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Overview

Buddhism is popularly seen as a religion stressing the truth of impermanence. How, then, to account for the long-standing veneration, in Asian Buddhist communities, of bone fragments, hair, teeth, and other bodily bits said to come from the historic Buddha?

Early European and American scholars of religion, influenced by a characteristic Protestant bias against relic worship, declared such practices to be superstitious and fraudulent, and far from the true essence of Buddhism.

John Strong's book, by contrast, argues that relic veneration has played a serious and integral role in Buddhist traditions in South and Southeast Asia-and that it is in no way foreign to Buddhism.

The book is structured around the life story of the Buddha, starting with traditions about relics of previous buddhas and relics from the past lives of the Buddha Sakyamuni. It then considers the death of the Buddha, the collection of his bodily relics after his cremation, and stories of their spread to different parts of Asia.

The book ends with a consideration of the legend of the future parinirvana (extinction) of the relics prior to the advent of the next Buddha, Maitreya. Throughout, the author does not hesitate to explore the many versions of these legends and to relate them to their ritual, doctrinal, artistic, and social contexts.

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Editorial Reviews

Buddhadharma
In an engaging new study, John Strong surveys a number of legends surrounding the Buddha's relics in South and Southeast Asia. [He] suggests that narratives about the Buddha's relics . . . extend the Buddha's legacy far beyond ancient India and contributed to the spread of dharma and the legitimization of Buddhist kings.
— Holly Gayley
Journal of Asian Studies
John S. Strong, in his Relics of the Buddha . . . has achieved the first comprehensive study of Buddhist relics to date. . . . [His] work will undoubtedly constitute, for decades to come, the standard for research on the larger meaning of relic veneration in the Buddhist world.
— Brian O. Ruppert
Religion
John S. Strong has produced a highly readable, engaging, lucidly argued and authoritative analysis of the place of relics across the Buddhist world. His book should be read by anyone in Buddhist studies and really by anyone interested in comparative religion, particularly in aspects of religion and material practice.
— Jacob N. Kinnard
Buddhadharma - Holly Gayley
In an engaging new study, John Strong surveys a number of legends surrounding the Buddha's relics in South and Southeast Asia. [He] suggests that narratives about the Buddha's relics . . . extend the Buddha's legacy far beyond ancient India and contributed to the spread of dharma and the legitimization of Buddhist kings.
Journal of Asian Studies - Brian O. Ruppert
John S. Strong, in his Relics of the Buddha . . . has achieved the first comprehensive study of Buddhist relics to date. . . . [His] work will undoubtedly constitute, for decades to come, the standard for research on the larger meaning of relic veneration in the Buddhist world.
Religion - Jacob N. Kinnard
John S. Strong has produced a highly readable, engaging, lucidly argued and authoritative analysis of the place of relics across the Buddhist world. His book should be read by anyone in Buddhist studies and really by anyone interested in comparative religion, particularly in aspects of religion and material practice.
From the Publisher
"In an engaging new study, John Strong surveys a number of legends surrounding the Buddha's relics in South and Southeast Asia. [He] suggests that narratives about the Buddha's relics . . . extend the Buddha's legacy far beyond ancient India and contributed to the spread of dharma and the legitimization of Buddhist kings."—Holly Gayley, Buddhadharma

"John S. Strong, in his Relics of the Buddha . . . has achieved the first comprehensive study of Buddhist relics to date. . . . [His] work will undoubtedly constitute, for decades to come, the standard for research on the larger meaning of relic veneration in the Buddhist world."—Brian O. Ruppert, Journal of Asian Studies

"John S. Strong has produced a highly readable, engaging, lucidly argued and authoritative analysis of the place of relics across the Buddhist world. His book should be read by anyone in Buddhist studies and really by anyone interested in comparative religion, particularly in aspects of religion and material practice."—Jacob N. Kinnard, Religion

Journal of Asian Studies
John S. Strong, in his Relics of the Buddha . . . has achieved the first comprehensive study of Buddhist relics to date. . . . [His] work will undoubtedly constitute, for decades to come, the standard for research on the larger meaning of relic veneration in the Buddhist world.
— Brian O. Ruppert
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691117645
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/26/2004
  • Series: Buddhisms: A Princeton University Press Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 312
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.46 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

