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The Tooth of the Buddha
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Date: circa 483 B.C.E.
What it is: A tooth venerated by Buddhists, said to have come from Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism; according to tradition, the relic has demonstrated supernatural powers.
What it looks like: The tooth is white and brownish and is encased in seven gold and silver caskets. Larger than an ordinary tooth, it is about the size of the first digit of a pinky, or about one inch.
Seven days after life ceased to exist in the Buddha, flames engulfed his body, reducing it to a pile of seedlike ashes—save for seven body parts that miraculously retained their entire original form: the forehead bone, two collarbones, and four front teeth. The Buddha, it was said, had used his psychic powers to bequeath these relics to his followers because he wanted them to understand the impermanent nature of life. After devoting his adult life to giving humanity the dharma, his teachings on how to lead a righteous and correct life, it was for him a way to guide his followers after his physical death.
The Buddha's bodily relics, tradition holds, went to different destinations over time. One, the sacred tooth, performed miracles as it was passed down from king to king, and has over the ages been revered by Buddhists as a holy object.
Buddhism is a religion based not on worship of a deity but on wisdom of the self, and it is rich and complex in its history, traditions, andteachings on such issues as natural law, worldly matters, human problems, mindfulness, actions (karma), discipline, ethics, psychology, metaphysics, truths, and re-becoming, or existence after death. It was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, who, after six years of searching as an ascetic for an end to suffering, discovered a philosophy that delivers adherents from evil and guides them to perfect wisdom and pure living. Gautama became known as the Buddha, or Enlightened One.
Siddhartha Gautama was born to a royal family in Lumbini Park at Kapilavatthu on the Indian border of present-day Nepal around 563 B.C.E. A sage told his father, King Suddhodana, that if the prince were exposed to the sufferings of the common people, he would not succeed his father as king but would rather embrace a life of asceticism and devote himself assiduously to teaching religion. Fearing the prediction, the king secluded his son and tried to keep him ignorant of the misfortunes and woes of others.
But after Prince Siddhartha married as a young man, trips to the local village exposed him to suffering, old age, sickness, and death. On another trip he met a religious man who inspired him to seek a solution to people's problems. A compassionate person, Siddhartha pondered how he could bring happiness to humankind. His ruminations were fruitless, and he decided to devote his life to this goal. Renouncing his royal station, he became a hermit.
Siddhartha sought out all the major religious teachers in India—there were sixty-two prominent religions in the country then—and asked what solution they had to the problems of suffering and unhappiness. These teachers imparted their wisdom to Siddhartha, who saw two kinds of extremism in their views. One was to mortify the self—that is, to lead a humble life by giving up comforts and avoiding everything that gave pleasure. The other was to revel in gratification of the senses.
Siddhartha didn't believe a person had to go to either of these extremes to find happiness, so he searched for a solution somewhere in between self-mortification and hedonism. Eventually he had the profound insight that the reason for unhappiness is craving or desire, and that fulfilling desires causes even greater unhappiness because the satisfaction never lasts. If people could extinguish or eradicate their cravings, Gautama Buddha realized, there would be no unhappiness. To this end he formulated the four Noble Truths: life is suffering; the cause of suffering is desire; the remedy for suffering is the extinction of desire; the way to extinguish desire is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path: right understanding, right purpose, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Gautama Buddha's dharma, or philosophical teaching, was designed to help people find happiness. It preached that people should not do evil deeds but good deeds, practice morality and discipline, and develop knowledge, or wisdom. To control one's mind, or keep it clean from unwholesome thoughts, was vital. Buddha said there were three kinds of unwholesomeness: craving, which includes greed or desire of any kind; anger or resentment; and delusion, or not having an understanding of how things really are.
Gautama urged Buddhists to follow five precepts: not to kill any living thing; not to steal; not to commit adultery or engage in any kind of sexual misconduct; not to lie, slander, utter obscenities, or engage in frivolous talk; and not to take any kind of intoxicants. The Buddha taught that people should rather practice loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Buddhists must always try to maintain these four states of mind, which is to say that they must always be mindful, or aware, of their thoughts, words, and activities.
The Buddha passed away in his eightieth year, about 483 B.C.E. Ten months before his death, he traveled from city to city in India, stopping only at night to help people or to preach to them. At the end of his journey he settled in the northern Indian city of Kusinara (later called Kushinagar). A blacksmith prepared a meal for the Buddha in his house, and after eating it, the Buddha told the blacksmith that in the evening he was going to die. After the meal the Buddha was struck by a stomach pain, and he left for the place where he would die—the Sala garden of King Mallas. In this garden he asked the attendant monk to give him water, then urged all the monks to go meditate and not to be disheartened by his death. The Buddha opened his eyes and attained the four mental ecstasies, or absorptions (jhanas), then passed away and attained nirvana.
Many people attended the Buddha's cremation a week later in King Mallas's Sala garden in Kusinara. According to tradition, the remains of the Buddha were unusual. The ashes were like lentil seeds, and seven bones and teeth remained unchanged, according to the Buddha's determination. Eight powerful princes, all related to the Buddha, came to the cremation, each deeply desiring the Buddha's ashes. They quarreled among themselves vociferously about who was closer to the Buddha and therefore rightfully entitled to the ashes, and it seemed the clashes would soon become physical.
