Buddha’s Relics

A pair of articles published recently by the Chinese Cultural Relics journal reports the discovery of an ancient box that may have contained remains of the historical Buddha.   Most experts believe Gautama Siddhartha Shakyamuni lived and died approximately 2500 years ago.

Did this once contain Buddha’s remains? [Getty]
The box is made of sandalwood, gold, and silver.  Archaeologists believe that the box many contain a skull bone of the Buddha.  In addition to the box, a collection of 260 6ft high statues were also uncovered.

The inscription on the box states that two monks collected the Buddha’s cremated remains over a span of 20 years and buried them in the temple in 1013 CE:

“The monks Yunjiang and Zhiming of the Lotus School, who belonged to the Manjusri Temple of the Longxing Monastery in Jingzhou Prefecture, gathered more than 2,000 pieces of [the cremated remains of the Buddha] as well as the Buddha’s teeth and bones, and buried them in the Manjusri Hall of this temple.

” In order to promote Buddhism, they wanted to collect relics of the Buddha.  To reach this goal, both of them practiced the instruction of Buddhism during every moment of their lives for more than 20 years.”

That, to me, is the most interesting part of the story, that the two monks used their search for the Buddha’s relics as a way to practice, and promote Buddha-dharma.   The reference in the inscription to the “Lotus School” leads me to believe the two monks probably belonged to the T’ien-t’ai sect, which was widely known as the Lotus School.  However, online research of Manjusri Temple and Longxing Monastery did not reveal what sect to which the monastery, built in 586 CE, belonged.

Buddha’s relics are called sarira (“body” or “relics”).  I remember reading years ago how the Buddha expressly forbade his disciples to collect and worship his relics, and yet, there is an early sutta in which he gives precise instructions on how veneration of his relics should be carried out.

According to legend, the Buddha’s remains were to go only to his family, the Shakya clan.  But six other clans and a king also wanted the relics.  To avoid fighting, the relics were divided into ten portions, “eight from the body relics, one from the ashes of Buddha’s cremation pyre and one from the pot used to divide the relics, which he kept for himself.”

I doubt anyone will ever be able to confirm that the relics are the Buddha’s, but then I don’t know much about this kind of stuff.  But I have seen a relic of the Buddha myself.  Or what is purportedly a Buddha relic.  Here in Southern California, in the museum at Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights,  a teeny tiny fragment of the Buddha’s bone is on display.  I mean it is so tiny that you have to look it using a special magnifying viewer, and even then, it’s underwhelming.  And of course, there are “relics” all over Asia.  Check out Wikipedia’s page on Relics Associated with the Buddha .

Now, those of us who practice Buddha-dharma should know we do not need to go anywhere to find a relic of Buddha.

All sentient beings have been endowed with the true mind of original enlightenment. From the beginningless beginning this mind has been constant, Pure, luminous, and unobscured; it has always been characterized by bright cognition; it is called the Buddha Nature or the Womb of the Awakened.

From the beginningless beginning the delusions of human beings has obscured it so that they have not been aware of it. Because they recognize in themselves only the ordinary person’s characteristics.

–  Tsung-mi (780-841)

On one hand, we are ordinary.  On the other hand, we are not.  This other hand is the hand that is the flesh and bone of Buddha.  We are the Buddha’s true relics.  When we open our box and unpack ourselves, we find the Buddha, his teachings and practice living within us.

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Prepare to Die

Are you prepared to die?

The ancient samurai of Japan would prepare for death each day of their life.  The first line in the core text of bushido (”way of the warrior”), the Hagakure reads, “The way of the warrior is found in death.”

There is another line about when faced with life or death, the samurai should always choose death.  I don’t believe this is meant to say that death is to be desired, or that death is preferable to life, but merely that we should always be prepared for death, and unpacking it a bit further, that when we are confronted with hard choices, we should not be fearful of taking the most difficult option.

Being a samurai, a warrior, meant facing death on a constant basis.  Each day could be the last.  It is no different for us.  Each day could be our last, we could be hit by a car or…

Tao and Buddha-dharma practitioners endeavor to train and tame their unruly minds.  Pull the mind back into itself rather than focus on the external.  Death is a metaphor for facing the unknown, the difficult, the unavoidable.  Death is non-attachment.

