifetime; 27 and after his death and parinirvana, relics continued to serve much the same function. 28 As Paul Mus liked to put it, the Buddha in nirvana was treated as “a new kind of absence,” 29 and Mus went on to speak eloquently and at length of the various ways in which that “absence” could be overcome. Yet for him, overcoming the absence of the Buddha was never achieved ontolog- ically; rather it was a periodically renewed ritual and magical process based on the model of Brahmanical sacrifice. 30 This saw relics, images, stupas, and other mesocosms as constantly involved in an experiential dialectic movement between presence and absence. In this context, a “dis- appearing relic” such as the shadow image could appear to be paradig- matic of its class since it itself makes a move from presence (visibility) to absence (invisibility). 31 I shall attempt to elucidate this movement further. For now, suffice it to point out that the dynamic is rather different in the case of our Christ- ian examples. Jesus, at the end of his earthly career, did not pass into parinirvana, but ascended to heaven. Thus the focus in his case is not on a “new kind of absence” (here on earth) so much as a “new kind of pres- ence,” there in heaven. As Thomas Head has put it, at least for medieval Christianity, “the question is not whether or not Christ is present, but where he is present. The most striking thing about physical relics (includ-

ing those of or associated with Christ)

is that they provide a definite,

explicit, touchable, physical contact between this world and the kingdom of heaven. The relics of the saint in the shrine are the saint: the saint is at the same time just as really present in God’s court: that is why the relics are so important.” 32 Thus, the closer one can get to the relics as embodi- ments of a supermundane body, the tighter one can make that link to the other world. Hypothesis 1: Christian relics : a kiss :: Buddhist relics : a mirage.


A. Saint Radegund [518–587], exqueen of France and abbess of a convent in Poitiers, was an avid collector of relics, and over the years, her love of the holy remains of saints mounted. As one of her biographers put it: “She

called [her] relics ‘diamonds of heaven’

and spared neither prayer nor



presents in amassing them. She was in the habit of meditating in the com- pany of the saints whose bones she possessed, and it seemed to her that they joined her in singing the psalms and hymns of the divine office.” 33 The relics of the saints, however, did not satiate her pious longings for the presence of her Lord and Savior. Thus, she used her royal connections to acquire from Constantinople a relic of Christ—a piece of the true cross, which was duly translated to her convent in Poitiers. 34 There, not long before her death in 587, as she was meditating in the midst of her relics, her cell was suddenly bathed in light, and she saw before her a young man of ethereal beauty whom she realized was none other than Jesus himself. “Why do you supplicate me so and torture yourself for me who am always with you?” he asked her. “Please know that you are a precious pearl, and one of the most beautiful diamonds in my crown.” 35 Then he disappeared, and in departing, he left an imprint of his right foot in the stone where he had stood. This stone, bearing his footprint, came to be known as the “Pas de Dieu” and became itself an important relic, which may still be seen in the Church of Sainte Radegonde. 36 There is, then, a progression here, in Radegund’s story, from relics of saints to secondary relics of Christ (the piece of the true cross), to the presence of Christ himself in glory, marked forever by his footprint.

B. Not too long after the time of Radegund, the Chinese pilgrim Xuan- zang (trip to India: 629–645) also visited the Cave of the Buddha’s Shadow. There he had an interesting experience. According to his biog- rapher, when Xuanzang arrived at the cave, he was most distressed that he could see nothing. His guide, however, obviously familiar with local traditions, told him to back away fifty paces from the far wall and look east. He did so, but still he saw nothing. He then prostrated himself a hundred times, but once again there was nothing. Then sobbing and reproaching himself for his bad karma, he began reciting stanzas in praise of the Buddha from the S:rima\la\devêsimhana\da and other sutras, prostrating himself repeatedly. After some time, a light the size of an almsbowl appeared on the eastern wall, but it immediately vanished again. Encouraged, he resumed his prostrations and his recitations, and he soon was able to see a light the size of a dish, but this too quickly dis- appeared. He then resolved that he would not leave that place until he had seen the Buddha’s shadow. Finally, after about two hundred more prostrations, the whole cave was filled with light, as the image of the Buddha’s body appeared distinctly on the wall, “just like the peak of a golden mountain when the fog is dispersed.” He could see the Buddha’s



body and his reddish robe quite clearly, and, to either side, the “shad- ows” of many bodhisattvas and arhats. Xuanzang then asked the men who were outside the cave to bring in fire so that he could burn some incense and offer flowers in worship of the image, but as soon as they brought in the torches, the shadow immediately disappeared. They put the fire out, he resumed his praise of the Buddha, and again it was visi- ble for a long time until it gradually faded away. 37 Both Xuanzang and Radegund, in their respective settings, get to see the figure who is the object of their devotions, and the presence and con- text of relics are intimately connected to this. Yet there are a number of important differences between their two experiences. Radegund’s comes to her after a lifetime of longing for the closeness of Christ, but it is essen- tially a vision that is given to her, a visitation that she is not expecting. Xuanzang’s longing is perhaps equally intense, and his experience also comes only after a great deal of effort—devotional exercises, prostrations, and recollections of the Buddha (buddha\nusmrti). But it is more an accomplishment than a gift, more a visualization than a vision. The Relic of the Shadow makes it possible for the Buddha to emerge out of empti- ness, out of the past, out of the Xuanzang’s mind, and to return to it. For Radegund, Christ descends to manifest himself, also temporarily, in the midsts of her relics and leaves one of his own behind permanently. With this in mind we can posit a second hypothesis:

Hypothesis 2: Christian relics : vision :: Buddhist relics : visualization.


A. It is sometimes remarked that while the Christian era is measured from the birth of Christ, the Buddhist era is counted from the death and parinir- vana of the Buddha. With this in mind, let us return to Palestine and to Paula who, after she left Jerusalem, went on to Bethlehem. There, of

course, she visited the site of Christ’s nativity. As Jerome, again, describes it: “She entered the cave of the Saviour, and saw the holy Inn of the Vir- gin, and the Stable, where ‘the ox knew his master, and the ass his Lord’s

manger.’” There she was granted a vision: “with the eye of faith

saw a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, weeping in the Lord’s manger,

the Magi worshipping, the star shining above, the Virgin Mother, the

attentive fosterfather, and the shepherds coming by night to see this Word

which had come to pass,

joy mixed with tears, she began to say: ‘Blessed Bethlehem, House of

Then, her


the Word [that] was made



B. Not long after this, Maha\na\ma (fifth century) was writing the great chronicle of Sri Lanka, the Maha\vamsa. In it, several chapters are dedi- cated to an account of the Buddha relics enshrined in the great stupa in Anura\dhapura. The magnificence of this monument cannot be gone into

here, but it is worth considering the decoration of its inner relic chamber. There, we are told, King Duèèhaga\mani, using both statues and paintings, ordered the depiction of the entire life of the Buddha, from his past exis- tences (ja\takas) to his birth as Gotama, from his wandering forth to his enlightenment, from his career as a preacher to his working of miracles and death and parinirvana. The centerpiece of all this was “a bodhi tree made of jewels, splendid in every way. It had a stem eighteen cubits high and five branches; the root, made of coral, rested on sapphire. The stem made of perfectly pure silver was adorned with leaves made of gems, had

withered leaves and fruits of gold and young shoots made of

erected to the east of the bodhi tree, [was] placed a shining

were duly made of

jewels of different colours, beautifully shining.” 39 What King Duèèhaga\mani is doing here, of course, is re-presenting, in the relic cham-

ber, the whole life story of the Buddha. The relic chamber is thus trans- formed into a kind of permanent biographical diorama, or “biorama” if I may be allowed a neologism, and it is into this environment that the relics are then enshrined. In this context, it may be useful to argue that what is made “present” in the Buddhist relic is not so much the “Buddha” (conceived as transcen- dent or imminent or absent) but the whole course of the Buddha’s “life.” In other words, what relics ideally embody is the whole of the Buddha’s biographical process that leads from his birth (or former births) through his enlightenment to his parinirvana, that is, from his appearance to his disappearance without remainder. Relics, then, can help devotees re-real- ize first the biographical advent (or presence) of the bodhisattva in this world and his attainment of the status of being a Buddha, followed then by his biographical departure (absence) from it. 40 The same message would seem to be reinforced in the conclusion to the Maha\vamsa’s account of the enshrinement of the Buddha’s relics into this “biorama.” Once the relic chamber has been made ready, and the relics to be enshrined in it have been obtained, the casket containing them opens of itself and the relics “come alive”; they rise up into the air and take on the form of the Buddha together with all the bodily signs of the Great Man (maha\purusa), and perform various miracles. They recapture, in other words, the living presence of the Enlightened One. But then,


a throne

golden Buddha image [whose] body and members



abandoning the form of the Buddha, they fall back down to earth, and Duèèhaga\mani takes them and places them on a couch in the midst of the relic chamber, asking them to take on “the form of the Master as he lay upon his deathbed” and to thus abide undisturbed forever. This the relics do of their own accord, and the relic chamber is then sealed and closed off. 41 Thus, in this legendary account, the relics themselves also appear to recapitulate the Buddha’s biographical process from life to death, from “presence” to parinirvana. The case of Paula’s vision in Bethlehem is rather different in this regard. Although it does not deal with the whole of Christ’s life, it does feature one biographical episode from that life—his birth. The relics she sees in the Church of the Nativity enable her to reconstruct in her mind’s eye a whole creche scene. This too is a biorama of sorts, but what Paula stresses in her joy at this vision is Christ’s taking on of a body, his becom- ing present here on earth, in that particular place, his “coming down from heaven.” Her experience in Bethlehem is thus more related to Christ’s incarnation than to his biography as a whole. It could be argued, of course, that other Christian bioramas in other settings—for example, one featuring Christ’s passion and crucifixion at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—would be different, except that they too tend to feature the theme of incarnation, even in the moment of death. Thus the experiential movement in Paula’s case is consistently from absence to presence in the relics, in contrast to the vectorial forces in Buddhist relics, which follow his biography in moving from presence to “absence.” We thus can come to a third hypothesis:

Hypothesis 3: Christian relics : incarnation :: Buddhist relics : pass- ing into parinirvana.



A. Toward the end of the twelfth century, Hugh of Lincoln, on a visit to Fécamp to venerate the remains of Saint Mary Magdalene, bit off a cou- ple of pieces of bone from her arm, intending to appropriate them for himself. The abbot and monks, seeing him do this, were understandably dismayed. “What terrible profanity!” they cried. “We thought that the bishop had asked to see this holy and venerable relic for reasons of devotion, and he has stuck his teeth into it and gnawed it as if he were a dog.” But Saint Hugh replied: “If, a little while ago [at communion] I handled the most sacred body of the Lord of all the saints with my fin- gers, in spite of my unworthiness, and when I partook of it, touched it



with my lips and teeth, why should I not venture to treat in the same way

and by this commemoration of them increase

my reverence for them?” 42 Hugh’s action, of course, fits into a long tradition of persons attempt- ing to steal Christian relics by biting into them while venerating them with a kiss, 43 but it is more immediately significant for a number of other rea- sons. First of all, it reflects the close ideological linkage that was main- tained in his day between relics and the elements of the Eucharist. I do not wish, at this point, to enter into the debate over the nature of transubstan- tiation, consubstantiation, impanation, and so on. 44 Suffice it to say that, though not actual remnants of Christ’s body, the ritual bread and wine were nonetheless his body and blood and were made intimately close to the devotee by consumption. As another way of making Christ “pre- sent”—“incarnate”—the Eucharist was thus akin to a relic, and Gode- fridus Snoek has recently devoted an entire book to a study of parallel ways in which they were conceived of and functioned in medieval times. 45 But Hugh’s action also reflects something else: a situation in which there was an intense desire for the possession of relics, in which relic demand had outstripped routine relic supply. This was one of the causal factors, perhaps, for the well known phenomenon of relic thefts and traf- ficking, 46 as well as for the proliferation of false relics. 47 But it is also pos- sible, in this context, to view the growth of devotion to the Eucharist as an alternate way of dealing with the demand for more relics, a way of ritu- ally, that is, routinely, supplying a virtually unlimited quantity of relic-like substances by ‘mass’-production. 48