A Brahmin named Drona who had been a teacher to all the princes heard about the dispute and interceded, saying that arguing would lead only to bitter quarreling and bloodshed, and that the Lord Buddha would disapprove of it. Drona told the princes that he would distribute the ashes to them, and that as a teacher he would be impartial. With a measuring bowl he divided the seedlike ashes in an equitable manner among the eight princes, who then built shrines for the ashes in their own kingdoms for people to venerate.
The Buddha's forehead bone, two collarbones, and four front teeth were more sacred than the ashes and dispersed to different locations. The three bones were taken by arahants, the foremost disciples of Buddha, and eventually were enshrined in separate monuments. The forehead bone went to a shrine called Seruvila Cetiya in the Trincomalee district in northeastern Sri Lanka. Of the two collarbones, the right one was put in the Thuparama shrine in Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka; and the other was sent to the shrine of Selacetiya Mihintale, near Anuradhapura in north-central Sri Lanka.
Of the four teeth, one, according to tradition, was hidden by the Brahmin Drona in a lock of his hair under his turban, and was in turn taken by Sakra, the king of devas (divine beings), to heaven, where it was enshrined. Another tooth was taken to Nágaloka, described in Buddhist literature as a heavenly place that is under the ground. A third tooth was given to a Sri Lankan king and later enshrined at Somávati Cetiya, near Polonnaruva.
The fourth tooth was taken by a saintly monk, Arahant Khema. It has a long earthly heritage, traveling to many different shrines over time, and has been continually venerated by Buddhists.
Many stories of miracles are associated with this relic. For instance, there was once a non-Buddhist king who doubted the power of the relic and pummeled it on an iron anvil with a sledgehammer in an attempt to crush it. The tooth did not crush but instead embedded itself inside the anvil, where it could not be touched. The king then announced he would grant a reward to anybody who could take it out. Many people came from all over to try to extract the Buddha's tooth relic from the anvil, but no one was successful. Then one day a grandson of the wealthy Buddhist Anatha Pindika, who had lived at the time of the Buddha, came and knelt before the anvil. Reverently, he said, "Lord, please come out and show your miraculous power to the people who do not believe in the Buddha." And indeed the tooth came out from the anvil and soared to the sky, where it emitted a colorful rainbow. The grandson of the Buddhist follower then placed a lotus in the palm of his hand and asked the relic to come down from the sky. The tooth sailed down and rested on the lotus, which the man held above his head as he walked to the temple. This event was witnessed by thousands of people who cheered and shouted enthusiastically. The king also witnessed the miracle, and, surrendering to the power of the relic, bowed down to it. In a different time another king did not believe in the miracles of the Buddha's relic and threw it into a muddy body of water. Suddenly, out of the water rose a lotus upon which the tooth, completely dry, rested. The king henceforth became a believer in the tooth of the Buddha. The relic has many miraculous stories like these associated with it.
The tooth was passed down from king to king without much threat to its existence until the fourth century C.E. During the reign of King Guhasiva, a Buddhist who possessed the relic, a non-Buddhist king named Citrayana attempted to conquer Guhasiva's kingdom in India. Guhasiva entered into battle with Citrayana but realized his forces could not defeat the stronger king. Fearing that Citrayana would seize the sacred tooth relic, Guhasiva summoned his only child, Princess Hemamala, and her husband, Prince Danta, and instructed them to deliver the tooth to the king of Sri Lanka.
Disguised as a Brahmin and his wife, the prince and princess slipped out of the city of Dantapura (later called Orissa) with the tooth relic hidden inside a lock of Hemamala's hair. Then, according to tradition, they entered a thick forest where a tribe of spiritlike beings called Nagas lived. The Nagas, who could appear like people but were not human, caused a fierce storm that alarmed the prince and princess. When they tried to take shelter, they were surrounded by Naga warriors, who searched the princess and found the relic. But to the delight of the prince and princess, the tooth performed a series of miracles. First, it stopped the thrashing storm. Then it jumped to the sky and began to shine brightly. The Nagas fell to their knees in awe, and the prince and princess slipped away unnoticed. The tooth then returned to the hand of Princess Hemamala, who was a devoted Buddhist.
The next obstacle for the prince and princess was to get across the shallow ocean that separated India from Sri Lanka. They set out on their voyage on a large boat, but a severe storm came up that threatened to overturn the vessel. Danta and Hemamala knelt down before the relic and reverently asked for help in completing their voyage. The tooth again rose to the sky and illuminated it with bright colors, whereupon the storm cleared and the travelers on the boat below cheered heartily. Then the relic returned to its carrier.
