The Buddha – Chapter 22: Enshrining a Relic

Throughout the history of Buddhism and across the Buddhist world, relics have been considered potent objects, bestowing blessings and power on those who worship them. The monuments in which relics are enshrined, called stupas in India and pagodas in China, were not considered to contain bits of ash and bone, but were said to contain the Buddha himself (see Chapter 7); the relics, deemed indestructible, were described as infused with the virtues of a buddha The vicinity of a stupa was considered sacred ground, and thus an auspicious site for the entombment of the ashes of both monks and laity; hundreds of minor stupas have been discovered around such sites in India.

Stupas and the relics they preserved were also pivotal in the social history of Buddhism: these monuments became magnets attracting monastery building and votive construction, as well as local ritual traditions and regional pilgrimage that generated rewards both spiritual and material. stupas were physical signs on the topography of Asia (and now the West), marking the presence of the Buddha and hence of Buddhism.

Relics and stupas also played an important political role in the history of Buddhism. The Indian king Asoka is regarded by the tradition as a universal emperor (cakravartin). His fame derives in part from his sponsorship of a massive re-enshrinement of the relics of past buddhas, constructing, according to legend, some 84,000 stupas, many built by missions dispatched to outlying realms. Other Buddhist kings of other Buddhist lands would emulate him on a more modest scale.

The account below occurs in a Chinese work entitled Record of Divine Responses from the Sarira Relics (Sheli ganying ji) by Wang Shao. Wang Shao was a controversial but influential Buddhist layman who served as high official and confidant to the first Sui emperor, Wen Di (Yang Jian). In 601 Yang Jian resolved to sanctify his newly founded Sui Dynasty (581-618) by erecting stupas in thirty provincial capitals across his realm. Holy -sarira (relics of the historical Buddha or other past buddhas) that were allegedly given to Yang Jian by a divine Indian monk were deposited in their foundations. Wang Shao’s Record, the opening narrative of which is translated here, is a record of the relic enshrinements of 601. Two additional distributions of relics occurred in 602 and 604. Word of the emperor’s pious deeds spread throughout northeast Asia (along with news of the reunification of China under the Sui), striking great admiration in figures such as Prince Shotoku Taishi in Japan, becoming a model for similar ritual uses of relics and stupas by Japanese and Korean courts.

Record of Divine Responses from the sarira Relics

Before the emperor came forth from his dragon concealment [to assume the throne], an Indian monk once showed up at his residence. He brought out a single bundle of sarira relics and said to him, ‘Alms-giver, you have a good heart, so I wish to leave these with you as an offering.’ After the monk left, they searched for him everywhere but no one knew his whereabouts. Later on, the emperor and the mendicant Tanqian each poured the relics into his palm and counted them. At one moment they were few; at the next many, making it impossible to determine their actual number. Tanqian said, ‘I once heard an Indian monk explain that the dharma-body exceeds all calculation and is not something that people of this world can fathom.’ Thereupon the two of them set about making a case of seven jewels in which to store the relics.

The holy nun Zhixian [who cared for Yang Jian when he was a child] once said to the emperor-to-be, ‘The Buddha’s dharma is about to be extinguished. The [beneficent] gods have already left our land for the west. In the future you will become the loving father of all under heaven and will revive the Buddha’s dharma once again. The gods will then return.’ Soon thereafter the Zhou house actually did seek to destroy the Buddhist dharma. The house of the Sui received the mandate and subsequently revived it. Whenever the emperor recalled the divine nun’s words he would say, ‘My rise in fortune is due to the Buddha. Thus I will fashion images of the divine nun and have them installed in each of the stupas throughout the realm.’