the bones of the saints

B. When Xuanzang was in Ra\jagrha, he heard about a pious layman named Jayasena who spent all of his time making miniature stupas out of clay and incense paste. In the course of thirty years, it is said, he managed to manufacture over seven hundred thousand of these, periodically enshrining them in larger mahastupas built expressly to contain them. Inside each miniature stupa was placed a written verse from a sutra, so that the name that was given to them was “dharma-óarêra” (fa sheli), a term I am tempted to translate as “textual body.” 49 In this story, we would seem to have an Indian model for an activity that became common in East Asia and Tibet. By the eighth century in Japan, for example, various politically powerful laypersons would period- ically take it upon themselves to produce “one million stupas” (hyaku- manto\). These were miniature wooden pagodas, made on a lathe, about fourteen centimeters high and about ten centimeters across the base. A



small hole was drilled into the top of each of them into which was inserted the printed text of one of several dha\ranê≥ . 50 Similarly, in a Chinese canon- ical work, translated by Diva\kara in 680, a method is described for the manufacturing of many small stupas (each about the size of a mango), by simply inserting into a lump of clay the dharma verse par excellence: “ye dharma\ hetuprabhava\s tesam hetum Tatha\gata uva\ca/ tesam ca yo nirodha evam va\dê Maharamanah(“the Tatha\gata has explained the cause of those elements of reality that arise from a cause, and he, the Sub- dued One, has also spoken of their cessation”). This line is, in this context, called the “dharmaka\ya” (doctrinal corpus) of the Buddha and is said to be just as effective in the making of a stupa as the insertion of a bodily relic of the Buddha such as a tooth, a hair, or a nail. 51 It should be noted that this verse spells out in a nutshell the same movement from presence (“the cause” that makes dharmas arise) to absence (“their cessation”) that we have seen in the context of the Buddha’s corporeal relics. In a different light, however, it can also be said that, in these manu- factured dharma relics, we may have a Buddhist way of responding to the problems of relic supply and demand, and a ritual routine means of mak- ing—by the simple insertion of a dharma verse into a lump of clay—a vir- tually unlimited supply of “relics.” Stanley Tambiah, in his book on Buddhist saints in Thailand, has spo- ken of a process by which charisma is concretized and sedimented into objects, something, he claims, Max Weber was not really attuned to. This objectification of charisma may be seen, he says, in a host of different fetishistic articles, among which he would include amulets and relics. Of course, once the charisma (or power) of a departed saint or master becomes objectified or sedimented in a relic, the process of routinization of that charisma does not stop. 52 One way in which it continues is through the development of a means of ritual mass reproduction and distribution of that power. Amulets, medallions, and a host of other secondary or ter- tiary relics, all blessed by contact with saints, may serve this purpose in both Christianity and Buddhism. But the examples we have looked at here are of a slightly different nature; through transubstantiation, the eucharis- tic bread and wine “are” the body of Christ and so are more akin to pri- mary bodily relics in both their function and their conception. And like- wise the dharma-óarêra “are” the body of the Buddha, his dharmaka\ya, and this through a process that might be called “textualization.” With this in mind, the following hypothesis may perhaps be suggested:

Hypothesis 4: Christian relics : Eucharist : transubstantiation :::

Buddhist relics : Dharma : textualization.




A. We have already seen how Saint Radegund felt it important to amass

a large number of relics for her convent in Poitiers. Another great collec-

tor of relics, albeit for somewhat different reasons, was Frederick the Wise who lived almost a thousand years after Radegund. Toward the beginning of his career, and well before Martin Luther became connected with him, Frederick had collected 5,005 bits of saints and articles of their clothing, worship of which, he figured, was worth indulgences calculated to reduce time in purgatory by 1,443 years. But Frederick did not stop there. By 1520, he owned 19,013 relics, worth 1,962,202 years and 270 days in purgatory. 53

B. Approximately a millenium earlier, in 581, the future emperor of

China, Sui Wendi, was visited by a mysterious Indian monk who gave him

a bag of relics saying, “Since you

dhism, I leave these relics for you to worship.” 54 After the monk had left, the emperor, together with his trusted confidant, the chief monk Tanqian, “counted these relics many times by putting them on the palms of their hands, [but] each time they arrived at a different number and could not determine the true quantity.” 55 A similar phenomenon was experienced in Heian Japan, where, roughly every twenty years, the relics in the treasury of the To\ji temple were inventoried. Strangely, the number of grains of relics in each reliquary was found to fluctuate, sometimes dramatically over the years, without anyone having had access to them. For instance in the year 1014, 4,801 grains of Buddha relics were counted—an increase of 390 grains (c. 9 percent) since the last inventory. 56 Tanqian tells Wendi that such discrepancies are due to the fact that the Buddha’s greatness is beyond measuring, but there is another reason for this “incalculability” of Buddhist relics. Simply put, Buddhist relics were thought in some sense to be alive, so they were able to multiply them- selves, to reproduce, to grow. The larger and more numerous the relics, the greater the merit of the place or person, and the greater the ability to make merit. Thus Emperor Wendi, after he had distributed most of his relics to various pagodas erected throughout the country (in emulation of the Emperor Aóoka who did the same in Ancient India), found that his supply was miraculously replenished in time for the next relic distribution cam- paign. 57 The number of relics in reserve would mysteriously increase, or he and his empress “often found relics in their food.” 58 It should be explained that these relics are not bones or body parts but brilliant jewel-like beads of various colors and sizes, which, for convenience

have good intentions towards Bud-



sake I shall call by their Chinese name, “sheli” (Japanese shari, from the Sanskrit óarêra). According to Buddhaghosa’s commentary on the “Mahaparinibba\ na\ sutta” the sheli (Pali\ sarêra) found in the remains of the Buddha’s cremation fire were of three types—“like jasmine buds, like washed pearls, and like [nuggets] of gold”—and came in three sizes—as big as mustard seeds, as broken grains of rice, and as split green peas.” 59 Today, sheli are still looked for in the cremation ashes of great monks, where their presence, size, and number testify to the sanctity of the deceased. 60 They can also appear, however, during a person’s lifetime, by emanation, from their hands, or hair, or clothes, or on altars, offering plates, or images, or by the side of stupas. For instance, in 1970 (to give a modern example) the Swayambhunath stupa in Kathmandu began to produce thousands of sheli [=Tibetan ring bsrel] out of its Eastern side, and “all the monastery, includ- ing the highest lama who almost never left his room, were outside picking them up.” 61 Alternatively, the relics themselves can reproduce by a sort of mitosis: “One of them gets bigger and bumps appear on the side and then the bumps become small [relics].” 62 The presence and growth of such relics is a reflection of the merit and faith of devotees. Indeed, Emperor Wendi’s distribution of relics in pago- das throughout China was intended not only to testify to his and the Bud- dha’s greatness but also to give the people an ongoing ever-growing opportunity to make merit. 63 Conversely, lack of faith may be marked by an absence of relics. Thus, there is a Tibetan belief that if an enlightened monk dies but has no devoted disciples, there will be no relics for him. 64 Similarly, in contemporary Sri Lanka, it is thought that “relics will disap- pear if they are not accorded proper veneration.” 65 Relics, then, are a direct reflection of merit made and shared, and they represent also an opportu- nity to make and share more merit, here on earth. This is rather different from the case of Frederick the Wise, whose precise count of his hoard of relics earns him a set amount of personal merit (indulgences) not in this world but in the other, that is, in purgatory. Hypothesis 5: Christian relics : growth by addition :: Buddhist relics :

growth by multiplication.


A. Some years ago, David Sox, an authority on the Shroud of Turin, vis-

ited the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. There he

was shown a large room which was lined from floor to ceiling with cab- inets and shelves loaded with containers of every conceivable size



encasing bone, ashes, clothing and whatnot. They were the relics required in the altars of new churches waiting to be shipped out. Over- seeing the transfer and authentication of these relics occupies much of the time of the pope’s Vicar-General at the Vatican, Archbishop Peter van Lierde, who, with the Vicariate of Rome, still provides relics not only for churches but also for personal devotional use as well. 66

Of course, things were not always so centralized. Peter Brown, Patrick Geary, Anatole Frolow, and others have described the evolution of rather different and often more chaotic patterns by which relics came to be distributed geographically. 67 Nonetheless, the control that Rome main- tained and maintains here over the distribution and authentification of relics is noteworthy. Even charlatans laid claim to this Roman Catholic pedigree. Thus the pardoner, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, declares:

I’ve got relics and pardons in my bag as good as anybody’s in England, all given to me by the Pope’s own hand.” 68

In fact, various methods arose in Christianity for determining or assert- ing the authenticity of dubious relics. The most spectacular of these, per- haps, was the test by fire. The questioned relic was put on a bed of coals; if it did not burn, it was genuine, if it did burn, nothing had been lost. 69 Much the same method may be found in Buddhism. Generally speaking, however, the authentification of a relic was (and still is) done with documents, and it became common for the owners of individual relics to possess elaborate records of their relic’s pedigrees, the equivalent, perhaps, in Buddhism, of the various “vamsa”(chronicles) that focus on specific Buddhist relics. 70 Canon Law is quite specific on the importance of such authentifying documents though it waffles somewhat on their necessity. Nonetheless, newly found relics should not be approved for public veneration without them, and they must pass through approved channels of church hierar- chy. 71 The distribution of Christian relics out from Rome, then, was gen- erally centripetal in nature, a pattern in which ties to the center were main- tained and still felt.

B. In the Buddhist world, perhaps the greatest collector and distributor of relics was King Aóoka. As the legend has it, he went around and gathered the Buddha’s relics from the ancient “drona stupas” in which they had been enshrined just after the parinirvana. Aóoka, however, did not keep all of these relics collected in his capital city for later farming out to individ- ual sanctuaries. Instead, he divided and redistributed them in what was



perhaps his most famous legendary act—his construction of eighty-four thousand stupas throughout his empire. 72 The nature of his “distribution ideology” is perhaps most tellingly revealed in an incident recounted in the Aóokavada\ na\ . Aóoka, we are told, had ordered the eighty-four thousand portions of relics to be sent throughout his empire to wherever there was a population center of a koèi of people. When it came time to send relics to the kingdom of Taksa≥ óila,\ however, the Taksa≥ óilans declared that their pop- ulation numbered thirty-six koèis and that therefore they merited thirty-six shares of relics. Aóoka realized that if he were to agree to this demand, it would be impossible for him to distribute the relics “far and wide.” He therefore resorted to more authoritarian measures (called “upaya”\ [skillful means] in the text): he announced that thirty-five koèis of people in Taksa≥ óila\would have to be summarily executed, and in that way the region would get only its one due share of relics. The Taksa≥ óilans quickly with- drew their demand for the extra shares, and Aóoka remanded his order. 73 The principle of distribution here thus seems to be one of division and equal dissemination, and it might well be termed “mandalaic.” The relics need to be distributed in a balanced pattern throughout the kingdom. Other examples of this sort could be cited: the emperor Wendi, as we have seen, similarly distributed equal shares of relics to pagodas throughout China; likewise, the founder of a Mon kingdom in Myanmar took thirty-three tooth relics of the Buddha and had them enshrined in his capital and in the thirty-two provinces of his kingdom, 74 while the Sri Lankans spelled out ways in which stupas and bodhi trees were systematically established “at every league” throughout the island. 75 In all of these cases, the relationship with the center is rather different than that in the case of Christian relics and the Vatican, a difference that perhaps can be expressed as follows:

Hypothesis 6: Christian relics : centralized distribution on demand ::

Buddhist relics : “mandalization.”


Given the tentative and somewhat idiosyncratic nature of the six hypothe- ses that have been set forth so far, any definitive “conclusion” at this point would be rather suspect. Perhaps it would be better, therefore, to end with yet another set of stories, this one concerning the “end” of relics, for one can often learn about the nature of things or persons by seeing what is to happen to them in the final days of the eschaton.

