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Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Importance of Buddhist Relics

For better or for worse I am not one for superstitions and since becoming a Buddhist 7 years ago I have often been baffled by the Buddhist relics, which every temple from Nepal to Japan seem to have enshrined. There is much superstition associated with these relics. The ones that grab the attention of this skeptic the most are the ones claiming to be remnants from the body of Buddha. First of all how does anyone know that a tiny piece of bone or tooth is that of Shakyamuni Buddha Siddharta Gautama? I guess people just want to believe that they are from his body and that seeing them gives them some kind of blessing.

However, It seems strange to me that some followers of Buddhism would place such attachment to pieces of bone or tooth that may or may not be from Buddha when Buddha taught not to attach to material things. Some believe that being near one of these relics is like being with Buddha as if he were still with us. Yet is that not attaching to Buddha the man, Buddha as seen through the idea that he had a self--a separate identity from us and everything else?

Would it not be just as effective to look at our own teeth as all is Buddha--as we are all one? Is not the essence of Buddha always with us--in fact, within us regardless of whether or not his tooth is resting in some far off temple? Do we really need a material object to convince us of the importance of Buddha and his message? Buddha taught of the impermanence of all things and yet despite this teaching some Buddhists don't seem to want to let go of the Buddha's "body."

I can understand their benefit from a philosophical and cultural point of view. As well as if they inspire a person to live up to the example of Buddha and his disciples and the example of deceased teachers. However, I don't believe the idea that many (not all) Buddhists adhere to that these relics have special powers or can reduce less skillful karma simply by looking upon them. In one exhibit people could receive "blessings" when the relics where placed upon their heads.

This idea that relics can transfer blessings to keep someone from dying or to help a business succeed seems a bit theistic. In that I mean it places Buddha (and notable teachers) in the position of a Savior as in the monotheistic religions. Yet we know that Buddha was not a Savior like Jesus but a man--True, an enlightened man but not a being who can save us from our own karma. Buddha did not even want images of him made let alone want people to basically worship his tooth!!

~Peace to all beings~

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Dhamma81 said...


Ajahn Brahm gave a talk on "Faith" once and the topic of relics came up within it. It serves as more of an inspiration to see a relic, especially for more traditional non western Buddhists although I'm sure some non Westerners scoff at the idea of reducing karma by way of getting close to a relic as well.

He brought up how his monastery had just received a relic and it wasn't so important whether it was really the Buddha's or not by that it was symbolic of something. It was symbolic of the Buddha and serves as a reminder that the Buddha was real and that his peace is available to us also. If relics serve a place in ones practice then I say go ahead, although I don't really place much value in them personally. I wish you well.

DQ's Windmill said...

Skillful means. Reaching people in the language they know at this point in time along their paths to the other shore.
In Gassho,
A fellow practitioner, and dharma blogger,

They call him James Ure said...

Dhamma81 and DQ:

I can see the inspiration aspect of it and using it as a symbol of Buddhist history.

I guess I'm just thinking out loud and wondering if the relic adoration tradition stems from something related to traditional Asian culture?

I say this because It seems antithetical to some of the most important teachings of Buddha such as not attaching to material things.

Then again I'm not a Dharma or Buddhist expert. Nor do I want to convey that cultural influences negate someone's practice.

If it's a cultural phenomena then that's cool. It's simply that I have a hard time then taking someone serious if they say that Western Buddhism isn't authentic. As obviously culture influences the Dharma in all countries/regions.

In other words, if it's an Eastern thing then don't we have to give Western Buddhists who might do things a bit differently some slack too? Such as getting "Buddhist tattoos" and not believing in the six realms, etc?

However if it is a symbolic thing then I totally understand that. Just like my tattoos are symbolic and while they inspire me I don't mistake them for the moon but simply fingers pointing to the moon.

Anyway, great thoughts--thanks.

Debra-Dawn said...

i have a great book called shopping for buddha... about a man looking for the best buddha statue in Nepal...

in the end he gets what he wants but must give it up and learns about non attatchment...


a quick and easy read...

I have read it 3 times now...

Twisted Branch said...

Very good James. These relics are completely useless. Clinging to these relics is no different then clinging to anything else. Just put down the craving mind and live clean in this very moment.

Jody Wieler said...

Why do we want relics? Connection with which we identify - meaningful identification. The same reason when someone close to us dies or goes away, we want something from them - a picture, memento - something to remind us that we were part of their life, and we aren't quite ready to let go of them yet either. Some just get their giddies by it being a physical part of that great being, whether it's a toe, tooth or wafer of bread or swig of wine on a certain day of the week. I think it's a very human thing to do, not just limited to one culture or lifestyle.

Igacim said...

I agree that many spiritual people try to make the body and the world very important, when what Buddha and other spiritual teachers taught is precisely the impermanence and unimportance of the body.

This happens very frequently with Students of A Course in Miracles as well. They make new "spiritual" idols, instead of letting all forms and idols go, as the teaching tells us to do.

You have a very good blog here. I am glad I found it.

Bhavatu sabba-mangalam!


Eriq Nelson said...

The value of these relics seems much the same as a candle. When you are first starting awareness meditation it helps to have a flame to look at. It gives you something to focus on as you still your mind. Eventually you realize that there is no candle and you become the looking.

I think that much the same can be said for purported relics of Buddha. It can be useful to the young and the novice to believe it is a physical manifestation. This gives a great starting point for the dialogue, internal and external, that is to follow.

It reminds me of the ritual trappings of Wicca. A great number of practitioners rely less and less on physical objects as time progresses, getting more and more in touch with the energy system behind it. The same can be said for the concept of Buddha-nature.

It is a difficult thing to show someone a path without signs to point at. It is a beginning, but a only a beginning.

妙榛 (Miao Zhen) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
妙榛 (Miao Zhen) said...

I feel anything is beneficial if it helps us to cultivate a calm mind. With a calm mind, we can "see" things much clearly. They can also help remind us to learn from the Buddha, practise what the Buddha did. This is my understanding. :)

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zs said...


Anonymous said...

Buddha needed many life time in order to purify the mind and merge in the state enlightenment. Bound by compassion the buddha skillfully left his relics to benefits all beings to collect merits so the hindrance of enlightenment is lessen. Merits are very important in the path of enlightenment as we need to benefits our karmic debtors when we do the tranference of merits. With merits , effort of practice in the path will lead to fruition of enlightenment.

I am hindu by birth . I was never interested in spiritual path initially. But my life experience brought me to the buddhism path. This explanation comes from personal experiences not from books.

Arvel Bird said...

It's my understanding that relics were used by Christians as well. And the stories about Robert the Bruce and his victory at Bannockburn he had a monk bring out a box with the relics of a Christian saint it's greatly inspired him and his much outnumbered army to a great victory that day. I say whatever it takes. Many blessings Arvel

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