The Temple of the Sacred Tooth is located in Kandy, Sri Lanka, and is said to contain a tooth relic of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. The temple is a well-known tourist destination and pilgrimage site — people come to prostrate themselves and pray before this tooth.
I visited the Temple of the Tooth a number of years ago. The actual relic was not on display, so instead, they were displaying a replica carved from ivory.
Photographs were forbidden, but as I was gazing at this relic, an official took me aside and said that if I gave him $10, he would take my picture in front of it. I left with mixed feelings about this place where one of Buddha’s relics was being kept.
Most Buddhists are captivated if you mention a relic of the original Buddha — they want to come face to face with something left over from the 2,500-year-old sage. This also means that there are more than a few fake relics of the Buddha around the world. People everywhere claim to have true relics, without any historical records or factual basis whatsoever. Recently in Kushinagar, India (the place where Buddha achieved parinirvana), there were some fellows who calmly insisted that the sarira (relics) they had dug out of the earth were genuine. Their only motive was to get people to go there by casually throwing Buddha’s name around.
If you open up an old stupa, you can find both sutras and relics. Some stupas have true relics from Buddha, whereas others contain sarira from great monks who have passed away.
People are usually bursting with curiosity about these relics. They wonder what color, how many, what shape and in what quality of vessel they were stored. Ironically, in Buddhism, it also says that our physical body is false, merely a temporary illusion. This teaching is a way of preparing this body made of earth, water, fire and air to return again to these same elements.
Sometimes, monastic practitioners are even more attached to these relics. In particular, the disciples of a great monk who has passed away are often concerned while preparing for the cremation ceremony. “What if there aren’t any sarira? What if his relics are too few?”
What are these sarira, these relics left over from the Buddha’s body? Relics are simply crystals that arise from freely flowing energy in our bodies — the by-product of unhindered energy.
Buddha awakened 2,500 years ago to the universal principle we all share with the world: everything flows without hindrance. The water in a river flows freely whether there are rocks, hills, fields or mountains before it — it has no hindrance at all. Buddha saw that the entire universe is already functioning freely like this, without any hindrance.
Buddha taught, “Don’t attach to anything. If you attach to something, you’ll get caught — you’ll be hindered and unable to live freely.”
He also preached, “That which you are attached to is actually empty, it doesn’t exist. Since the entire universe is empty, it can flow without hindrance. Examine that nonexistence.”
His disciples at first kept an oral and later written record of his teachings, known as sutras. The sutras show us the way to live an unhindered life; also contained within is a blast furnace capable of melting away the delusions and afflictions of our hectic daily lives.
Once again, we should ask ourselves what the true, living, breathing relics of Buddha are. These are none other than the sutras and the teachings contained in the sutras. The principles in the sutras permeate any obstacle, so our bodies, our minds and our lives can all flow without hindrance. Eventually, they all become relics of Buddha.
But people become attached to relics that can be seen with their eyes — they are attached to the number, size and color. What use would it be, even if we could grasp innumerable genuine sarira in our hands? We can’t create those with our bodies, minds and lives, so the pieces of bone we see with our eyes are not the true relics.
The true relics are those that generate other relics.
*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo writer on religious affairs.