A. In Christianity, as is well known, at the end of time, there occurs the phe-

nomenon of bodily resurrection. Without getting into debates on the subject,



I will mention only one such scenario, the description of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37: “there was a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And as I looked, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them.” Though it is unlikely that this passage was originally intended as a description of events in the final days (it was rather a metaphor for the restoration of the Jewish state), it rapidly came to be linked to the theme of bodily resurrection and became in the pop- ular mind an important eschatological image. 76 Its importance in terms of relics—the bones of the saints—lies in its showing what Christian relics finally are in the long run: bodies. But the metaphors used to describe these bodies and the manner in which they become resurrected were mind bog- gling in their variety. As Caroline Bynum points out, the resurrection body was variously seen as “angel, reassembled bones, bride, city, crystal, egg, foetus, fire, flowering plant, garment, glowworm, ivory, jewel, mended pot, mercury, mosaic, overflow of the soul, Pauline seed, phoenix, rebuilt tem- ple, reforged statue, ship, sphere, tent, waterskin,” and so on. 77

B. In Buddhism, too, there is an eschaton, at least for the Buddha’s body:

the so-called parinirvana of the relics. According to this belief, prior to the advent of Maitreya, all the relics of the Buddha—including those in the naga\ world and those in the realms of the gods—will come together at Bodhgaya. None, not even those that are but the size of a mustard seed, will be lost en route. At Bodhgaya, they will reassemble and take on the form of the Buddha’s body, complete with its thirty-two major and eighty minor marks, and in midair, they will perform once again the “twin miracle” like the one the Buddha performed during his lifetime, at Sra: vast\ ê. Thus far, we would seem to have a nice parallel to Ezekiel. But then, the text specifies, the gods will lament: “Today, the Dasabala [Buddha] will be parinirva- nized; from now on, there will be darkness.” And then a great fire, ema- nating from the relic body (dhatusar\ êra) itself, will completely consume all of the relics, and the body of the Buddha will be seen no more. That is the disappearance of the relics. 78 The contrast with the Christian scenario of resurrection and bodily reconstitution could hardly be more clear. Final Hypothesis: In the end, Christian relics : eternal bodies :: Bud- dhist relics : impermanent bodies.


1. See, for example, the sketch in C.F. Gordon Cumming, Two Happy Years in Ceylon (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1892), 292 ff.; and the compara-



tive set of drawings in J. Gerson Da Cunha, “Memoir on the History of the Tooth- relic of Ceylon,” Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 11 (1875): 141.

2. On the Beijing tooth relic, see The Buddha’s Tooth Relic Pagoda (Beijing:

Buddhist Association of China, 1966); and Holmes Welch, Buddhism under Mao (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 180–84. On this visit in 1972, see

John Strong and Sarah Strong, “A Post-Cultural Revolution Look at Buddhism,” China Quarterly 54 (1973): 325.

3. See John Strong and Sarah Strong, “A Tooth Relic of the Buddha in Japan:

An Essay on the Sennyu\-ji Tradition and a Translation of Zeami’s No\ Play

‘Shari’,” Japanese Religions 20 (1995): 1–33.

4. See D. Balduino Bedini, Le Reliquie della Passione del Signore (Rome:

Basilica S. Croce, 1987); and P. Heinrich Drenkelfort, The Basilica of the Holy

Cross in Jerusalem (Rome: Basilica S. Croce, n.d.).

5. I will, in this chapter, be dealing only with Christian and Buddhist relics,

not with those of other traditions (Islam, etc.). For a more general survey, see John Strong, “Relics,” Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York:

Macmillan, 1987), 12:275–82.

6. Leonardo Olschki, “The Crib of Christ and the Bowl of Buddha,” Journal

of the American Oriental Society 70 (1950): 161–64.

7. Gregory Schopen, “Burial ‘Ad Sanctos’ and the Physical Presence of the

Buddha in Early Indian Buddhism,” Religion 17 (1987): 193–225.

8. Robert H. Sharf, “On the Allure of Buddhist Relics,” Representations 66

(1999): 79.

9. E. O. Reischauer, Ennin’s Diary (New York: Ronald Press, 1955), 301.

10. Donald K. Swearer, personal communication. See also Jean Barthes, “Les

reliques sacrées à Phnom-Penh (5–11 octobre 1952),” France-Asie 8, no. 78 (1952): 951–55.

11. See Nicole Hermann-Mascard, Les reliques des saints: Formation coutu-

mière d’un droit (Paris: Editions Klinksieck, 1975), 214. It has been argued that this decree was only meant to be against the sale of relics and not their “naked

exposition,” but see Hubert Silvestre, “Commerce et vol de reliques au Moyen age,” Revue Belge de philologie et d’histoire 30 (1952): 726.

12. See Eugene A. Dooley, Church Law on Sacred Relics (Washington: The

Catholic University of America, 1931), 102–04.

13. Wendy Doniger [O’Flaherty], Other Peoples’ Myths (New York: Macmil-

lan, 1988), 2.

14. John Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades (Warminster:



15. On this see James Bentley, Restless Bones: The Story of Relics (London:

Constable, 1985), 35, and Hermann-Mascard, 27 ff. On the defiling nature of any contact with tombs or corpses, see Numbers 19:11–16 and Leviticus 21:1–4.

16. Wilkinson, Jerusalem, 40.

17. Patrice Boussel, Des reliques et de leur bon usage (Paris: Balland, 1971),


18. Bentley, Restless Bones, 35.

19. For different versions of the tale, see John Strong, The Legend and Cult of

Upagupta (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 28–32.

20. James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms (Oxford: Clarendon Press,

1886), 39 (text in T. 2085, 51:859a).

21. Wang Yi-t’ung, A Record of Buddhist Monasteries in Lo-Yang by Yang

Hsüan-chih (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 244 (text in T. 2092,


22. See James Ware, “Weishou on Buddhism,” T’oung pao 30 (1933): 156. See

also Alexander Soper, “Aspects of Light Symbolism in Gandha\ran Sculpture, Part 1,” Artibus Asiae 12 (1949–50): 282; and Erik Zürcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1959), 224–25.

23. A full bibliography cannot be given here but, for a variety of positions on

this issue, see other chapters in this volume (e.g., those by David Germano and Jacob Kinnard) and see also Malcolm David Eckel, “The Power of the Buddha’s Absence: On the Foundations of Maha\ya\na Buddhist Ritual,” Journal of Ritual Studies 4 (1990): 61–95; Gregory Schopen, Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997), 125 ff., 154, 258 ff.; Donald K. Swearer, “Hypostasizing the Buddha: Buddha Image Consecration in Northern Thailand,” History of Religions 34 (1995): 263–64; and Kevin Trainor, Relics, Rit- ual, and Representation in Buddhism: Rematerializing the Sri Lanka Therava\da Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 96 ff.

24. Paul Mus, “La mythologie primitive et la pensée de l’Inde,” Bulletin de la

Société Française de Philosophie 37 (1937): 91. See also the passages from the Pa\li canon collected under the title “Questions Which Tend Not to Edification” in Henry Clarke Warren, Buddhism in Translations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Uni- versity Press, 1896), 117–28.

25. Stephan Beyer, The Buddhist Experience (Encino: Dickenson, 1974), 214

(text in J. W. de Jong, Na\ga\rjuna, Mu\lamadhyamakaka\rika\h[Madras: Adyar

Library, 1977], 39).

26. Gregory Schopen, “On the Buddha and His Bones: The Conception of a

Relic in the Inscriptions of Na\ga\rjunikonda,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 108 (1988): 530.

27. Manorathapu\ranê≥ : Buddhaghosa’s Commentary on the Anæguttara Nika\ya,

ed. M. Walleser and H. Kopf (London: Pa\li Text Society, 1924), 1:382–84 (Eng.



trans., John Strong, The Experience of Buddhism [Belmont: Wadsworth, 1995],


28. See The Maha\vamsa, ed. Wilhelm Geiger (London: Pali Text Society,

1908), 133 (Eng. trans., Wilhelm Geiger, The Maha\vamsa or the Great Chronicle of Ceylon. [London: Pali Text Society, 1912], 116).

29. Paul Mus, Barabudur: Les origines du stu\pa et la transmigration, essai

d’archéologie religieuse comparée (Hanoi: Imprimerie d’Extrême-Orient, 1935),

1:74, 190.

30. Mus, Barabudur, 1:89–90.

31. On this dynamic, see Strong, Upagupta, 109–116.

32. Thomas Head, personal communication, 1995. I would like to thank

Thomas Head for this and other comments on the draft of this paper originally pre- sented to the American Academy of Religion Seminar on Buddhist Relics,

November 19, 1994.

33. Emile Briand, Histoire de Sainte Radegonde, reine de France, et des sanc-

tuaires et pèlerinages en son honneur (Paris and Poitiers: H. Oudin, 1898), 157. Some of the wording here is based on the biography of Radegund by her contem- porary, Sister Baudovonia.

34. On her reception of the true cross in Poitiers, which was the occasion of the

composition by Fortunatus of the hymn “Vexilla Regis Prodeunt,” see René Aigrain, Sainte Radegonde (Poitiers: Editions des Cordeliers, 1917), 104–28; and Edmond-René Labaude, Histoire de l’abbaye de Sainte-Croix de Poitiers (Poitiers: Société des Antiquaires de l’Ouest, 1986), 38–41. See also Peter Brown, “Relics and Social Status in the Age of Gregory of Tours” (University of Reading:

The Stenton Lecture, 1977), 14–15; and Raymond Van Dam, Saints and Their Miracles in Late Antique Gaul (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 30–41. On the recent history of the relic and its present location outside of Poitiers, see Roger Gazeau, L’Abbaye Sainte-Croix de Poitiers à la Cossonière (Ligugé: Imprimerie Aubin, 1968).

35. Aigrain, Radegonde, 191.

36. Boussel, Des reliques, 28–29.

37. Li Ronxi, A Biography of the Tripièaka Master of the Great Ci’en

Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty (Berkeley, Numata Center, 1995), 56–57

(text in T. 2053, 50:229c-30a).

38. Wilkinson, Jerusalem, 49–50.

39. Maha\vamsa, 241–42 (Eng. trans., Geiger, Maha\vamsa, 203–04).

40. On this theme, see John Strong, Relics of the Buddha (forthcoming), intro-




42. Decima L. Douie and David H. Farmer, Magna Vita Sancti Hugonis—The

Life of St. Hugh of Lincoln (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 2:170.

43. For example, according to Saint Silvia (fourth century), special security

measures had to be taken at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to pre- vent pilgrims come to venerate the true cross there from biting off pieces of it. See sources listed in Anatole Frolow, La relique de la vraie croix: Recherches sur le

développement d’un culte (Paris: Institut d’Etudes Byzantines, 1961), 162.

44. For a recent linguistically informed discussion of the Eucharist, see Louis

Marin, Food for Thought, trans. Mette Hjort (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press,

1989), ch. 1.

45. G. J. C. Snoek, Medieval Piety from Relics to the Eucharist (Leiden: E. J.

Brill, 1995). See also Patrick Geary, Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central

Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 34–35.

46. See Geary, Furta Sacra; and Silvestre, “Le vol.”

47. See Boussel, Des reliques, 57–66.

48. This, of course, in no way sums up the reasons for the gradual growth in

the West in reverence for (as opposed to simple ritual use of) the eucharistic ele- ments, on which, see Snoek, Medieval Piety, 381–82. The Eucharist, however,

was especially important given the dearth of corporeal relics of Christ.

49. See Mitomo Ryo\jun, “An Aspect of Dharma-óarêra,” Journal of Indian and

Buddhist Studies / Indogaku bukkyo\gaku kenkyu\32 (1984): 1117; and Li, Great Tang Record, 266 (text in T. 2087, 51:920a). Much the same tradition is men- tioned by Yijing (see Junjiro Takakusu, A Record of Buddhistic Religion as Prac- ticed in India and the Malay Archipelago [London: Clarendon Press, 1896], 150).