Prince Danta and Princess Hemamala arrived safely in Sri Lanka, and to avoid being recognized they traveled through the jungle to reach Anuradhapura, the capital, in the north-central part of the country. At the palace they presented a letter of introduction from the princess's father, which offered the sacred relic to King Meghavarnabhaya of Sri Lanka (who ruled from 301 to 328 C.E.), in the hope that he would protect it from the enemies of Buddhism. The king, greatly pleased with the gift, obliged, calling for a festival and procession to celebrate the tooth. The relic brought joy to the people of the Sinhala kingdom; Meghavarnabhaya placed it above his throne, where it began to shine, so the king built a special temple in the city to enshrine it.
Every king since Meghavarnabhaya who possessed the sacred tooth considered himself the inheritor of the realm of the country until 1815, when Ceylon became a British crown colony. In the early 1800s, the British occupied and controlled parts of Ceylon, and tried to take over the country, but met resistance, especially from the capital city of Kandy. In 1815, Robert Brownrigg, the governor, entered into a conspiracy with some of the king's ministers, and his soldiers captured the king, who had been hiding in a remote jungle village. On March 2, an agreement was signed by the British with rebellious ministers in which the ruling power of Ceylon was turned over to the British. (In a famous incident, a brave Buddhist monk named Wariyapola Sumangala took down the British flag that had been hoisted before the pact and stomped on it as a gesture of defiance.)
In the nineteenth century the British were bound by a treaty Brownrigg had made to protect the Ceylonese people's practice of Buddhism, which included maintaining and safeguarding the relic. Later, the British requested to be released from the treaty and appointed a custodian for the tooth.
The relic is encased in seven caskets, one inside the other, which were made especially for it by the sixteenth-century Sri Lankan king Vimaladharmasurya, the last king to give the tooth a home in his palace. During the Portuguese invasion of his country, he did not have time to build a shrine for the relic, so he gave his palace in the city of Mahanuvara (later called Kandy) to house the tooth, and he moved to a small building nearby.
According to Buddhism, the magic of the relic is an extension of the supernatural powers of the Buddha. Buddha was said to have many such powers, including levitation, mind reading, clairaudience, and clairvoyance, but he used them only sparingly, to prove himself to skeptics or when they were urgently needed. For example, in only three instances did he use his "twin miracles" power, in which he would ascend to the sky and water and fire would pour forth simultaneously from his body: in the fourth week after he attained enlightenment, to remove doubt from the minds of divine beings; when some older, haughty relatives refused to kneel before him; and when some religious leaders called Niganthas tried to discredit him. Once the Buddha used his psychic powers to catch a criminal who was running away. As the criminal ran, he perceived the ground rising steeply to the incline of a mountain, while the Buddha walked casually in pursuit of him on the flat land. When the criminal, known as Angulimala, tired out, Buddha caught him, and through his teachings tamed him. Angulimala, who had previously killed more than 1,000 people, became a well-respected disciple of the Buddha. On other occasions, if someone needed the help of the Buddha, he would disappear from his temple and appear in front of the person in need.
Today, the sacred tooth continues to be venerated by Buddhists as well as some non-Buddhists for the wholesome thoughts and feelings of holiness it gives them, as well as for its miraculous powers. In times of drought, for instance, the tooth may be taken out of its caskets, and followers will place their faith in the relic to produce rain. Others have claimed healing miracles, such as improved eyesight.
The relic remains locked in its seven caskets, one inside the other. The four outer caskets have locks, and four people have the keys to unlock them—two chief high priests, the custodian of the tooth relic, and a government representative; they must all be together to open the caskets.
The tooth relic is taken from its caskets for public exhibitions every four or five years, and on special occasions such as royal visits or government exhibitions. The four key holders are summoned to open the caskets, whereupon the sacred tooth is customarily placed on a decorated stage in its temple for public viewing a few hours each day but may not be touched. By means of a golden wire, the relic sits on top of a golden lotus. When the relic is not exhibited, people pay respect to it by standing or kneeling before it with their hands together, fingers extended, or by placing flowers in front of it. There is never any praying to or worshiping of the tooth by Buddhists.
Every year in Kandy, Sri Lanka, usually in July or August, a weeklong celebration is held to venerate the relic. For seven days festive processions are held (all in the evenings, except for the last day, when one is held in the morning), during which the smallest of the seven caskets (not containing the relic) is carried by a decorated elephant.
This is the foremost pageant in the country, a tradition that began in the fourth century with King Meghavarnabhaya and has continued to the present; the customs and practices of the procession have changed very little over time. Scores of gaily dressed drummers, trumpeters, dancers, elephants, lamp-holders, fag-bearers, representatives of the local deities, dignitaries, and monks march through the streets as throngs of people from all around the world, including the mostly Buddhist nations of Burma, Thailand, Singapore, and Nepal, enjoy the pageantry and celebrate the tooth relic. The perahera, or procession, moves through Dalada Vidiya, the central street in the city, and continues to the tooth relic's home, which is located in front of an artificial lake in the city. The celebration ends on the morning of the eighth day, when the last procession is held.
For Buddhists, the impermanent nature of life that the Enlightened One was determined to demonstrate to them is exemplified by the sacred fifth-century B.C.E. tooth of the Buddha.
Location: Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Dalada Maligawa), Kandy, Sri Lanka.
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