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.

The different colors are said to derive from different parts of the body–gold from the flesh, pearl from the bone, and red jasmine from the blood. The Tibetans have given them names and specific descriptions: shariram, lustrous white, ripening from the vibrant quintessence of bone; bariram, dark blue, a concentration of warmth emerging from the space between the ribs; chariram, yellow, a quintessence of blood; seriram, lucent red, a concentration of bodily elements, emerging from the kidneys; nyariram, emerald green, a quintessence of cognition, originating at the top of the lungs.

Not that sharira are an exclusively Tibetan phenomenon. In her film To the Land of Bliss, shot in 1998, Chinese anthropologist Wen-jie Qin documented the lives of contemporary Pure Land Buddhists in Sichuan Province, in southwest China. While she was there, Jue Chang, an eminent monk and teacher in a monastery on the sacred mountain Emei, passed away. The film shows laughing nuns sifting through their master’s ashes with chopsticks, delicately lifting the occasional sphere attached to a bone and what look like crystal fragments, putting them in little bottles.

I contacted Professor John Strong of the Department of Religion at Bates College in Maine. In his book Relics of the Buddha (2004), he argues that relic veneration has played an integral role in Buddhist traditions of South and Southeast Asia up to the present day. He confirmed that veneration of sharira is widespread:

“Monks in Korea always look for sharira in the ashes of deceased masters. Sometimes they find them and sometimes they don’t, which can be a little embarrassing, as they are taken as a sign of enlightenment. They come in different colors, and the layout of where they are found in the ashes is important, as they indicate which internal organs they have come from. They are given to disciples and sponsors. In Thailand they have a different technique: they go through the ashes and pick out bits of bone and then preserve the charred bone, maintaining they will grow into sharira–they lose their bone-like quality and become these little gems. The quicker they do the job, the higher the deceased person was in their spiritual attainments.”

Dr. Strong had heard of no such deposits being found in Western cremations, nor did he know what the sharira were composed of. In fact I could discover no research done in sharira in the West and no scientific explanation. They seemed to be a particularly Eastern occurrence.

If these peculiarly Buddhist relics do exist, as so many people seem to believe they do, how are they formed? Can profound meditation practice actually produce such odd physical phenomena?

1. Relic of Shakyamuni Buddha; 2. Relic of Shakyamuni Buddha; 3. Relic of Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant. | © Nick Dawson, courtesy of Maitreya Project International.

THE MOST TECHNICAL EXPLANATION (and the most arcane and complex) of sharira comes from the Vajrayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. This holds that the colors of the sharira signify the purification, through enormous effort, of the five aggregates, or skandhas,that, according to Buddhism, constitute all worldly phenomena, including human beings and all individual experience. The skandhas comprise form, feeling, perception, karmic formation, and consciousness.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche, spiritual director of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT)–an international organization of Tibetan Buddhist centers that has, among its many programs, organized worldwide tours of relics–put it more simply.

“Relics are not easy to produce. They are the essence of spiritual realizations, the result of prolonged practice and pure morality,” he says, “the mind that is entirely detached from human happiness. They are the result of the good heart, manifested out of compassion so that others can benefit by seeing, making prayers, and performing acts of devotion to them.”

Down the ages these little jewels have been worshipped in every Buddhist country as holy objects believed to contain the very essence of the deceased’s enlightenment. Sharira, it is thought, have power to heal, cleanse karma, and raise one up the spiritual evolutionary ladder. But in the hands of the unscrupulous, they are said to have the ability to dupe, deceive, and garner disciples and riches alike. Buddhist relics, like their Christian counterparts, have their own history of fraud.

Skeptics point to Dr. Alois Anton Fuhrer, the German archaeologist who found the Buddha’s birthplace at Lumbini. In 1895, Dr. Fuhrer was caught selling horse teeth as relics to Burmese monks. Another tooth purporting to come from the Buddha himself was recently examined by the Natural History Museum in London and found to belong to a pig. I heard tell of sharira that were no more than mites of dust collected on religious pictures, and small gems thrown into the ashes of funeral pyres by conniving clergy to fool the faithful. There is even a story of a temple parrot that left sharira—he’d apparently imbibed the Buddha’s teachings!

Not surprisingly then, there is a large swell of Buddhist opinion that will have no truck with sharira at all, preferring to keep their Buddhism to a purely rational practice. To them the only relics the Buddha left behind worth venerating are his teachings.

But what of Geshe Lama Konchog, whom I had personally known? Could his relics be fake? I decided to return to Kopan to investigate further.

CLIMBING UP THE KOPAN HILL that overlooks the famous Boudhanath stupa, with its piercing blue Buddha eyes looking out in the four directions across the Kathamandu Valley, I remembered that this was where I had first encountered Buddhism, back in 1976. I had no idea then that its message would captivate me for so long. Geshe Lama Konchog’s small, dark, and rather cluttered room was as he left it when he died of stomach cancer on October 15, 2001, except for the small dishes, on shelves and in cabinets, bearing hundreds of spheres of varying shapes, sizes, and colors, like the ones I’d seen in Bodh Gaya. Some of them, according to their labels, were self-replicating. There was also a skull with a huge piece of crystal growing out of it, remnants of a jawbone with pearl-like objects attached to it, and small mounds of what looked like black, copper, and silver hair. All were said to have been extracted from his cremation ashes.