John S. Strong is Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion and Philosophy Department at Bates College. He is the author of several books on Buddhism, including "The Legend of King Asoka" and "The Legend and Cult of Upagupta" (both from Princeton).
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Read an Excerpt

Relics of the Buddha


By John S. Strong

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2004 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-11764-5


Introduction

RELICS OF THE BUDDHA

IN 1561, an interesting ceremony took place in the Portuguese enclave of Gõa, in Southwestern India. During a military operation in Sri Lanka, Portuguese troops had captured what "local idolaters" (i.e., Buddhists) claimed was the tooth of the Buddha, and had delivered it as a prize to their viceroy, Don Constantino da Bragança. The viceroy had hoped to hold it for ransom, but now the archbishop of Gõa, Don Gaspar, was insisting that it be destroyed. On a porch overlooking the river, in the presence of a great crowd of Christians and "pagans," he called for the tooth and "placed it in a mortar, and with his own hand reduced it to powder, and cast the pieces into a brazier which stood ready for the purpose; after which the ashes and the charcoal together were cast into the river, in sight of all those who were crowding the verandahs and windows which looked upon the water" (Tennent 1859, 2:215. See also chapter 7 in this book).

As benighted as such an action may seem to us today, it can at least be said that the Portuguese archbishop appreciated the nature of relics. Conscious of the power of holy objects from his own tradition, he felt that the tooth had to be utterly and permanently eradicated. Inhis mind, this was not just a piece of bone that he was destroying but a "relic of the devil" (reliquia do demonio) something alive that had to be killed (Tennent 1859, 2:214; text in De Couto 1783, 17:429).

Rather different were the attitudes of some of Don Gaspar's Protestant contemporaries in Europe. John Calvin, to my knowledge, never said anything about Buddhist relics, but in 1543 he wrote a whole treatise on Roman Catholic ones (Calvin 1970). And although he too, given the chance, would probably have crushed the Buddha's tooth to bits, he would have done so for different reasons. For him, relics embodied no sacred or even demonic presence, and it was wrong and exploitative to pretend that they did. Relics were nothing but material things, as he pointed out when he got rid of what had been two of Geneva's prized relics-the arm of Saint Anthony and the brain of Saint Peter; the one, he proclaimed, was but the bone of a stag, and the other a piece of pumice (Calvin 1970: 53).

This is not the place to examine the varying influences of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism on the comparative study of material objects of devotion. Suffice it to say that Western scholarship on relics is heir to two rather different sets of prejudices, the one affirming the ongoing presence and power of the supernatural in objects, the other maintaining its ontological absence and seeing such objects as no more than material symbols or signifiers of a "divine" being or power whose locus is elsewhere or who died long ago.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, at least in certain circles, the second, or "Protestant," perspective came to predominate in the study of Buddhism. Championing the claim that the Buddha, after his final nirvana, was totally removed from any relationship to this world, scholars tended to see Buddhist objects of devotion such as images and relics not as embodying the impossible presence of a deceased Master, but as mere mnemonic devices for recalling his teaching and his example. The Buddha was to be found primarily in his doctrine; to think of him as present elsewhere, in statues or relics, for instance, was an aberration to be condemned-as one missionary-scholar put it-as "mere material worship," akin to the Roman Catholic cults of "the [seamless] Garment of our Lord," of "the skulls of the Three Wise Men" in Cologne, and of the "exceedingly numerous" portions of the True Cross, all of which were "examples of a dark age" (Wylie [1897] 1966: 79-80).