To fulfil the emperor’s former vow, the emperor and empress constructed a tiered stupa with an enclosed foundation at Dharma- Realm Nunnery in the capital. In its base they placed a sarira relic. On an autumn night during the fifteenth year of Kaihuang [595], a divine radiance rose up from the base and spiralled clockwise to the dew basins [on the stupa’s spire]. Its hue was a brilliant red, like the intense glow of a smelting furnace. Over the next ten days this happened four different times. On the third day of the sixth month in the first year of Renshou [601] the emperor came to Renshou Hall in Renshou Palace. It marked the occasion of the [sexagenary] anniversary of his birthday. Every year on this day he would ponder deeply to himself what merits he might cultivate or good deeds he might perform to repay his parents’ kindness. To this end, he invited illustrious mendicants to come and discuss the Dao. They resolved that he should select thirty elevated and untrammelled sites from throughout the realm’s provincial capitals, and on each of them build a sarira reliquary.

The emperor personally selected thirty relics from the relic case of seven jewels. He took them out from the container and placed them on the bench before the royal throne. Joining with the mendicants, he burned incense and prostrated himself, vowing that, as a disciple of the Buddha, he would for ever protect the three jewels and strive to deliver all creatures by means of the true and orthodox dharma. Then he took thirty glass [jars] and vases of gold, inserted the glass vessels into the golden pitchers, and placed the sarira relics inside them. He burned aromatic shanglu and mixed the ashes into a paste, which he then daubed on the lids of the pitchers and imprinted with his seal. Noon on the fifteenth day of the tenth month was selected throughout the thirty provinces as the appointed hour to insert [the reliquary pitchers] into their copper and stone cases and simultaneously erect the stupas.

Each of the mendicants, with utmost devotion, received their relics and conveyed them to their locations. Before they entered their provincial borders, they had each household repeatedly cleanse the area of filth and evil. Clergy and common folk, men and women, all descended on the city to greet the relics coming from afar. Incumbent governors and their subordinates jammed the road to escort them along. The entire fourfold sangha decorously and solemnly came to make offerings, bringing with them jewelled parasols, banners, lotus pedestals and palanquins, Buddha tents and Buddha carriages, piles of incense, bowls of aromatic flowers and all manner of music. Each took in hand incense and flowers, which he or she lit and scattered accordingly. They circumambulated the relics and sang verse praises, the Brahma- tones of which were exceedingly melodious. According to the Agama sutras, when the rites were performed for escorting the relics [of the Buddha] into the city of Kusinagara, people flocked from far and near, gathering there like billowing clouds and mist. Even among the blind, lame, old and infirm there was none who did not come crawling on hands and knees.

The mendicants [who escorted the relics] chanted the following words before the great fourfold sangha: ‘Endowed with boundless loving-kindness, a bodhisattva will chop his bones to pieces out of pity for [suffering] sentient beings. With this ideal in mind, the

Exalted One [the emperor] has ordered that we distribute these relics so that the whole world may together lay a foundation for goodness.’ They went on to quote passages from the sutras and use various techniques in order to admonish and instruct the crowd, bringing it to such tender sorrow that their tears fell like rain.

Their hearts focused and their palms joined in adoration, the entire assembly knelt down with the right knee to the ground. The mendicants then read aloud the following litany of contrition: ‘I, the said emperor, having received the bodhisattva precepts and become a disciple of the Buddha, do reverently declare before all the buddhas, all the dharma, and all the sangha of saints and worthies throughout the three times and the ten directions that I serve as lord and father to the multitudes [of this realm] solely through the grace of the three jewels. Thinking to pursue bodhi [enlightenment] together with the people at large, today I wish to distribute these relics and erect pagodas for them in the different provinces. My hope is that we may all be able to cultivate good karma and together reap the marvellous fruit [of buddhahood]. On behalf of this humble disciple, the empress, the imperial princes and all descendants of the royal households, the officials of the inner and outer courts, all sentient beings throughout the hidden and manifest realms of the dharmadhdtu, and all creatures who are enmeshed in the eight calamities of the three lower destinies, we now offer confession and perform ritual circumambulation. We reverently invite the eternally abiding buddhas, the most profound dharma-treasury of the twelve-fold canon, and the lordly bodhisattvas, saints and worthies to descend to this sanctuary and bear witness to the fact that your disciple confesses and repents on behalf of all living beings.’

