Relic of Shariputra, the Buddha’s chief disciple. © NICK DAWSON, COURTESY OF MAITREYA PROJECT INTERNATIONAL
Relic of Shariputra, the Buddha’s chief disciple. © NICK DAWSON, COURTESY OF MAITREYA PROJECT INTERNATIONAL

 

I HAVE A TYPICALLY Protestant take on relics: I’m skeptical. I mean, how many pieces of the true cross can there be? I had come to Bodh Gaya, India, scene of the Buddha’s enlightenment, for the Kalachakra initiation given by the Dalai Lama in 2003. I had a few hours to kill, and I came across a display of relics in the middle of an otherwise empty field. A small statue of the seated Maitreya–the Buddha to Come–presided over two neat rows of glass cases. At first glance, it was a typical collection: a fragment of a letter purporting to be written by the ninth-century Tibetan yogini Yeshe Tsogyal; a bit of bone from a saint; a piece of tooth said to belong to Kashyapa Buddha, the Buddha before Shakyamuni, and which, the label alleged, was reproducing itself. Nothing new here, I thought.

As I continued looking, an assortment of shiny round objects in a variety of colors caught my eye. They were like so many beads in a make-your-own-jewelry kit, ranging from the size of a peppercorn to that of a chickpea. Some were smooth and glossy, others matte and irregular; others looked identical to seed pearls. The descriptions claimed they were from the historical Buddha, his heart disciples Shariputra and Ananda, and a host of Buddhist luminaries hailing from India, China, Burma, Thailand, and Tibet. Here were the Buddha’s “blood relics,” his “very white relics,” and Ananda’s “dark relics,” the labels read. This sort of collection I had never seen, or even heard of, before.

The very last group of relics included many more of the same shiny spheres–green, red, black, white, and lustrous pearl. They were quite lovely. I was amazed to read that they had all been taken from the funeral pyre of a Geshe Lama Konchog, a Tibetan yogi who had died in Nepal in October 2001. What was astonishing was that I had actually known Geshe Lama Konchog from my visits to Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, for various Buddhist meditation courses and events. Geshe Lama Konchog was no well-known Buddhist saint–his legacy was hardly known outside Kopan Monastery–nor had he been dead long enough for anyone to launch a cottage industry around his relics. I knew he had spent decades meditating in Tsum, a remote mountainous region in northeast Nepal, but frankly, he had not struck me as anyone special. I had often seen him shuffling around Kopan in scruffy robes, his craggy, weatherworn face looking rather gruff and unwelcoming. On the few occasions when I had visited him in his small room to ask a dharma question, his replies had been blunt and brief. To all external appearances, at least, he wasn’t anything extraordinary. What were these curious and strangely moving relics? I began a journey of discovery to understand their meaning.

Beginning to do some research, I learned that these peculiar, brightly colored beads are not unheard of in the East. In fact, they are well documented within the annals of Buddhist literature. Called sharira in Sanskrit (ringsel in Tibetan), they are generally described as pearl- or gemlike deposits collected from the ashes of spiritual masters after their cremation. Traditionally they are taken to be signs of the deceased’s spiritual attainments. Sharira have a long history, dating back to Buddha Shakyamuni and purportedly even to Kashyapa, the Buddha before him. The fifth-century Indian scholar Buddhaghosha, writing about Shakyamuni’s death, described how “resplendent, translucent, jewel-like” deposits were left behind in the ashes, looking like “washed pearls, pieces of gold and jasmine buds.” They were small, “like a mustard seed or a lentil,” and promptly sparked the so-called War of the Relics, as eight kings of northeast India fought over possession of them until a brahmin divided them into equal portions.

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