50. See Brian Hickman, “A Note on the Hyakumanto\Dha\ranê,” Monumenta

Nipponica 30 (1975): 87–93; and J. Edward Kidder, “Busshari and Fukuzo\: Bud- dhist Relics and Hidden Repositories of Ho\ryu\-ji,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 19 (1992): 222.

51. Daniel Boucher, “The Pratêtyasamutpa\daga\tha\ and Its Role in the Medieval Cult of the Relics,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14 (1991): 8–10 (text in T. 699, 16:800c–801b). See also Mitomo, “Dharma-óarêra,” 1118. The verse was instrumental in the conversion of S:a\riputra and Maha\maudgalya\yana. For a still useful discussion of it, see Eugène Burnouf, Le Lotus de la Bonne Loi (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1852), 522 ff.

52. Stanley J. Tambiah, The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of

Amulets (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 335 ff.

53. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand (Nerw York: Mentor Books, 1950), 53.

54. Jinhua Chen, Monks and Monarchs, Kinship and Kingship: Tanqian in Sui

Buddhism and Politics (Kyoto: Scuola di Studi sull’Asia Orientale), 181 (text in



55. Chen, Monks and Monarchs, 181.

56. Brian Ruppert, Jewel in the Ashes: Buddha Relics and Power in Early

Medieval Japan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 136.

57. On Wendi’s relic campaigns, see Chen, Monks and Monarchs, ch. 2; and

Arthur Wright, “The Formation of Sui Ideology,” in Chinese Thought and Institu-

tions, ed. John K. Fairbank (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957),


58. Chen, Monks and Monarchs, 51, n.12. These were tested to insure their

authenticity: struck with a hammer, they remained unsmashed.

59. The Sumangala-Vila\sinê, Buddhaghosa’s Commentary on the Dêgha Nika\ya, ed. William Stede (London: Pali Text Society, 1931), 2:603–04.

60. For a discussion of sheli in East Asia, see Bernard Faure, The Rhetoric of

Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 137–43; for Southeast Asia, see Tambiah, Saints of the Forest, 109; for Tibet, see Dan Martin, “Pearls from Bones: Relics, Chortens, Ter- tons and the Signs of Saintly Death in Tibet,” Numen 41 (1994): 273–324.

61. Tsultrim Allione, Women of Wisdom (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,

1984), 203–04.

62. Allione, Women, 203. See also Martin, “Pearls from Bones,” 283.

63. Chen, Monks and Monarchs, 189–90.

64. Allione, Women, 203.

65. Kevin Trainor, “When Is a Theft Not a Theft? Relic Theft and the Cult of

the Buddha’s Relics in Sri Lanka,” Numen 39 (1992): 15.

66. David Sox, Relics and Shrines (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1985),


67. Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

1981); Geary, Furta Sacra; Frolow, Vraie croix.

68. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, trans. David Wright (Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 1985), 409.

69. For examples, see Snoek, Medieval Piety, 329–32; for discussion, see

Thomas Head, “Bodies of Truth: The Genesis and Abandonment of the Ritual Proof of Relics by Fire,” paper delivered to Davis Seminar, Princeton University, 1993; for the ritual, see Dooley, Church Law, 27.

70. For examples of this genre, all dealing with relics of the true cross, see

Anonymous, Exposé historique de l’honneur et du culte qu’on rend au bois de la Vraie Croix dans l’église paroissiale de Notre Dame de la Chapelle à Bruxelles (Brussels: Antoine d’Ours, 1790); G. Sévérac, Notice sur la Vraie Croix de St. Guilhem-du-Désert (Lodève: n.p., 1861); and J. B. Barrau, Notice historique sur la Vraie Croix de Baugé (Angers: Briand et Hervé, 1874). For a discussion of the legitimizing role of vamsas, see Trainor, Relics, 164 ff.



71. Dooley, Church Law, 72–74.

72. See John S. Strong, The Legend of King Aóoka (Princeton: Princeton Uni-

versity Press 1983), 110 ff.

73. The Aóoka\vada\na, ed. Sujitkumar Mukhopadhyaya (New Delhi: Sahitya

Akademi, 1963), 54 (Eng. trans., Strong, Legend, 220).

74. H. L. Shorto, “The 32 Myos in the Medieval Mon Kingdom,” Bulletin of

the School of Oriental and African Studies 26 (1963): 572–91.

75. Kiriwaththuduwe Pragnasara, “Bodhi Literature in Sri Lanka,” Maha

Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura, ed. H. S. S. Nissanka (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1994), 180–81.

76. See Helmer Ringgren, “Resurrection,” Encyclopedia of Religion, ed.

Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987), 12:346. Even more graphic, per- haps, was the Jewish Talmudic tradition that featured bones rolling through under- ground tunnels so that they could be “reassembled in Jerusalem at the sound of the last trumpet” (see Caroline Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336 [New York: Columbia University Press 1995], 54).

77. Bynum, Resurrection of the Body, 351–52.

78. Manorathapu\ranê≥ , 1:90. Much the same scenario may be found in the

Ana\gatavamsa, ed. J. Minayeff in Journal of the Pali Text Society 2 (1886): 36 (Eng. trans., Warren, Buddhism, 484–85). In some versions of the story, the relics

in Sri Lanka stop first at the Maha\thu\pa in Anuradhapura, then proceed to the Ra\ja\yatana cetiya in Na\gadêpa, before going all together to Bodhgaya to join relics from other parts of the world. See Sumangala-Vila\sinê, 3:899. See also Strong, Relics, ch. 8.

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David Germano



continuous record of successful migration, an impressive two and half millennia history from its northern Indian origins to the furthest reaches of Asia in every direction. This process has been marked as much by trans- formation and diversity as by continuity and unity, whether we look to its literatures, doctrines, practices, or institutions. Yet within this diversity, there is a persistent and even defining concern with the figure of the Bud- dha(s), whether serene or horrific, celibate or sexual, historical or cosmic, iconographic or doctrinal, ritual or contemplative, objects of emulation or objects of negation. These figures proliferated in the shimmering pure lands, dense mandalas, and alternative cosmologies of later forms of Bud- dhism, while the simple historicity of a north Indian founder of a religion underwent similar transformations to the point of including primordial fig- ures whose defining identity was their lack of historicity and temporal development, massive cosmological Buddhas who create and host entire galaxies, and intimate interior Buddhas pervading the body’s interior. And yet within this diversity and divinity, there has remained a consistent humanist association stemming from the human origins of Buddhas, and the rejection of a creator deity who sits outside of interdependence, even when this rejection sits side by side with rhetoric that celebrates “Buddha” or “bodhicitta” in terms that seem all but indistinguishable from such a divine, creative force. With this humanism, there comes an equally persistent problem of presence and absence, of how a discrete, specific Buddha is present in this




ordinary world of samsara when his/her self-transfiguration by definition involves extrication from that world. It is thus not surprising that wherever we find Buddhism, we also find a concern for what could only be termed “relics”—bits and pieces of the Buddha, or Buddha-like historical figures, which have retained a material presence in the world even when the Bud- dha has departed or is only accessible in brief glimpses of visionary expe- rience or ritual evocation. Relics have been one of the most omnipresent and sought after phenomena of Buddhist material culture, often presented in recent scholarship as a way to mediate the Buddha’s historical absence following death. Relics and statues of the Buddha are in many ways con- sidered as the living Buddha, that is, as radically active agents, rather than a mere remainder from, or image of, a distant past. This quality of per- sonhood or agency has been demonstrated through examination of con- crete social practices surrounding relics and statues, including the attribu- tion of such classic characteristics of ownership of property, the ability to be murdered, and so forth. In Mahayana traditions, this persistent agency of the Buddhas in material form has been further formalized in the theol- ogy of the “three Bodies” of a Buddha: a Buddha’s innermost recesses become coterminous, in some sense, with reality (dharmata\), and out of this matrix a vast array of material forms both animate and nonanimate are emanated. We might thus speak of relics and emanations, which are uni- fied in their divine agency and derivation, but different in being perceived as persistent forces that are a legacy of the past in contrast to newly emer- gent manifestations that are a direct outflow of the present. In practice, however, these distinctions are far from clear. Relics can be pieces of the material body—a tooth, a bone, dried up flesh, odd crystalline derivates of the cremated body, or material items associated with a Buddha—clothing, ritual items, or other possessions. They can also be verbal, as encapsulated in the Buddhist scriptures, believed to have persisted orally in the hearts and minds of disciples before being committed to written, canonical form. Indeed it has been argued that stupas, images, and a wide spectrum of other items believed to derive from, emulate, represent, or incarnate a Buddha’s presence should be considered relics. 1 “Relics” also extend from the historical Buddha to other Buddhas, divine figures, and historical personages in a given tradition’s lineages. In the present volume, such relics are analyzed across a variety of situational contexts and functions—intellectual, ritual, social, literary, and political—and across an equally diverse array of cul- tural contexts—India, Japan, Thailand, and China. In this chapter I will turn to yet another cultural context, namely, Tibet, and to yet another sit-



uational context, namely, a philosophical interpretation of relics in rela- tionship to Buddha-nature. Thus I will be concerned with the philosophy of the production of relics rather than practical issues of their subsequent use, thereby showing that there is not always a clear bifurcation between high intellectual traditions and a detailed interest in the material phe- nomenon of relics. The Tibetan tantric tradition known as the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen) systematically relates the bodily relics of a saint to the constellation of concepts and practices that assert a bodily presence of Buddha-nature within all living beings. It emerged in Tibet by at least the ninth century, though claiming almost entirely to be Indian revelations concealed in Tibet during the eight and ninth centuries. It appears, however, that in fact its many variant traditions and corresponding bodies of literature emerged at different periods over many centuries as original Tibetan developments. The earliest public Great Perfection traditions in the ninth century are marked by the absence of presentations of detailed ritual and contempla- tive technique and by the absence of “funerary” Buddhism. Then there is a gradual incorporation of diverse ritual and contemplative techniques and funerary elements culminating in the eleventh-century rise of the Seminal Heart (snying thig), which was systematized in the fourteenth century by Longchenpa (klong chen pa, 1308–1363). “Funerary” Buddhism signifies the late Indian Buddhist tantric obsession with death on multiple fronts:

(1) the focus on charnel grounds and their corpses, (2) funerary rituals, (3) the signs of dying and death (particularly relics), (4) “intermediate process” theory (bar do, Sanskrit antara\bhava), and (5) contemplative yogas based on death. 2 In this process of transformation, we find a concern with relics blossoming in conjunction with an elaborate tantric synthesis revolving around death, vision, and the body in relationship to Buddhas. I will show how relics are closely tied with Buddha-nature theory inscribed within an elaborate and architectonic philosophical synthesis. We thus will see that the traditional connection of Buddha-nature with birth, womb, and genesis is here balanced by associations with cemeteries, death, and relics, with tombs as much as with wombs.


We will begin with The All-Creating King, the chief tantra of the early strata of the Great Perfection. These early texts are characterized by a lack of reference to funerary Buddhism, and a general tendency toward aes- theticization, which abstracts from discrete particulars, whether ritual and



contemplative processes or any other type of concrete detail. Thus, while The All-Creating King devotes its seventeenth chapter to a discussion of relics, it is an abstract and metaphorical account:

Then the All-Creating King, the enlightening mind, spoke about holding on to his own Bodily bones (sku gdung):

O Great Heroic Being, grasp this! If you continually hold on to

these Bodily bones and precious (relic) spheres (ring bsrel), you will be equal to me, the All-Creating, the original ancestor of the

Victorious Ones.

Then the Adamantine Heroic Being made this inquiry:

O original ancestor of all the Buddhas of the three times, teacher of teachers, the All-Creating King! As to continually hold- ing on to the Bodily bones and precious (relic) spheres, “Bodily” refers to the Bodies (sku, ka\ya) of which Victorious Ones? “Bones” refers to the bones of which Buddhas? How should “precious (relic) spheres” be understood?