Thereupon they performed prostrations and received the three refuges, all in accordance with proper ritual procedure. The mendicants again declared: ‘The emperor, disciple of the Buddha in the bodhisattva precepts, universally on behalf of all living beings, confesses the ten sorts of evil deed that he has committed since beginningless time, whether perpetrated by himself, urged on others, or enjoyed vicariously. Through the influence of such sins, one will fall into the realms of the hells, animals, or hungry ghosts. If reborn as a human, one’s life-span will be short and plagued with illness. One will be lowly, impoverished and twisted by depraved views, with no way to relieve oneself of the burden of affliction and deluded thinking. Having now been graced with the Tathagata’s compassionate light, I have awakened for the first time to the nature of those myriad sins. Filled with heartfelt remorse, my dread knows no cease. Standing in the presence of the three jewels, I confess and repent. I reverently receive the Buddha’s sun of wisdom, and pray that it may eliminate them for ever. From this life up to final attainment of buddhahood, I vow never again to commit such sins as these.’

When the grand assembly heard these words, they felt exceedingly compassionate, exceedingly joyful, exceedingly remorseful and exceedingly fearful. They were etched into their hearts and engraved on their bones. Those who, in spontaneous acts of charity, gave away their wealth, clothing and personal property or who cut off their hair were too numerous to count. Daily they sponsored vegetarian feasts, held rites of veneration and repentance, and held ceremonies for receiving the precepts. They pledged forever after to cultivate good and put an end to their evils, praying in life after future life and generation after generation to always be a subject of the great Sui [Dynasty]. Regardless of whether they were young or old, Chinese or foreigner, they all made this vow. Even beggars, hunters, rogues and thieves willingly yielded to thoughts of goodness. When the relic was ready to be placed into its casement, the grand assembly circumambulated around it, choked with emotion. The mendicants lifted the jewelled pitcher on high and carried it about, displaying it to the fourfold assembly. Every person who raised his eyes to look at it closely saw it glisten with radiant light. They called out and wept in joy, the sound echoing like thunder. The heavens and earth manifested anomalies in response to it. Every place the relics were installed it was like this. Indeed, the true body [of the Buddha] has manifested, and these divine stupas will always remain. When the world reveres and takes refuge in this field of blessing, the benefits will be inexhaustible.

On the morning when the stūpas were erected the emperor was in the courtyard of Daxing Hall at Daxing Palace. He stood facing
west, jade sceptre in hand. He had images of the buddhas installed and greeted some three hundred and sixty-seven monks, who came from Daxingshan Monastery with pennants, canopies, incense, flowers, hymns and orchestral music, and took up their places in the great hall of the palace. The emperor burned incense and offered prostrations, after which he descended to the eastern gallery, where he personally led some one hundred civil and military officials in observance of a vegetarian feast. At that time, word of the event spread from the inner palace and eastern palace throughout the wards of the city. Passed onward by myriad boats and carts, aristocratic households and common populace everywhere turned to practise holy dharma.

When the assembly of monks first arrived at the palace, the emperor ordered that a tight cordon be formed to the left and right of them, so that they might be counted. From the time they entered the Xianyang Gate to their ascending the hall steps, the monks were counted some three times over. But they kept coming up with one man extra. The emperor spotted a strange-looking monk with an unusual kasaya cloak, who kept saying to his left and right, ‘I am deeply disturbed that another has been installed [in my place], so I have departed.’ When they went to count the group again, the monk with the unusual-looking kasaya had disappeared. This occurred right at the time when the relics were being transported. The emperor said, ‘Today the Buddha’s dharma is revived. There are sure to be divine responses.’ Soon after, memorials and reports came in from location after location, and it was just as he predicted.

Translated by Daniel Stevenson from Daoxuan’s Guang hongming ji, T 2103, vol. 52, pp. 213b25-214b20.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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