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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Vesak 2011

Although Vesak (Pali: Vesakha; Sanskrit: Vaisakha) is often called the “Buddha’s Birthday”, it’s actually three celebrations rolled into one: the birth, enlightenment and death of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni (Sage of the Shakyas), and of course, as the Buddha.

The date for Vesak differs according to tradition and country, but generally it’s held on the day of the full moon in the fifth month, which would be today. So happy Vesak day to everyone.

Of course, no one knows for sure when the Buddha was born or when he died, or even if there actually was such a person. Sometimes I am inclined to believe that the Buddha’s story was crafted from that of Mahavira, who was the real architect of Jainism as we know it today, or maybe it was the other way around. Or maybe there actually were two guys with nearly identical backgrounds who arrived on the Indian spiritual scene at basically the same time with very similar teachings. Maybe they’re both myths. It’s likely we’ll never know.

As far as Buddhism goes, it doesn’t matter. Edward Conze once said, “The existence of the Gautama as an individual is, in any case, a matter of little importance to Buddhist faith.” Because the Buddha is portrayed as a human being and not a god, his awakening represents the potential for awakening that exists within every human being. It’s not important whether one particular person was the first to awaken. Plenty of others awakened after him, and we can too. That potential is like a seed and when it sprouts in anyone, that person is, in the words of Jack Kerouac, “equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha.”

Tsung-mi (780-841), regarded as both a patriarch of the Flower Garland School and a Ch’an (Zen) Master, composed a work entitled Yuan Jen or “On the Original Nature of Human Beings.” It’s often used as a primer of Mahayana teachings. In this piece, he wrote,

All sentient beings posses 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, they indulge in lives of attachment, increasing the bond of karmic power and receiving the sufferings of birth and death. Out of compassion for them, The Awakened One taught that everything is empty; then he revealed to all that the true mind of spiritual enlightenment is pure and is identical with that of the Buddhas.”

For Buddhists, then, the Buddha is the personification of all our ideals and values. He attained the highest spiritual achievement, but the same is never beyond our own reach. To me, Vesak is about commemorating that potential for Buddhahood. We are really celebrating ourselves. We are him and he is us. His day is our day.

The term ‘all Buddhas’ means Shakyamuni Buddha: Shakyamuni Buddha is synonymous with one’s very mind being Buddha. At that very moment when all the Buddhas of past, present, and future have become, do become, and will become Buddha, without fail, They become Shakyamuni Buddha. This is what “Your very mind is Buddha” means.

– Dogen, On ‘Your Very Mind Is Buddha’ (Soku Shin Ze Butsu)

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Sunday Dharma: Original Nature of Human Beings

Tsung-mi (780-841) was an immensely important figure in Chinese Buddhism. Regarded as both the fifth and final patriarch of the Flower Garland School and a Ch’an (Zen) Master of the Ho-tse School, he was a forgotten figure until about two decades ago. Today’s post is an excerpt from the Yuan Jen or On the Original Nature of Human Beings, often used as a primer of Mahayana teachings.

Revealing Directly the Original Nature

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, they indulge in lives of attachment, increasing the bond of karmic power and receiving the sufferings of birth and death. Out of compassion for them, The Awakened One taught that everything is empty; then he revealed to all that the true mind of spiritual enlightenment is pure and is identical with that of the Buddhas.

Therefore, in the Flower Garland Sutra it is said: “O son of Buddha, there is not even a single sentient being who is not endowed with the wisdom of the Awakened, but, owing to delusion, beings are unable to realize this. Once freed from delusion, then transcendent wisdom, natural wisdom, and unobstructed wisdom will arise.”

Furthermore, the Sutra states that a particle of dust contains within itself one thousand volumes of the sutras. “A particle of dust” is compared to a sentient being, and the “Sutra” to the wisdom of Buddha. Still further in the Sutra, we read: “At that time the Buddha observed all the sentient beings in the phenomenal world and uttered these words, ‘Strange, strange, that these sentient beings, who are endowed with the wisdom of the Awakened, not realizing this wisdom are being misled. I must teach them the Noble Paths and free them forever from their delusions so that they can see in themselves the boundless great wisdom of the Awakened Ones, so that they may be no different from the Buddhas.’”

For a long time we have not met with the true doctrine and have been unable to understand how to reflect upon ourselves and search for the original nature ourselves. We have been deeply attached to the characteristics which appear though our illusions, being content with our baseness and unconcerned over being born sometimes as human beings and sometimes as beasts, but now on the basis of this last doctrine, we have traced our origin and realized finally that we are from the outset Buddhas. Therefore, we should carry out our deeds in accordance with those of the Buddha, and identify our mind with that of the Buddha.

Returning to and reinstating ourselves in the root and source, we should sever the habits we had as ordinary persons. We must give up these habits and further give up even the attempt at abandonment until in the end we reach the state of “non-action” [wu-wei] wherein we can be spontaneously active, accommodating ourselves to as many situations as there are gains of sand in the Ganges. Then we will be called Buddhas.

It should be known that both non-enlightenment and enlightenment are aspects of the same true mind. How great is this mysterious gate to the source! Here ends the search for the original nature of human beings.

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