The All-Creating King’s response:

Listen, O Great Heroic Being! “Bodily” is the Spiritual Bodies of my sons, the threefold Victors. “Bones” signifies my mind in the Victors of the three times. If you hold on to this, Heroic Being, con- tinually and without temporal [break], it is the receptacle of offer- ing to all the Buddhas of the three times. This should be understood as the referent of “Bodily bones and precious (relic) spheres.”

The Adamantine Heroic Being made a further inquiry:

O teacher of teachers, the All-Creating King! Even if the Bod-

ily bones and precious (relic) spheres are thus, how do you offer to the Buddhas of the three times therein? What are the virtues to be had in offering?

The All-Creating King’s response:

Listen, O Great Heroic Being! You worship these Bodily bones and precious (relic) spheres of mine by continually seeing the Bud- dhas of the three times as your own mind. Having attained indivis- ibility with the virtues of that [act], you will become as potent as the King who creates all phenomena. 3

“Precious relic spheres” (ring bsrel) are generally etymologized as “held/proliferating (bsrel) for a long time (ring),” based upon the notion



that unusual crystalline spheres collected out of cremation and other con- texts are supposed to grow in number over time if kept in careful stew- ardship. The passage above plays off this etymology to reinterpret the stock phrase “Bodily bones and precious relic spheres”—usually referring to material residue of various types from the remains of a Buddha or saint—as “perpetually embodying the realization of the body and mind of the Buddhas.” The content and style of this passage is typical of the text, with its twin rhetorical strategies in interpreting normative Buddhist cate- gories of theory and praxis: deconstructing them via a resolute denial of their cogency and reinterpreting them allegorically as applying to facets of the primordial enlightened mind (byang chub sems, Sanskrit bodhicitta). Bodhicitta is explicitly identified as the personified speaker of this tantra, as well as creator of the cosmos. The passage translated above is an exam- ple of the allegorical strategy, though the overall effect is still to suggest a negation or at least devaluation of the conventional understanding of the- ories and practices relating to relics. 4 There hardly seems any flesh to these bones, either our own or those of the Buddhas. This is in line with the text’s general tendency to devalue the phenomenal characteristics of discrete items constituting one’s ordi- nary experience in preference for an emphasis on the in-visible reality body of the Buddha (chos sku, Sanskrit dharmaka\ya), also referred to as the “enlightening mind,” “the enlightened nucleus of Buddhas” (de bzhin gshegs pa’i snying po, Sanskrit tatha\gatagarbha), “ground” (gzhi), and the “All-Creating King.” At the core of this notion is reality’s (chos nyid, Sanskrit dharmata\) absence, latency (nang gsal), and indeterminacy, the total converse of our ordinary cyclic existence (samsa\ra) with its manifest structures (phyir gsal) of discrete things and karmic laws of cause and effect forming a prison. While normally reality’s virtual character entails its retreat from the field of our awareness, the tantra asserts its primacy as the source, ongoing reality, and ultimate destination (‘byung gnas ‘gro) of ordinary modes of existence. The generalized phenomenological correlate to this emphasis on reality in this virtual sense is a turning from focal modes of attention (dmigs pa) on discrete manipulatable items (chos, Sanskrit dharma) to diffusive modalities (dmigs med) expressed as a “letting-go” (cog bzhag), which opens out to the all-embracing field (dbyings, Sanskrit dha\tu) con- stituting such discrete items. In traditional Great Perfection terms, this is characterized as the difference between karma (las) and gnosis (ye shes, Sanskrit jña\na), the world of discrete forms in rigid hierarchies in con- trast to emptiness interpreted positively as a fluid web of paradoxical



presences (med bzhin snang ba). 5 This simple dyad can be explored per- ceptually in terms of meditative processes, hermeneutically in terms of the different types of textuality, institutionally in terms of a contrast between diffuse village-based lay movements and more formal monastic organizations, and indeed in terms of the interpretation of any classic Buddhist phenomena. The text here utilizes this opposition to undercut relics as discrete physical items from which authority almost physically emanates, whether physical remnants of a Buddha or saint; miraculous excrescence from such remnants; or their possessions, texts, or other traditional categories of sacred relics suitable for worship and installation within a stupa. Such rhetorical tactics could have undercut scholastic ventures as well as pop- ular practices, but we know too little about the significance of relic wor- ship or stupas during this period or indeed any socioreligious contexts in the tenth century to determine what ideological significance such rejection might have had. For instance, it is not clear that authors of these texts shared the elitist approach and fundamental distrust of popular religiosity attributed by Faure to some elements of Chan, since such rhetorical strate- gies need not be automatically interpreted literally to signify a disregard for the object of denial. 6 But at least textually or philosophically, the over- whelming stress is on absence as well as rhetorical disembodiedness in the body of the text; the “relics” of the Buddha are none other than one’s own mind, and their possession seems a bit intangible, to say the least. It is a discourse of the bare bones, and perhaps we can characterize the coming transformation of relics in the tradition as a discovery of the radical agency of these bones: they have something to say and a fully embodied presence with which to speak.


The early foundational literature of the Seminal Heart is a collection of seventeen tantras revealed in Tibet gradually from the eleventh to the twelfth centuries, which were then systematically interpreted in the four- teenth century by the tradition’s great systematizer, Longchenpa in The Treasury of Words and Meanings and The Treasury of the Supreme Vehi- cle. 7 The Seventeen Tantras range from lengthy texts surveying diverse issues to succinct texts discussing single topics. 8 For instance, The Tantra of the Sun and Moon’s Intimate Union 9 is devoted to the subject of inter- mediate processes (bar do) and forms the earliest known literature outlin- ing the characteristic doctrines and practices later shaped by Karmalingpa



(kar ma gling pa, 1327–1387) into The Liberation upon Hearing in the Intermediate Process. 10 The Blazing Relics Tantra is instead devoted to relics and issues surrounding the moment of death from the perspective of the survivors. 11 In contrast to The All-Creating King, this tantra discusses at length the types of relics and other odd signs emerging in the death of a saint. 12 These are each correlated with the varying levels and nature of realization of the person in question, indicating that this detailed account of relics in part concerns the generation of belief, a legitimization of the deceased and the lineage s/he incarnated. But the manifestation of such marks is also explicitly connected to the theory of Buddha(s) located physically within human interiority and thus embedded within the broader architecture of the Seminal Heart. The Blazing Relics Tantra presents relics as a subset of a discussion of “signs” (rtags) marking enlightenment—“living” signs manifest in a visionary’s body, speech, and mind by force of contemplation, while relics mark enlightenment within death. Its three chapters correspond to signs emerging in a visionary’s body, speech, and mind (1) in the present due to contemplation in past lives, (2) in the present as immediate feedback on success in present contemplative endeavors, and (3) after death indicating attainments in the immediate postmortem future. The tantra is thus orga- nized around signs relating to contemplative practice in the past, present, and future. Much of the text is focused on relatively straightforward accounts of the phenomenology of different contemplative practices along with descriptions of the various capacities thereby attained. Despite this, the text’s overall title of “blazing relics/bones” (sku gdung) points to relics as its overarching organizational rubric, in which capacity it signifies gen- erally the bodily markers or transfigurations that authentic contemplation generates—literally, “the body’s bones blaze.” Its centrality no doubt derives from the importance of relics in Tibetan Buddhist practices con- cerning death and postmortem interpretation of sanctity but also from the tradition’s philosophical interpretation of the body and its indwelling gnostic agency described in terms reserved for a Buddha(s). Chapter 1 unfolds in response to a question from the audience asking what the signs are like for an enlightened individual. The Teacher responds by talking about the signs of enlightened Body, Speech, and Mind manifesting in someone via previous training. For example, training on the Buddha’s Body results in physical marks, which tend to be of three types: wrinkles, protrusions of skin, and light colorations in shapes resem- bling auspicious items such as ritual implements or sacred syllables appearing. Chapter 2 deals mainly with this life and signs that correspond



to success in various Great Perfection practices. In contrast to Longchenpa’s The Treasury of Words and Meanings, the signs tend to be more external indicators (such as flying through air, walking on water, or remembering teachings) rather than phenomenological indicators linked to procedures of contemplative practices. Chapter 3 unfolds in response to a Da\kinê asking what type of signs emerge when a yogi is unable to suc- cessfully bring contemplation to its fulfillment and dies. Buddha Vajra Holder’s (rdo rje ‘chang) response surveys five topics: Body images, bones, lights, sounds, and earthquakes. He correlates material events at death such as odd material objects appearing at cremation, strange phe- nomena observed in the surrounding environment, and so on to the timing of liberation for the deceased visionary—whether at death, four days later in the postdeath intermediate process, or otherwise. Longchenpa’s The Treasury of Words and Meanings has eleven chap- ters corresponding to the essential rubrics of the tradition and only includes topics he understands as crucial within a practice-oriented digest (lag len). 13 The fact that the ninth topic corresponds to the discussion of relics in The Blazing Relics Tantra, citations of which pervade it, thus sig- nifies that Longchenpa views relics as a vital topic within the overall sys- tem. 14 Just like the tantra, it concerns the psychophysical and visionary signs manifesting in the practitioner’s body, speech, mind, and external environment as realization deepens in his/her contemplative path. Such analyses are presented as an aid for the practitioner to empirically observe his/her own progress, keeping alert for stagnation, deviation, and other pitfalls, as well as aiding teachers in evaluation and sequential instruction of disciples. The variety and remarkable nature of many of the signs are also intended to serve as a curb against intellectual hubris for those who may mistake intellectual comprehension with experiential realization, as the former will not issue forth in the extraordinary psychic powers and other measures marking the latter. Three sections correlated to the past, present, and future again constitute the bulk of the chapter: (1) the signs marking proper progress in the Great Perfection’s contemplations, 15 (2) the signs naturally occurring in one’s current body, speech, and mind indicat- ing successful engagement in these practices during previous lifetimes, 16 and (3) the external environmental signs and internal signs evident in a person’s death and cremation. 17 The first section is a complement to the contemplative practices dis- cussed in the preceding chapter, with signs ranging over the feeling of being able to fly, an astonishingly youthful complexion, internal sensa- tions, and psychic capacities. The discussion focuses on the specific trans-



formations occurring in the different elements of the visions in direct tran- scendence contemplation (thod rgal). It is of note that much of the imagery involves the spontaneous unfolding of visual images of Buddhas and lights from within the body, strikingly similar to the postmortem events discussed elsewhere in the text. The practice of direct transcen- dence itself involves the use of postures, gazes, and breathing exercises to stimulate a spontaneous flow of visions that gradually shape into visions of Buddhas. The second section describes the diverse signs naturally occurring in one’s current body, speech, and mind indicating successful engagement in these practices during previous lifetimes. These range from a natural capacity for concentration to birthmarks which are remarkably similar to classic auspicious symbols. While the manifestation of such contempla- tion within the practitioner’s speech and mind is more straightforward (eloquence, clairvoyance, etc.), the signs manifesting within a practi- tioner’s body are of particular interest. The Blazing Relics Tantra describes these living bodily relics as follows:

(i) A conch spiraling to the right, Or wrinkles going upwards like three tips [of a vajra, trident and so on], Or, likewise the letter OmWill emerge in image or naturally protrude On the expanse of the forehead Of whoever tunes into the Blissful Ones.

Whoever has such signs emerge Previously spiritually trained on the Buddha’s Body; That yogi who trains on this Will in two lifetimes attain The time of utter assurance In being inseparable from the Buddha’s Body. Thus you should value highly in this very life Diligence in meditative cultivation, Without allowing obstructions to gain sway.

(ii) The fortunate individual Who previously spiritually trained On the Speech of all the Buddhas, Has images or protruding shapes On the right and left side of the throat:



An eight petaled lotus, Conch spiraling to the right, Or likewise the tip of a silk prayer flag curling upwards, Iron hook or sword, Or marked by the letter Ah.

The individual who has these marks Has previously spiritually trained On the Speech of all the Buddhas, And thus in two lifetimes will come to attain the definitive fruit As s/he becomes one with Enlightened Speech.

Also with this you should value the absence of obstructions— When you meditatively cultivate the Enlightened Speech without any obstructions It is certain beyond a shadow of a doubt it will be attained.