"True Buddhism," understood as the original teachings of the Buddha, was thought to have nothing to do with such things as relics. Thus, the American Monist Paul Carus, whose book, The Gospel of Buddha, achieved considerable popularity around the turn of the century, turned down the offer of a Buddha relic from a Sri Lankan monk, telling him, "The worship of relics, be they bones, hair, teeth, or any other substance of the body of a saint, is a mistake ... The soul of Buddha is not in his bones, but in his words, and I regard relic-worship as an incomplete development in which devotees have not as yet attained to full philosophical clearness" (Carus 1897: 123). Along these lines, it was often assumed that those who had reached "full philosophical clearness" were the cultured monastic elite, while those who had not and worshiped relics and images were the laity. The existence of relics in the Buddhist tradition, when it was recognized at all, was thus seen as a concession to the superstitious and devotional needs of the lay populace. Espoused by prominent scholars such as Hermann Oldenberg (1928: 377), this "two-tiered" view lingered well into the twentieth century and may, indeed, still be found.

In more recent times, however, a pendulum swing away from such opinions has taken place in the study of Buddhism. Already in 1973, David Snellgrove declared that, although "there were certainly pure philosophical doctrines propounded during the early history of Buddhism, just as there have been ever since, ... there is no such thing as pure Buddhism per se except perhaps the cult of Sakyamuni as a supramundane being and the cult of the relic stupa (1973: 411). In more recent times, inspired by the emergence of sophisticated studies of Christian relics (e.g., Brown 1981, Geary 1978), religious images (Freedberg 1989), notions of the body (Bynum 1995, Dissanayake 1993) and death practices (Ariès 1982, Danforth 1982, Bloch and Parry 1982), buddhologists have developed a new seriousness about material culture in general and relics in particular. Thus today, as Robert Sharf (1999: 78) has pointed out,

"[I]t is no longer acceptable to dismiss casually the worship of relics and images as aberrant or un-Buddhist, as a sop to the plebeian needs of the unlettered masses. Scholars now appreciate that, with few exceptions, the clerical elite found nothing objectionable in the worship of relics, but enthusiastically engaged in and promoted such activities themselves. There is thus little reason to believe that the display of relics contravenes either the letter or the spirit of Buddhist teachings."

In questioning Protestant presuppositions in the field, buddhologists, in fact, have developed new perspectives of the tradition they study. As Sharf (1999: 79), again, has commented, "Buddhism may no longer resemble European humanism, mysticism (the 'perennial philosophy'), or enlightened rationalism, but it has come to bear an uncanny resemblance to medieval Christianity ... [with] its saints, relics, and miraculous images." In this process, certain views that attribute power and life and "presence" to the relics have reemerged. For instance, Gregory Schopen, who has eloquently critiqued Protestant prejudices in the study of Buddhism, has also explored the many ways in which the Buddha was thought to be "alive" in his relics: he / they had rights as a legal "person," or could own property; and destroying a stupa containing relics was viewed as a capital offense, in other words, as the murder of a living person (Schopen 1997: 125ff. and 258ff., 1995, and 1996a). Alternatively, relics were seen as "saturated / invigorated / enlivened by morality, concentration, wisdom, emancipation, knowledge and vision," that is, "exactly the same spiritual forces and faculties that characterize, ... constitute and animate the living Buddha"(Schopen 1997: 154). Elsewhere, Schopen declares that "there is no distinction between a living Buddha and a collection of relics-both make the sacred person equally present as an object of worship, and the presence of either makes available the same opportunity to make merit"(1997: 132).

As a number of scholars have pointed out, this comes very close to attributing to Buddhists a kind of Lévy-Bruhlian "prelogical mentality" that senses a "mystical participation"(Lévy-Bruhl 1926: 76-7) between the Buddha and his relics, or a Robertson Smith-like view of objects being "instinct with divine life" or "embodiments of the presence of the deity"(Smith 1972: 173, 204). I shall have more to say about Schopen's views of relics later. For now, suffice it to point out that, in the final analysis, he appears to shy away from an ontological equationof the Buddha and his relics and to assert rather their ritual and functional equivalence. The relics are alive, own property, perform miracles, inspire devotees, are filled with various buddha qualities, in exactly the same way that the Buddha is. This does not mean that they are the Buddha, that they make him present. Rather they are themselves present in the same way that he is, they can act like him, they are a substitute for him in his absence.

