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By Usha Alexander | Sep 2007 | Comments
Legend has it that after the death of Prince Siddharta (aka the Buddha) around 500 BCE, such was the demand among local kings and chieftains to own a piece of him, that they were ready to go to war to claim his remains, also called relics or sarira (roughly: transient body), which are the tiny bits of bone that survive cremation fires. Fortunately, a wise man intervened and convinced Buddha's unenlightened devotees instead to divide his relics and enshrine them within eight stupas throughout the lands of Buddha's life and teaching (modern north-central India and southern Nepal). Some 200 years later, Emperor Ashoka, in his zeal to spread Buddhist teachings, broke into those stupas and redistributed the relics far and wide. Just how far and wide is unknown, but it's said that Ashoka built tens of thousands of stupas and his influence is known to have reached at least from Sri Lanka to Central Asia. So ultimately the precise fate of Buddha's remains is shrouded in mystery. But, for believers, mystery provides fertile ground for the miraculous discovery of lost relics hundreds or thousands of years later.
According to the men of Famen Temple, Ashoka's eager emissaries ventured to this very site in the Yellow River valley around 300 BCE (Eastern Zhou Dynasty) to spread Buddhist teachings and leave behind an imperial gift of no less than four little bones, said to be finger bones of the Buddha. But as it happened, the Zhou weren't much interested in the Buddha's message, nor were their various successors, and so there's no surviving news of how the relics were regarded and handled, or how they otherwise got on for the next nine hundred eventful years.
It was during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 CE) that the bones came to be appreciated for what they were. The Tang, devotedly Buddhist, built a sepulchre for the bones, buried deep under the ground beneath a high tower and accessed through a long, narrow passageway barred by a series of heavy stone doorways. Once every thirty years, the bones were brought out into daylight and celebrated with great pageantry, showered with royal gifts -- such as a pure gold "begging bowl," fine selections from the imperial wardrobe, a full set for a tea-ceremony (the oldest unearthed in China), and layer upon layer of box-like enclosures fashioned variously from jade, gold, silver, and precious stones -- and then sequestered again until the next time karmic duty called. But when the Tang Dynasty fell, they closed up the vault filled with riches and, for all purposes, threw away the key. Later dynasties were less enamored of Buddhism, and the vault was officially forgotten. Perhaps it had been sealed in the interest of safeguarding the relics, as Buddhism was falling out of favor, increasingly viewed as a foreign religion.
For another thousand years, the bones lay quietly, apparently forgotten but for the persistence of a vague local legend claiming that Buddha's relics were buried beneath the high pagoda of what had come to be called Famen temple and its associated monastery. The tower was rebuilt several times during those thousand years, and there were those who made note of its unusual foundation. But it was only in 1981, when the tower that had been standing for 402 years crumbled to the ground and some years later a complete, modern reconstruction was begun, that the hidden chamber beneath it was unearthed. In the words of the museum curators:
The accidental discovery of underground palace was like a sudden clap of thunder. When the stone gate that was locked for thousands [sic] of years was opened before people's eyes, they saw a mysterious world. From the paved path covered by gold coins to the front chamber that is centered with Asoka Stupa, and then the middle chamber mainly including the marble bier, and the resplendent back chamber, in the end, the secret niche. There are totally 2,499 royal treasures including Empress Wuzetian's embroidered skirt, royal gold and silver wares, secret celadons, Arabian glasswares, etc. They gathered around a real Sakyamuni's finger bone and three shadow bones. The blend of the cultural spirit of grand Tang and the material civilization burst out the infinite light of wisdom.
It's not clear whether these four pieces are all parts of the same finger or different ones, or even whether they are all believed to have once been used by the Buddha, or if only one was his and the others belonged to someone else, or who that someone else might have been. No attempt is made to clarify the term "shadow bones." Commentary on the matter ranges from vague to non-existent. Perhaps this is on purpose, just as it's left vague exactly how these bones arrived and when the first stupa, temple, or tower was built upon this site (none of the existing constructions of the site pre-date the selpuchre) or how the bones survived intact and un-famous for nearly a thousand years before the Tang Dynasty.
But maintaining such vagaries is the business of organized religion (which Chinese Buddhism certainly is). The history of these bones, where they came from, and exactly to whom they once belonged, serves adherents best when it blends the present back into misty legend. Today Chinese Buddhists come here to pay their respects in the hallowed underground space around the vault (now sealed again with the relics inside -- except when they are out touring someplace like Korea). No doubt, the livelihood of the Famen monks, and to some extent the economy of the nearby town, are dependent upon the belief that these are the Buddha's relics. Some Chinese display distinct pride in the notion that these are the only surviving relics of the Buddha.
We aren't allowed to see the real bones, but In comparing the extreme close-up photographs of the bones that hang on the museum walls to the little finger-bone caskets that are on display, one can make out that the bone fragments are each at least an inch-and-a-half long. Granted, I'm no forensic scientist but to my untrained eye these bones don't look as though they've survived a fire. The neat, tubular shapes and smooth, yellowish patina give them the appearance of having been filed and polished, perhaps by a great deal of handling. According to an article in the People's Daily Online, archaeologists have "confirmed" that they came from the middle finger of the Buddha's left hand. But there's no DNA evidence to confirm the Buddha's identity. What self-respecting archaeologist could confirm such a thing? More likely, this "scientific legitimacy" is fabricated from whole cloth.
Were the bones really sent here by Ashoka? If that's so, then why isn't there a single Ashokan artifact accompanying them? Surely, he would have sent them in some adorned set of caskets, and the monks who later cared for the relics wouldn't have just tossed those out. There is the reference to the "Asoka stupa" in the front chamber of the vault, but it was nowhere among the displays nor identifiable in photos of the vault's original contents. And why would Ashoka, with so many kings and chieftains to bequeath with relics, have sent such a large and pleasingly intact portion of them to this one site? It's plausible, of course, that Ashoka did send some Buddhist relics to the Zhou kings. It's at least as likely that during the nearly thousand years of probable neglect that ensued, any such relics and their associated treasures would have been pillaged, destroyed, lost. The bones finally presented to the Tang emperors might have been dug up from anywhere by someone hoping to please the nobility.
But these questions aren't likely to get answered. It's neither in the interest of the monks nor other believers to poke about and ask critical questions. In any case, whatever might be discovered, believers will go right on believing what they want to; that's the nature of religion.
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