(iii) Whoever has previously become experientially familiar With the Mind of the Buddhas, Will find their body marked by the following signs:

At the location of the heart Is an upright trident and vajra, Or likewise a four spoked wheel, Flesh glowing in the form of a trident, The shape of precious jewels, Or the mark of the letter Hu\m.

The person for whom these emerge Is a fortunate one who has experientially familiarized himself With the Mind of the Buddhas; When diligent in meditative cultivation, Without obstructions in three lives There can be no doubt that s/he will be expansively awakened Within the mandala of the Buddha’s Mind. 18

Longchenpa explains 19 the rationale for these signs’ manifestation with respect to the primordial ground of being and nonbeing. 20 The Enlightened Body, Speech, and Mind are present naturally within all liv- ing beings as the all-pervading primordial potencies or self-emergent dynamic qualities of the ground, and thus by previous spiritual refinement and training they become manifest in the present. They also indicate imminent realization—bodily signs indicate that by further training on the



Enlightened Body one will attain the adamantine Body in two lifetimes, verbal signs indicate that adamantine Speech can be accomplished within two births, and mental signs indicate enlightenment within three lifetimes. However, he also stresses that the signs are not ultimate indicators and that everything depends on one’s current actions 21 —hence the signs should motivate further practice. Otherwise the positive karma that led to those signs will become mixed with current negative karma and result in subse- quent birth in the form realms, the god Brahma’s level, and as a demi-god respectively (corresponding to the signs of Body, Speech, and Mind). 22 Longchenpa concludes the chapter with an analysis of what we would consider “relics” proper: the various external environmental signs (such as weather, earthquakes, or strange appearances) and internal signs (such as relics or marks on bones) evident in a given person’s death and cremation. These signs are interpreted as indicating an advanced visionary’s post- mortem spiritual realization (i.e., his/her possible enlightenment within death or in one of the phases of postdeath experience). The manifestation of these signs is clearly understood as the coming to the fore of the latent Buddhas based in the body rather than something fashioned anew by dint of diligent yogic practice. The Treasury of Words and Meanings 23 cites The Blazing Relics Tantra in its division of a quintet of signs marking saintly death: images on bones, small spheres emerging from the cremated remains, lights, sounds, or earthquakes. The signs of saintly death are described as “the signs of free- dom for those with the right karmic fortune” or “the signs of a practitioner gaining the optimal measure of freedom”:

When one passes beyond misery [i.e., death/nirvana], The images of Spiritual Bodies, bones, and Likewise lights, sounds, And earthquakes are present. 24

While the components of this fivefold classification in general are common aspects of Buddhist signs of saintly death, the interpretative detail, as we shall see below, is seamlessly interwoven with the Seminal Heart’s distinctive ideology of a radically active Buddha-nature. Earlier in the chapter, Longchenpa 25 cites The Tantra of the Adamantine Hero’s Heart-Mirror’s threefold classification of the signs of saintly death: (1) ascertaining the measures and signs of freedom in this very life for those of supreme diligence in practice; (2) the measures and signs of freedom in the postdeath intermediate process; and (3) the measures and signs of gaining respite in a pure land following death:



Hey friends, teach the precepts thus to those individuals who abide within this teaching. As indicatory omens of a person passing beyond misery in transcendence, these occur. If you stay alone your experience is joyous; your body is as light as cotton fluff; you don’t long for companionship with people; you feel as if you could fly through the sky; when these appearances cease there is a joyous mood; you are unattached to body and life; your mind doesn’t get wrapped up within any appearances whatsoever; cognition is radiantly clear with- out any depressed quality, and is naturally at ease; you are comfortable in company; no emotional distortions whatsoever are able to rise up, and though emotional distortions may arise, you don’t cling to them with reifications; no attachment develops to attractive forms and there is no aversion to unattractive forms; considerations of food and drink don’t come about by virtue of the potency of your contemplation; and when in the company of people you will act in accordance with others’ mental states. These are the indicatory omens of completely tran- scending misery. Transcending misery (mya ngan las ‘das pa, Sanskrit nirva\na) is twofold: the perfect ultra-pure expansive awakening, and the perfect manifest expansive awakening. The perfect ultra-pure expansive awak- ening is the expansive awakening of Buddhahood devoid of any remain- der of the psycho-physical components, while for the person of the per- fect manifest expansive awakening, lights, sounds, bones, earthquakes and so forth emerge. Light is of two types: appearance in the manner of a luminous home [circular in appearance], and appearance in the manner of a lad- der, with light in vertical pillars or bands. The light appearing as if a house indicates that in five days stability is attained, and the person is perfectly and manifestly expansively awakened; the light appearing as if a staircase indicates that in seven days s/he is perfectly and mani- festly expansively awakened. Sound is also of two types: if it emerges in a humming fashion, then in seven days s/he is perfectly and manifestly expansively awakened; if it emerges like a roaring sound then in fourteen days s/he is perfectly and manifestly expansively awakened. As for bones, they are fivefold: the color blue indicates being per- fectly and manifestly expansively awakened in the pure realm of the Illuminating One (Vairocana); the color white indicates being perfectly and manifestly expansively awakened in the pure realm of the Adaman- tine Hero (Vajrasattva); the color yellow indicates the pure realm of the Precious Matrix (Ratnasambhava); the color red indicates the pure realm of Limitless Illumination (Amita\bha); and the color green indicates the



pure realm of the Efficacious One (Amoghasiddhi). If a variety of col- ors occurs, that individual will proceed to the site of the spontaneous ful- fillment of these five Buddha-Bodies. The Spiritual Body-images as well are twofold: the peaceful Bod- ies, and the wrathful ones. If the peaceful Bodies manifest, the deceased obtains stability the moment these appearances cease, and is unable to emit Emanational Bodies. If the Wrathful Bodies manifest, s/he obtains stability right there and in twenty one days can emit Ema- national Bodies. If those signs don’t manifest, final enlightenment will be delayed by one more birth, and then it is impossible that they won’t manifest just like that. In this way lights, sounds, bones, Spiritual Body-images, or at least the “precious (relic) spheres” on upwards manifest. 26

In conversations with contemporary figures from the Great Perfection tradition, the subject of relics has come up frequently as part of a general category of physical proof of mysticism or the materialization of psychic powers. These include the manifestation of “precious (relic) spheres” (ring bsrel) as tiny translucent spheres from cremated corpses, a sacred item such as a stupa, or in rare cases a living person; footprints and hand- prints in stone, handwriting on conch shells, or odd marks resembling sacred syllables or designs on a lama’s body in the forms of wrinkles or discolorations. These are all a matter of considerable interest in Tibetan religious culture from lay to monastic, from the highest rinpoche to the lowliest monk. For example, I was told by a reliable source that the famous Khenpo Jikme Phuntshok (mkhan po ‘jigs med phun tshogs) on a visit in the early 1990s to Bylakuppe, India, was very interested in getting Penor Rinpoche (pad nor rin po che) to write a mantra on a conch shell after hearing that such handwriting produced a protruding image on the shell. Monks within the relevant lineages often relay stories of the famous nineteenth-twentieth-century master Khenpo Ngakchung (mkhan po ngag chung, 1879–1941) having light colored designs of the symbolic hand implements of the five Buddhas on his body and wrinkles on his nose tip in the shape of an “A” syllable (which in some ritual contexts of intro- duction for special disciples would seem to emanate light rays). The pat- terns evident in skin from various shades of coloration are particularly a focus of attention in religious circles, with dark discolorations considered inauspicious, while lighter marks are auspicious. Penor Rinpoche is also said to have many such white marks on his body, particularly white spheres around his waist. Even “precious (relic) spheres” are in some cases said to come from living persons; one such instance I have heard of



again relates to Penor Rinpoche. He gave one of his teeth to his attendant Kunzang lama (kun bzang bla ma), who kept it in a box. Later this pro- duced small, white, very translucent spheres, which then themselves have continued to multiply. I have encountered considerably more enthusiasm than skepticism on these issues, especially when the subject of discussion pertains to the per- son’s own root teacher or recent lineage masters. Such discussions usually tend to revolve around convincing the listener of the genuine sacredness of the person in question and are often framed by obviously genuine exhortations to the listener to be thus inspired to diligence in contempla- tion. 27 The fact that such legitimization is also indirectly, yet clearly, an authentication of the disciple, that is, the speaker, is hard to miss, even if sincere respect is also manifest. Conversely, disparaging remarks tend not to be about the phenomena in general, but rather directed toward others, that is, other lineages about which the speaker may have little invested. One conversation I remember in particular concerned a famous Tibetan teacher who died in the United States, after which his Western disciples gathered together “relics.” Some visiting lamas were invited to view the relics subsequently but to their disappointment found that “mere bones” were the object of valorization. The disparaging character of the remark was clear (see figure 3.1). Just as direct transcendence contemplation involves images of Bud- dhas literally projecting from the visionary’s eyes as an exteriorization of internal Buddhas into experience, this first category of signs involves images of Buddhas protruding from the cremated bones of the saint so as to be visible to the naked eye. The Blazing Relics Tantra classifies them as twofold in accordance with the peaceful and wrathful Buddhas (in life, the former is located in the heart and the latter in the skull within the subtle body’s internal map):

In the passage beyond misery of one of the select, By cremating what remains of the body (His/her contaminated material remainder), Two types of Bodily Images show up on the bones, Corresponding to the peaceful and wrathful Bodies.

For whoever tunes into the deity yogas Visualizing the forms of these two types of Spiritual Bodies, Images of both forms will manifest at death; Should both become evident in death, This indicates s/he will thus come to be possessed of the assurance


FIGURE 3.1. Shukseb nunnery, Tibet, a prominent white stupa to the right containing the relics
FIGURE 3.1. Shukseb nunnery, Tibet,
a prominent white stupa to the right containing the relics of its charismatic leader , Shuksebwith
Jetsunma. The stupa is the basis
her continuing active role in the community in terms of visions, dreams, and daily circuma mbula-for
tion rituals, illustrating how
in a monastery or nunnery .relics Photographcan
by Davidto
be dynamic



Of the great originally pure essence,

Without even having to pass onto the postdeath intermediate process.


the peaceful Bodies’ signs show up,


indicates that in five days s/he will see the truth,

And dissolve into the expansive awakening of Buddhahood.