In between the poles of absence and presence, there is clearly a lot of room for positions that seek, in various ways, to combine the two views. Indeed, as more and more scholars have payed attention to Buddhist relics, a plethora of positions attempting to pin down this dialectical relationship have emerged. These cannot all be spelled out here. To put it succinctly, we now have open to us the possibility of viewing Buddhist relics as "indexical icons" (Tambiah 1984: 5, and 204, inspired by C. S. Peirce and Arthur Burks),"sedimentations of charisma"(Tambiah 1984: 335ff., developing Max Weber), products of the Buddhist "habitus" (Kinnard 1999: 9-11, 157-58, inspired by Pierre Bourdieu), "zero signifiers" (Ohnuki-Tierney 1994, inspired by Roman Jakobson and John Lotz, and Jacques Derrida), "chronotopes" (Eckel 1992: 62, inspired by Mikhail Bakhtin), "heterotopias" (Eckel 1992: 63, inspired by Michel Foucault), and places "where an absence is present" (Eckel 1992: 65, inspired by Nagarjuna and Bhavaviveka). They can also be seen as the manifest presence of an essence that acts as a "visible representation of the immortal nirvana state," and that helps reconcile a contradiction between a "cognitive" understanding that the Buddha is dead, and a "psychological" or "affective" sense that he is living (Obeyesekere 1966: 8);10 as "memory sites" that are "the ultimate embodiment of a commemorative consciousness" (Hallisey 1996: 7, inspired by Pierre Nora); as manifestations of the postmortem force of a buddha's resolutions (Trainor 1997: 136-88, inspired by Buddhaghosa); as "metamorphoses of the double" (Faure 1991: 132-47, inspired by Robert Hertz); as embodiments of "the sense of an ending"(Collins 1992: 233, inspired by Frank Kermode); as that "final and insensible scream that is the 'supreme affirmation of life'" (Sharf 1999: 90, inspired by Georges Bataille); as "instruments of magical power [and] kernels of pure imaginaire" (Faure 1999: 15, after Jacques LeGoff); as instances of "euphemization" (Ruppert 2000: 96, inspired by Pierre Bourdieu); as "hierophanies" (Schober 2001, following Mircea Eliade); as particular forms of buddha-emanation bodies (Bentor 1996, based on Tibetan nirmanakaya [sprulsku] doctrine); as "blazing absences" (Germano 1994, based on Tibetan Nying ma sources); and probably in many other ways.

RELICS AND THE BIOGRAPHICAL PROCESS

In this book, I would like to approach this whole question on a slightly different tack. I propose to view relics not as the embodiments of a transcendent or imminent or otherwise absent Buddha, nor just as functionally equivalent to the departed Master, but as expressions and extensions of the Buddha's biographical process. The same point has been made by others, especially with regard to buddha images. Juliane Schober (1997: 260-68), for instance, has shown how the relic-like Mahamuni image of the Buddha in Mandalay was thought of as a continuator of the life story of the Buddha, to the extent that it was even deemed to have to suffer some of the unworked-out negative karma dating from the Buddha's previous lives. More generally, Donald Swearer (forthcoming) has demonstrated how image consecration ceremonies, at least in Northern Thailand, involve the ritual narrative infusion into the image of the whole life of the Buddha, especially of the event of his enlightenment. As he puts it elsewhere, "[T]he sacred biography takes a concrete, visual form in the very image of the Tathagata" (1995: 268).

Much the same thing may be found in the practice of enshrining relics in the midst of architectural or artistic reminders of the Buddha's life story. I will examine a classic instance of this, in chapter 6, in the case of the relic chamber of King Dutthagamani's "Great Stupa" in Sri Lanka (first century B.C.E.). For now, suffice it to cite an example from Southeast Asia. In 1912, an earthquake in Northern Burma crumbled the corners of the Hlèdauk Pagoda, laying bare two of its relic chambers. Inside were found not only a vessel containing relics of the Buddha, but "many small figures in bronze representing the most important scenes in the life of [the] Buddha" (Duroiselle 1911-12: 149). These included representations of the first jataka, the story of Sumedha prostrating himself at the feet of the past buddha Dipamkara; images of all the other twenty-eight previous buddhas venerated by the Buddha in his past lives; figurines depicting the Buddha's mother, Mahamaya, giving birth to him; the seven steps he took immediately after he was born; the signs of the old man, sick man, dead man, and ascetic that prompted him to go forth on his "great departure"; scenes of him cutting off his hair with his sword and of Indra receiving that hair relic in heaven; statuettes showing his enlightenment and the events of each of the seven weeks following it; the first sermon he preached to his first five disciples; and various events from his teaching career, ending with the scene of his death and parinirvana (Duroiselle 1911-12: 150-51).11 Such "bioramas," as they may be called, are not uncommon, and they testify to the importance of the life story of the Buddha in defining the nature of a relic.