I found Tenzin Zopa, a monk who had been Geshe Lama Konchog’s assistant and heart disciple. He had known Geshe Lama Konchog since birth, and used to climb into his cave, creeping under his robes to keep warm in the bitter winter cold. The monk gave me a firsthand account of what had happened:

“This was the first time we had cremated anyone in Kopan and frankly, we didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t realize Geshe Lama Konchog was as special as he was, and did not expect relics at all. We used seven times as much wood and ten times as much butter as we should have, because we wanted to do a good job–so arguably there should have been nothing left at all. At 4:30 in the afternoon the fire was lit. By 8:30, I was having dinner when the little monks who used to have tea with Geshe Lama Konchog came dashing in and saying, ‘There are all these little shining balls coming from the fire.’ We rushed there and looked through the opening of the stupa. We could see white shining objects jumping about like popcorn. The top of the body had burnt out, but the bottom half was still there, and from the stomach area there were all these small round objects, forming and exploding out. An Italian lady who was present put her video camera through an opening and actually filmed the relics forming on the bone. We immediately phoned Lama Zopa. ‘Seal all the entrances at once,’ he ordered.

“Three days later we opened the stupa. The fire was still burning in the embers beneath. Relics were stuck between the bricks, very high up, and were also lying in heaps on the ground. There was some black shining stuff that looked like hair, although Geshe Lama Konchog was gray, also some silver and copper. The heart had crystallized, and so had his tongue. Some people said they saw a self-emanating Tara on it, but I did not. The bulk of the relics were lying in the ashes–we used small silver spoons to pick them up, very carefully. There were so many of them, it took all day.”

1. Geshe Lama Konchog’s blood relic; 2. Geshe Lama Konchog’s bone relic; 3. Geshe Lama Konchog’s silver hair relic | © Nick Dawson, courtesy of Maitreya Project International.

All in all the relics numbered in the several hundreds, and all were meticulously documented. I was told that some of them were multiplying, and some were changing shape. Was it the intense heat of the flames that somehow caused these eruptions on the bones–a distillation of bodily fluids and parts? Not according to Lama Zopa Rinpoche. “It was not the fire that caused these gems to appear. Geshe Lama Konchog had already transformed his body into that of a Buddha before he died,” he said.

Tenzin Zopa was only mildly curious about the composition of the “jewels.” “They could be from the bone and blood. For me it is a miracle, and there is no need for physical analysis or explanation,” he said. “What I believe is that these relics were totally the result of Geshe Lama Konchog’s mental development, left behind only for the benefit of those who follow. He had practiced since the age of six, purifying his aggregates by himself. He had nothing–not even water bowls when he was meditating. He used to carve them out of the rock by his cave. You don’t gain enlightenment through driving a Mercedes car–it involves great effort. But his mind was not like ours, it was totally mature.”

I managed to get a copy of the video the Italian woman had taken of the cremation and indeed saw what looked like small round “pearls” forming along a length of bone in the funeral pyre, together with the monks scooping many small round objects from the ashes with spoons. It seemed to prove that Tenzin Zopa’s claims were authentic.

I went down to Kathmandu to speak to Nick Dawson, a British photographer who had photographed the relics over a period of four months. “I see and test the truth visually, through the lens. The first time I photographed the relics was two days after the cremation, then three, then again some time later and the last time four months after the funeral. I saw the relics change and multiply. They were like little pustules forming on the bone, then they fell off. They started off black, then turned red, then white,” he said.

There was no doubt that those who had witnessed Geshe Lama Konchog’s cremation believed the relics to be genuine; to them they were precious objects, weighty with meaning. I have decided that the Buddhist world, like the Christian, is divided into two camps: the Protestants, who regard relic worship as superstitious, silly, unintelligent, and to be put firmly into the basket of “idolatrous practice” and avoided at all costs, and the Catholics, for whom the numinous and the mystical are an essential part of their practice. Many thousands of people from around the world, including the United States, have visited relic exhibitions and have testified to finding the experience spiritually uplifting. For them, these small shining sharira encapsulate the hope that transformation of the very physical body is possible–as well as the immaterial mind. Venerating a holy object, be it an image or a relic, is seen by many as an invaluable part of spiritual practice, bestowing countless blessings, opening the heart, and lessening one’s pride.

Lama David Bole, resident lama for the Karma Thegsum Choling center, in Gainesville, Florida, attended a relic exhibition in his hometown in November 2005, and can attest to their powerful effect.

“Veneration is a catalyst for one’s spiritual growth,” he said. “I had the very good fortune to bless some of the twelve hundred attendees with a relic from Shakyamuni Buddha contained in a little glass stupa. Many people were brought to tears, others were smiling and laughing. Everyone felt something. There is a force in everything we come into contact with–be it food, medicine, people–and we start resonating at the same rate. These relics are very powerful. They were left behind by saints and buddhas to help us.”

At the end of my search into the meaning of Buddhist relics, I was reminded of an old Tibetan tale. A devout old woman asked her trader son if he would bring her back a tooth from the Buddha when he traveled to India. The son forgot all about his mission until his return home, when in desperation to please his mother he picked up a tooth from a dead dog he found rotting by the wayside. The mother’s eyes filled with tears of gratitude and wonder when he presented it to her, and she promptly put it on her small altar and everyday made obeisance to it. In time the tooth began to emit a strange, beautiful light. Even a dog’s tooth, if revered enough, will glow.

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