We can love life and cherish it while at the same time be unattached to the “things” of life.  This detachment helps us to prepare for face ordeals.  An unshakable mind, that holds on to only itself, is prepared, when suffering arrives, to see suffering as a materialization of the Noble Truths.  Suffering, especially physical death is a natural phenomenon, a natural aspect of life.

Some methods early Buddhists had to prepare for death was to meditate on death, meditate next to a corpse, or spend a night meditating in a cemetery.  For us, it is enough perhaps to train our minds so that we are not afraid to think about death or talk about it.  We can also reflect on death, and meditate on impermanence, which is a powerful anti-dote to self-cherishing and attachment.

We should be aware that from the moment we are born the process of old age, sickness and death begins.  Of course, as we reflect on this subtle aspect of impermanence, we should also keep in mind what Dogen said in Genjo Koan (“Actualizing the Fundamental Point”),

[It] is an established way in buddha-dharma to deny that birth turns into death.  Accordingly, birth is understood as no-birth.  It is an unshakable teaching in Buddha’s discourse that death does not turn into birth.  Accordingly, death is understood as no-death.

Birth is an expression complete this moment.  Death is an expression complete this moment.  They are like winter and spring.  You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring.

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The Ringing of Subtle Wisdom

I was rereading the introduction to Tao : a new way of thinking by the late Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, Chung-yuan Chang.  He was discussing the meaning of Tao when he noted that “In Chinese art, the soundless is more primordial than sound.”  I suppose that is correct, in the beginning there would be silence before sound…

In any case, he goes on to quote Heidegger (On The Way to Language):

The soundless gathering call by which Saying moves the world-relation on its way, we call the ringing of stillness.

Chung-yuan Chang comments, “It is this ringing of stillness that opens the mind of man to Eastern aesthetics… Thus, the question remains: How does one attain Tao?”  The Buddhist might ask, How does one attain enlightenment?

Chung-yuan Chang goes on to quote Chapter 38 of the Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

The highest attainment is free from attainment.
Therefore, there is attainment.
The lowest attainment is never free from attainment.
Therefore, there is no attainment.

Following this, he shares these words from the 4th century Buddhist philosopher, Shen Chao:

You may conceive of attainment as that which is able to be attained.  Therefore, there is attainment.  However, I consider attainment as nothing to be attained.  Therefore, attainment is achieved though non-attainment…  Subtle wisdom lies beyond things…”

Lao Tzu suggested that we understand Tao (and Buddhahood) by not understanding it, one of those paradoxical statements that Taoism and Zen (heavily influenced by Taoism) are well-known for.  Thing is, we shouldn’t be looking for attainment in the first place but rather “subtle wisdom.”  Attainment is an established ideal, while acquiring subtle wisdom is a practical process we call The Way.

The English word “subtle” corresponds with the Chinese character miao, which means “wonderful, mystic, clever, and subtle.”  Of these meanings, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i preferred “subtle.”  Paul Swanson, in Foundations of T’ien-T’ai Philosophy, states, “For Chih-i the word ‘subtle’ symbolized and summarized that which is beyond conceptual understanding and thus it is the word most appropriate to describe reality, which is ultimately indescribable.”

[Image: Chinese character “miao”]

Reality is that which is genuine, original or natural, as opposed to that which is artificial and illusory.  We are not trying to achieve something so much as we are trying to see through something.  We’re trying to see through the real and into the Real.

That’s why the Tao Te Ching says, “The Tao that can be told is not the infinite Tao,” and why the Heart Sutra says, “Within emptiness… there is no attainment with nothing to attain.”  And yet, the Heart Sutra also says that all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas practice in the way of Transcendental Wisdom and “awake to complete and perfect enlightenment.”  Huh?

Lama Govinda explains that is means “Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are not enlightened by fixed teaching but by an intuitive process that is spontaneous and natural.”

Introspection or meditation is the observation of subjective mental qualities.  It is not thought.  However, it is probably as far from thought as we can get.  Wayfarers should want to cultivate a mind that that does not seize and cling to things,  an open mind, a mind not fixed or locked, unreceptive to new ideas, lacking flexibility.  This may seem to be a very simple thing but actually it is quite difficult to realize on a ongoing basis.

Finally Chung-yuan Chang quotes Heidegger quoting Nietzsche:

Our thinking should have a vigorous fragrance, like a wheat field on a summer’s night.

If fragrance had a sound, it would be the ringing of subtle wisdom.

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