It should be remembered that in Buddhism, it is biography that makes a buddha and not the Buddha who makes his biography. In other words, all buddhas, even in the Theravada tradition, follow a biographical blueprint that defines them and makes them who they are (see Strong 2001: 10-14). At the most fundamental level, this biographical blueprint is the story of someone who comes and goes in the same way that other buddhas have come and gone. Another way of putting this is that it is the story of someone who becomes present as a buddha-who works toward buddhahood through his past lives and his quest for enlightenment, and manifests that buddhahood in his teaching-and who then becomes absent as a buddha, through his death and his parinirvana. The great lesson of Buddhism is not that of impermanence, if, by impermanence is simply meant "nothing lasts forever." It is rather that of process-that things, beings, buddhas come into existence due to certain causes and go out of existence due to certain causes. Indeed, the one verse that best summarizes the whole teaching of the Buddha is the often-repeated and copied formula: "Ye dharma hetuprabhavas tesam hetum Tathagata uvaca / tesam ca yo nirodha evam vadi mahasramanah" ("The Tathagata has explained the cause of those elements of reality (dharmas) that arise from a cause, and he, the Mahasramana [the "Great Recluse"], has also spoken of their cessation").

It is worth considering the implications of this for our study of relics. It is my contention that the Buddha himself, in his life story, exhibits the truth of this formula, in that his biography tells the causes of his final life and buddhahood as well as their cessation. His relics, in so far as they are expressionsof the Buddha's biography, are thus also expressions of this process. In this regard, Buddhist relics (unlike Christian relics) do not make manifest some transcendent or immanent reality, but retell a tale; they sum up a biographical narrative; they embody the whole of the Buddha's coming and going, his life-and-death story; they reiterate both his provenance and his impermanence. This is true, even when their immediate reference is only to one portion of that biography for, as Steven Collins (1992: 241) has pointed out, "when an enshrined relic is venerated, the whole story is implicitly present." Though they are material objects, relics can thus help bring to mind and invite reflection on a whole narrative that is upheld and recognized by the community.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Relics of the Buddha by John S. Strong Copyright © 2004 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : relics of the Buddha 1
Ch. 1 Relics of previous Buddhas 25
Ch. 2 Relics of the Bodhisattva 50
Ch. 3 Relics of the still-living Buddha : hairs and footprints 71
Ch. 4 The parinirvana of the Buddha 98
Ch. 5 Asoka and the Buddha relics 124
Ch. 6 Predestined relics : the extension of the Buddha's life story in some Sri Lankan traditions 150
Ch. 7 Further extensions of the Buddha's life story : some tooth relic traditions 179
Ch. 8 Relics and eschatology 211
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Recipe

"The soundness of the scholarship is superb and wonderfully exemplary. Strong's firm command of the relevant sources, some very old and some very contemporary, is evident at every level and in every chapter of the book. The scholarly shelf life of this work will be enduring, chiefly because any future student or scholar hoping to conduct research can follow any of the myriad leads that Strong has provided."—John C. Holt, Bowdoin College

"This work is a major contribution to Buddhist studies and the study of religion. The comprehensive and innovative approach, its engaging accessibility, and the author's clear and elegant writing style, ensure that it will play a formative role in redefining how scholars and the general public think about Buddhism."—Kevin Trainor, University of Vermont

"Truly a masterpiece. John Strong takes up the paradigmatic theme in Buddhist thought and practice in a most seminal work certain to become a classic in the field. Strong's command of textual materials is highly impressive and his style of argumentation, like his writing, is highly engaging. . . ."—Juliane Schober, Arizona State University

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