Should the wrathful Bodies’ sign show up,

It indicates s/he will come to be freed in five instants

Within the postdeath intermediate process of reality,

O Da\kinê! 28

The corresponding section in The Supreme Vehicle discusses these images in terms of their essence, classifications, causal impetus, location, and fruit. 29 The opening description of the variety of images is identical to passages laying out the initial visionary appearances of Buddhas within direct transcendence contemplation. Longchenpa then clearly specifies that these relics are to be understood as activated aspects of the visionary’s primordial Buddha-nature, thereby supporting the direct transcendence imaging of “truth” as a body-based process of unfolding rather than a more epistemological process of correspondence:

Their essence is the manifestation of the deities’ appearance—a single Body, a half body, Mother-Father consort pairs, a cluster of deities, a full mandala, or their concordant images of stu\pas, “wheels,” vajras, precious items, lotuses, crossed vajras, swords and so forth. Manifesting from the sustained practice of the developing and perfect- ing phases of tantric meditation are letters, hand emblems, half Bodies and single Bodies, while from the complete perfection of these two meditative phases there manifests the pairs in sexual union, clusters of deities and the mandalas Their causal impetus is twofold. Their essential cause is the pri- mordial presence of the luminously radiant Spiritual Bodies and “bones” within all sentient beings, whereas in the current context a practitioner’s vivid visualization in the developing and perfecting meditative phases acts as the causal impetus of these images’ direct manifestation, as they emerge out of his/her body’s vibrant energies being thus concentrated. When merely latently present these Spiritual Bodies are unripened in their own being, while when directly manifest the ripened Spiritual Bod- ies and bones appear clearly In terms of location, they predominantly show up on the skull or backbone. Although they may show up elsewhere as well, for Great Per- fection practitioners these Bodily images emerge via experientially tun-



ing into radiant light, and thus are taught as emerging from these two locations (where our internal radiant light is especially concentrated) In terms of corresponding meditative fruit, the manner of these images’ manifestation indicates the sequencing in this practitioner’s attainment of freedom. If both peaceful and wrathful images emerge, when in dying the practitioner’s consciousness dissolves into the sky, s/he becomes free right when this sky arises (original purity’s natural radiation), and thus is expansively awakened without passing through the postdeath intermediate process of reality. Thus these practitioners are included within the category of those who become freed within this very life, since their freedom takes place in the latter portion of the process during which they become separated from their current life’s physical basis (i.e., death). If the image of a peaceful Body emerges, as soon as this vision (i.e., of the “sky”) ceases, the self-presencing visions of radiant light will dawn and the practitioner will become free in five contemplation-days. “Contemplation-days” refers to contemplation’s stability, which can be short or long depending upon the practitioner. If the image of a wrathful Body emerges, after death “the guiding rope of the Adamantine Hero” emerges from the practitioner’s eyes, and as the self-presencing of sounds, lights, and rays manifests s/he will be freed in five instants. 30

This is followed by a long discussion of how those freed within orig- inal purity without passing through the postdeath intermediate process cannot emit Emanational Bodies right then and there, though this ability emerges subsequently as the ground’s spontaneous dynamics reawaken within the empty energy of enlightenment. This is opposed to those prac- titioners who become freed within the postdeath intermediate process of reality, who can emit emanations in the forms of the six types of living beings following twenty-one days of contemplation, which is a direct con- tinuation of the energy of his/her style of awakening:

The Adamantine Hero’s Heart-Mirror says: “If the image of a peaceful Body should manifest, after death as soon as this vision (i.e., of the “sky”) ceases, the practitioner gains stability, though s/he cannot emit Emanational Bodies (sprul sku, Sanskrit nirma\naka\ya). If the image of a wrathful Body should manifest, (the practitioner) gains sta- bility right there, and is able to emit Bodies of Emanations in twenty- one days.” The practitioner for whom a peaceful Body-image manifests focuses on the path of radiant light, thus becoming directly free within



the site of original purity. In this way, the self-presencing emanations don’t emerge from the intermediate process—since this site of originary purity is devoid of the emanations’ appearances, it is not a dimension where the self-presencing emanations manifest from your own side. However, since that dimension is the pure grounding potential of the Enjoyment (longs, Sanskrit sambhoga) and Emanational Spiritual Bod- ies which manifest to and for others (“other-presencing”), enlightened activity for others’ welfare does eventually emerge in dependence upon it. Even so it must be recognized that original purity in itself is devoid of any manifest dimension of emanations. 31 When the practitioner for whom a wrathful Body-image manifests frees him/herself through recognizing the triad of sounds, lights and rays (of the postdeath reality intermediate process) as self-presencing, s/he remains for a while in the manifestation of the spontaneously dynamic ground-presencing, and thus completes twenty-one days of contempla- tion. Subsequently the six types of living beings’ experiences manifest through the impure gateway of self-presencing cyclic existence, while through the pure gateway Emanational Bodies diffuse forth in forms cor- responding to those requiring spiritual training, and thus efficaciously act for others’ welfare. Like a magical illusion acting for illusory ends, these self-presencing emanations efficaciously act within this self-pres- encing world. Having emitted emanations, it is necessary that prior to that you have already taken hold of freedom, since if you are not free yourself there is no way any benefit to others can derive from a person who has not perfected his/her own spiritual telos. These emanations are explained as resembling shooting stars, and while they in fact endure longer than that, are uncertain in duration. Having erred as to this discussion of whether or not the freed prac- titioner is able to emit emanations (in a “self-presencing” style rather than “other-presencing” style), many fret over whether or not a Buddha is able to act for others’ spiritual benefit following his/her expansive awaken- ing—this is a major mistake. In the Great Vehicle (theg chen, Sanskrit mahaya\ na\ ), it is not believed that there are any Buddhas that once expan- sively awakened don’t or can’t act for others’ benefit, and in fact that is impossible. The significance of whether or not emanations can be emit- ted is as follows: those who are freed directly within original purity with- out pausing within the postdeath intermediate process’s manifestation of the gateways to spontaneous presence, lack emanations, since the impure “training fields” of emanations don’t manifest at this time. If, once the gateways to spontaneous presence subsequently remanifest, the enlight- ened ones didn’t act for others’ welfare by means of emitting emanations within these impure appearances, cyclic existence’s appearance would



not subside. Thus to perfectly complete the Buddhas’ activities which were not perfected in self-presencing fashion (i.e., right out of the very force of awakening, as opposed to subsequently emerging due to extrin- sic considerations such as disciples’ needs), emanations are then dis- patched by these newly enlightened ones. Having emptied out cyclic existence through these emanations’ efficacious action, again these man- ifest emanations proceed to the site of original purity as they dissolve inside the eight gateways to spontaneous presence. Since this site of orig- inal purity is beyond manifestation or non-manifestation, the individual three Spiritual Bodies are not directly differentiated within it aside from its being their pure source potential. Thus you should understand the way in which once the ground-presencing dawns externally out of its dimen- sion, the benefiting of others comes about. 32


Literally the honorific form of bone, gdung also signifies “heritage” or “lineage” (the bone connection), or the “remains” of a dead person (since bones survive the decay or burning of flesh and tissue). However, in addi- tion to signifying “bodily remains,” in the present context it refers to tiny luminous spheres filled with color found amidst the cremated remains of a saint. The sense of “heritage” or “descendants” is present in the sense that these derive from one’s affinity with the individual Buddha families and embody their energy. In addition they are the “progeny” or effect of one’s spiritual endeavors in this life, which culminates in a death that gives birth to “bones,” earthquakes, and so forth, as well as the subsequent limitless display of enlightened activity. The term translated below as “precious (relic) spheres” (ring bsrel, Sanskrit óarêra), often translated into English as “relics,” appears to have two senses etymologically: “multiplying long afterwards” and “to hold, keep or revere for a long time.” The former sense is connected to belief that these spheres physically divide and multiply long after their initial emergence, while the latter sense would appear to indicate that these are items of enduring value. In colloquial Tibetan, the term is used to refer to such minute spheres rather than the general bodily remains and is used with the verb to descend or happen (‘babs). This distinction is the basis of the story I cite above concerning how some Tibetan lamas were dismayed by Western Buddhists claiming to possess “precious relic spheres” but in fact having only “bones.” The Blazing Relics Tantra classifies the “bones,” these tiny spheres that emerge from the cremated remains of a saint, as fivefold in dependence



upon the five Buddha “families” (rigs). Correlating this to Longchenpa’s discussion of Buddha-nature in The Treasury of Words and Meanings’ third chapter with its emphasis on the five “families,” this again emphasizes how these signs are simply the manifestation of indwelling forces signified as “Buddhas.” The five are named with evidently Tibetan transmutations of the standard Sanskrit term for relics, óarêra:

Shariram is the bones of the Blissful Ones’ family And likewise Bariram Is the bones of the adamantine family.

Churiram is the precious family’s bones, And seriram is the lotus family’s.

Similarly Nyariram is the activity family’s bones. 33

Longchenpa characterizes the tantra’s following detailed explanation as indicating these bones’ individual colors, size, causal substance, and locations. The specificity of bodily location echoes the very specific loca- tions indicated for the mind, gnosis, Reality Body (dharmaka\ya), and universal ground (a\laya) in the fourth chapter of The Treasury of Words and Meanings. In addition to such detailed mapping out of the body being a strong evocation of the physical inherence of the “Buddha” within all life, it illustrates how the entire spectrum of philosophical inquiries pursued elsewhere in abstract language is additionally thought out through the detailed medium of the body’s interiorities and capacities. From the same tantra:

(i) Shariram is a lucent white,

A lustrous sphere with shining color

The size of a single pea.

It ripens from the vibrant quintessence of bone

And thus condenses into a sphere, Emerging from the head of one who has actualized the path’s meditative techniques.

(ii) Bariram is a dark blue The size of a white mustard grain, Or single small pea.

It is the concentration of warmth’s vibrant quintessence

And emerges from the space between the ribs,

O Da\kinê!



(iii) Churiram is yellow in color,

The size of a mustard seed, and the vibrant quintessence of blood;

It emerges on top of the liver.

(iv) Seriram is a lucent red,

Also a mere mustard seed in size;

It is synthesized from the concentration of bodily elements,

And emerges from the kidneys of the fortunate one,

O Da\kinê!

(v) Nyariram is an emerald green,

The size of a mustard seed with radiant color; From the vibrant quintessence of cognition,

It emerges atop the lungs.

All of these are unified in a general spherical shape, And have a depth-hue of the five colors. 34

Longchenpa characterizes these “bones” as indestructible and con- trasts them to another type of minute sphere that emerges in the cremated remains, which he labels “precious (relic) spheres.” These are liable to destruction by the elements, and my own experience among contemporary Tibetan communities is that while the former are extremely rare, these lat- ter are a quite common phenomenon. Longchenpa interprets the latter as a sign indicating the practitioner has found respite within a pure land of emanations following death. He cites The Blazing Relics Tantra thus:

Similar to these bones Are the subtle and fine “precious (relic) spheres,” Which are a mere sesame seed or dust mote in size, And are liable to destruction by the elements; Their presence indicates the deceased practitioner has gone to the pure land of emanations.

Bones in contrast cannot be destroyed by anyone at all, And with this hardness impervious to all fear, All these practitioners attain the fearless expansive awakening of Buddhahood. 35

In prefacing the first citation in The Treasury of the Supreme Vehicle,

Longchenpa again describes these as a manifestation of a primordially present Buddha-nature inherent in all living beings. Thus these passages on relics not only legitimize such rhetorical assertions, but also are them- selves granted a philosophical significance:



Since in general all living beings are primordially expansively awakened, the nature of the Buddhas’ five spiritual affinities is present within them in both an individualized and non-individualized fashion. However the affinity and sustaining life-force of their (particular) Bud- dha-body is not ripened into the five bones and thus is only a latent pres- ence. The attuned practitioner ripens them into direct manifestation by training on the path of the radiant light nucleus, and by one of this quin- tet (shariram and so on) thus emerging in your death, you will be freed within your particular spiritual family. 36

In followup remarks 37 Longchenpa clarifies that the particular Buddha family manifesting in a practitioner’s bones indicates that in the postdeath intermediate process of reality the practitioner will see the Body corre- sponding to his/her own spiritual family and thus become free as s/he is enlightened within that Buddha’s pure land. In this way, whether one type of “bone” or all five types together manifest in a person’s remains follow- ing death, it is a sign indicating that the practitioner will become free as a Buddha of that familial lineage in his/her vision of the five families’ man- dalic cluster. The Treasury of the Supreme Vehicle indicates that the color corre- spondences (based on these bones embodying the five Buddha families) are for the “peaceful bones,” while the color correspondences for the “wrathful bones” are given from The Self-Arisen Tantra as follows: 38 shariram is a lucent white, churiram is a black-blue, bariram is a burnt yellow, nyariram is a dark purple, and panytsaram (corresponding to seri- ram) is a dark red-green. He also cites 39 The Adamantine Hero’s Heart- Mirror to the effect that the color blue corresponds to being perfectly awakened within Illuminating One’s (Vairocana) pure realm, the color white to that of the Adamantine Hero (Vajrasattva), the color yellow to that of Precious Matrix (Ratnasambhava), the color red to that of Limit- less Illumination (Amita\bha), and the color green to that of the Efficacious One (Amoghasiddhi); multicolored bones signify proceeding to the site of the five Spiritual Bodies’ spontaneous presence. As to their respective sizes, The Treasury of the Supreme Vehicle 40 says that the shariram are the size of a “mon” pea (i.e., from the regions south of central Tibet), which is equivalent to the size of a white pea. The others are as big as a white mustard seed, or a small pea, and are lustrous, condensed, and spherical. As for the “causal impetuses” described here, The Treasury of the Supreme Vehicle identifies these as relating to the “peaceful bones,” while the “wrathful bones” are specified from The Self- Arisen as deriving from the following quintessences: 41 shariram from the



gray matter of the skull, churiram from blood’s vibrant quintessence, bari- ram from the joints’ vibrant quintessence, nyariram from marrow’s vibrant quintessence, and panytsaram from the body’s four elements’ vibrant quintessence. Finally, The Treasury of the Supreme Vehicle 42 says that with the peaceful bones the deceased is free within the site of the spiritual family ascertained to be his/her own particular manifestation, while with the wrathful bones s/he obtains respectively the Reality Body, the Enjoyment Body, the Emanational Body, the Body of Efficacious and Meaningful Manifest Enlightenment, and the Body of Unchanging Adamantine Real- ity. Thus in the latter list Longchenpa has correlated the five as given in The Self-Arisen to the standard enumeration of five Spiritual Bodies—The Self-Arisen specifies that with shariram you obtain the unborn, with churi- ram the efficacious and meaningful (also translatable as the Efficacious One), with bariram the Enjoyment Body, with nyariram the Emanational Body, and with panytsaram the adamantine reality itself. The difference between the bones and “precious (relic) spheres” is dealt with at length in The Treasury of the Supreme Vehicle. 43 The precious (relic) spheres are spherical and possess different combinations of the five colors. As to their causal impetus, they emerge from the condensation of the white and red quintessences and the vibrant quintessence of flesh, bones, warmth, and breath, whereas the “bones” emerge from the utter quintessence of these vibrant quintessences. As for the location where they develop and emerge, it is between the body’s joints or between its flesh and skin. As for the location of their ripening, since they exist in all the bones, flesh, and skin, they subsequently emerge from all over. In par- ticular there are four types: those emerging from the flesh, skin, and bones; those emerging from the blood, lymph, and quintessence; those emerging from warmth; and those emerging from breath. The correspond- ing colors are white, red-yellow, red, and green-blue. As for the fruit of the precious (relic) spheres, fortunate ones who have meditated on the “heart-essence” teachings will find respite in the pure land of natural emanations, while for others the effect is uncertain. Some will be born in high rebirths, some will be born in miserable rebirths, and so forth. This is because they can also manifest in ordinary living beings, birds, dogs and other animals, evil people, and virtuous teachers overly given to intellectual pursuits. The difference between the precious (relic) spheres of an ordinary individual and those of a Buddha is that the latter are extremely vibrant and clear, while the for- mer are not, the latter possess the five lights, while the former lack



them, and the latter are the tree of enlightenment, while the former are merely its leaf. Finally, if it is hoped that precious (relic) spheres will be retrieved from a cremated body, then it is important not to overdo the burning—unlike “bones,” the precious (relic) spheres will be destroyed by too much exposure to the heat.


Light is at the heart of the Seminal Heart system. A distinctive description of odd shapes of light gradually forming into pure lands of Buddhas is at the heart of its innovations in cosmogony, contemplative practices, and postdeath theory. Thus the manifestation of various patterns of light as a classic sign of saintly death is described in terms directly drawn from that context. Longchenpa classifies lights into encircling walls, vertical pillars, and horizontal beams in accordance with The Blazing Relics Tantra:

Light has three aspects:

For whomever light-walls of encircling hoops Emerge in the wake of their cremation, This person will attain the definitive fruit. Within the first part of the postdeath intermediate process

Should pillars of light emerge, Without the intermediate process manifesting, this person Is expansively awakened into Buddhahood in an instant. If the light manifests in horizontal beams, At the end of the postdeath intermediate process S/he will attain manifest enlightenment. 44

The Supreme Vehicle discusses light in terms of its essence, causal impetus, divisions, and fruit:

Light’s essence is the natural radiance of the five colors. Its causal impetus: light is summoned forth at the time of passing away (indicating both transcendence and death) through the conjunction of the dyadic natural radiation deriving from the practitioner’s experien- tial tuning into his/her internal vibrant elements and awareness. As for its internal classifications, it can be seen as the triad of ver- tical pillars, horizontal beams, and encircling hoops of light, or alterna- tively this light is found in the manner of a staircase leading into the sky, and in its arriving at the sky’s center it manifests as a luminous cir- cular house.



As for the corresponding fruit it indicates, if the light emerges in encircling hoops, you will be free in the first intermediate process. If it emerges like vertical pillars leading you into the sky, you will be free without proceeding through the intermediate process of reality by directly passing to original purity. If it is beams of light, the practitioner will be free during the final intermediate process. If staircases of light are found around the deceased’s body, house, or crematorium’s walls, in seven days of contemplation s/he will become free in the four unified primordial gnoses (a phase of the postdeath visions explained in the tenth chapter of The Treasury of Words and Meanings). If the light emerges like a lumi- nous house, s/he will be free in five days at the manifestation of “clus- ters” of deities (also a phase in the postdeath Here also when the ground’s spontaneous presence manifests, the enlightened one radiates forth emanations. In this external diffusion of emanations from within its range for the benefit of sentient beings in the worlds’ ten directions, their welfare is actualized by two forms of ema- nation in the “training environments” (i.e., our impure worlds being “fields” where living beings need, and may receive spiritual teach- ings)—emanations as self-presencing reflection-forms corresponding to the six types of livings beings, and emanations as other-presencing (see above) self-characterized concrete-forms corresponding to the six types of living beings. 45

My translation emphasizes the architectural imagery of light in these visions, terminology drawn straight from the tradition’s descriptions of a visionary experience of light flowing from the internal divinity of the Buddha-nature to gradually pervade the sky in the form of pure lands. 46 Longchenpa’s interpretation is explicit, describing the lights of a saintly death as an exteriorization of inner divine light that echoes the explosion of cosmogonic light as well as its manifestation in the contemplative prac- tice of “direct transcendence” (see figure 3.2).


The odd sounds marking a saintly death are interpreted in terms of the Seminal Heart’s distinctive and unusually strong concern for sound, evi- dent in its core tantra, The Tantra of Unimpeded Sound, which intro- duces motifs relating to sound not found elsewhere in esoteric Bud- dhism. 47 Longchenpa divides these funerary sounds in accordance with their particular direction and aural quality, 48 citing The Blazing Relics Tantra as follows:


FIGURE 3.2. Yogis contemplating luminous visions of their inner Buddha-nature, here displayed as mandalas and
FIGURE 3.2. Yogis contemplating luminous visions of their inner Buddha-nature, here displayed as mandalas and associated strings of
spheres and other items in the concentric circles located in the lower half of the picture (Lukhang
David Germano



If the sound is particularly resonant In a spot near to the eastern direction From the resting place where s/he has passed away, This practitioner is of the adamantine family.

Likewise if in the southern direction, The sound indicates a manifestation of the family of preciousness, While if in the west, it is thus the lotus family.

In the north, it is the family of action, And similarly to the zenith (above) it is the family of the realized (tatha\gata).

The nature of such sound is That it can be distinguished as peaceful or wrathful— There is roaring and humming, a staccato of sharp jangling sounds, And a smooth flow of long mellifluous sounds respectively.

If the death is marked by such sounds, It indicates the deceased has obtained the fruit Of the Spiritual Body of Complete Enjoyment. 49

The Supreme Vehicle discusses sound in terms of its essence, divi- sions, causal impetus, and fruit. In so doing it emphasizes the peaceful and wrathful dualism so pervasive of the tradition’s iconography, in addition to the fivefold Buddha family emphasized in the preceding. These also directly echo the description of sound in direct transcendence and post- mortem visions of internal Buddhas emerging out of the body:

Sound’s essence is resonance in the auditory faculty. Though sound can be classified into melodious, discordant, and neutral types, in this context there is said to be two: the drum roll of the peaceful deities, a long and smooth flowing sound, and the thunder clap of the wrathful deities, fierce and short, which can also be expressed as “humming” and “roaring” sounds respectively. As to its impetus, in general sound’s cau- sation is said to stem from the condition of two things striking against each other in space’s openness, while here it emerges via the causal impetus of obtaining meditative stability. As for the fruit it indicates, the practitioner attains the Spiritual Body of Enjoyment, and the diffusion of Emanational Bodies from within it. Furthermore, by the long, smooth flowing humming the practitioner



attains stability regarding the peaceful Bodies in seven days of contem- plation, while by the short and fierce staccato of roaring s/he is freed in terms of the wrathful Bodies in fourteen days. The five spiritual families apply to both of these (peaceful and wrathful), and the examination of the characteristics indicating which of the five spiritual families the practi- tioner becomes free in is as follows. If the sound resonates to the east of the deceased practitioner’s residence or the place where his/her corpse has been carried and cremated, s/he accomplishes expansive awakening in the adamantine family; the south indicates the preciousness family; the west indicates the lotus family; in the north the action family, and sound emerging from above indicates the realized ones’ family. 50


The final sign of saintly death is the ancient motif of earthquakes (sa g.yo). Since the term for “earth” is the same used in describing stages (sa, San- skrit bhu\mi) of realization, it enables a word play: the earth quaking (g.yo) marks the visionary’s impelling (g.yo) him/herself to a new spiritual level. Longchenpa thus interprets earthquakes in terms of very specific stages of realization attained by the deceased. In The Treasury of Words and Mean- ings, he simply cites The Blazing Relics Tantra:

The individual for whom earthquakes emerge Obtains the “spiritual level” of a Listener At the same time of his/her being divested of breath.

Likewise if in three days after death The earthquake comes to pass, S/he attains the level of a Self-Awakened One.

If it emerges in six days,

S/he enters the level of an “Awakening Hero/ine” (Sanskrit


O Da\kinê!

Should the earthquake come to pass

In nine days,

S/he will be able to enjoy at his/her own pleasure The status of “the spiritually aware” (rig ‘dzin, Sanskrit vidya\dhara).

For the one with the fortune of earthquakes appearing, The fruit of expansive awakening will not manifest,



But rather s/he will continue for a long time to train in and remain within The spiritual levels and paths. 51

The Treasury of the Supreme Vehicle discusses these earthquakes in terms of their essence, causal impetus, internal classifications, and corre- sponding fruit:

Its essence revolves around the lower foundation of the physical environment, which supports and sustains living beings. Its causal impe- tus is that the deceased individual’s potency incites winds, which thus cause the earth to quake. As to its internal classifications, there is the quartet of an earthquake, an intense earthquake, an even greater earth- quake, and a widespread major earthquake. As to its corresponding fruits, earthquakes are a sign marking com- mon people who belong to the family of Spiritual Heroes and so forth 52 and die while training in the preliminaries (for direct transcendence contempla- tion) though they haven’t seen the gateway of this (probably referring to direct transcendence visions), or the life-transference (i.e., death) of those involved in practices for the intellect wrapped up in objective references, 53 or even those ordinary individuals who wear “liberation upon wearing” amulets with aspiration and diligence towards the spiritual paths. 54 Furthermore, if the earthquake occurs in the center of that area as soon as the deceased is without breath, that practitioner attains the vision of a Listener’s “white exalted level,” and then continues to train in its seven subsequent stages—with the stages of “spiritual affinity,” “the eighth,” “vision,” “diminishment,” “realizing completion,” “listener,” and “self-awakened.” These are the eight levels of the inferior path. 55 If the earthquake takes place from the eastern direction three days after death, the practitioner has attained the level of a Self-Awakened One, with its four successive stages of neophyte, once-returner, non- returner, and vanquisher. If the earthquake is in the south within six days, the practitioner has gained the level of a Spiritual Hero. Herein are the ten causal spiritual stages of Intense Joy, the Stainless, the Illuminating, the Radiant, the Difficult to Refine, Coming to the Fore, Dispersion Far Away, the Unwa- vering, Superior Wisdom, and Clouds of Spirituality, as well as the eleventh fruitional stage of Universal Light. If the earth should quake nine days after death from the zenith together with a little sound, the practitioner has attained the stage of the Spiritually Aware, which has the four stages of maturation, mastery of life span, the great seal, and spontaneous presence.