Buddhas sariras (仏舎利)
The term 'sarira' (śarīra), a word borrowed from Sanskrit, means the skeletal remains or body (the term śarīra शरीर originally means 'body' in Sanskrit and also refers to 'dead body' as in English). In Japan, Buddha's sarira is often used as a synonym of sarira, and the term sarira is used to distinguish the remains of others from those of the saints or Buddha.
Initially, the Malla tribe that ruled Kushinagar (Kusinara), where Buddha died, expressed the view that Buddha's sariras should be solely owned by them, and a dispute arose over Buddha's sariras between the Malla tribe and other countries that had Buddhism as the state religion; consequently, Buddha's sariras were equally divided into eight pieces and, along with the case and remaining ashes, were dedicated to 10 temples in the surrounding countries within and outside Kushinagar.
200 years later, King Asoka of the Maurya Dynasty in India, who was a pious Buddhist, unified the whole land of India under his sway. He excavated seven out of eight places around the country where the Buddha's sariras had been dedicated, and pulverized the bones and divided them grain by grain, and subdivided the ashes into minute quantities; then he redistributed them to an enormous number of temples inside and outside the country; these were said to number some 80,000 temples, including the ones in surrounding countries.
Many monks from China, to which Buddhism was introduced in later years, headed out to India and the Kingdom of Thailand, where Buddha's sariras had been dedicated, and they held a memorial service with gems, etc., in front of stupa (a cone-shaped Buddhist monument in which Buddha's sariras were laid; a model and the origin of Japanese sotoba, or stupa); they took the gems as 'substitutes for Buddha's sariras' to China and applied them to the pagodas of their temples. This method of using gems as substitutes for Buddha's sariras was also used in Japan in old times.
It has been said that Buddhism was officially introduced into Japan either in 538 or in 552, and that Buddhist statues and sutra were brought over at the same time, but there was no description of sariras.
In 1956, as a result of an excavation of the area surrounding Asuka-dera Temple, an ancient foundation of Hoko-ji Temple (Gango-ji Temple) was found. A vessel for Buddha's sariras placed in a wooden box was found in a pillar foundation of the stupa, which no longer exists. The sariras were placed in the pillar foundation in 593, but the stupa was burned down in 1196 as the result of lightning. It is said that in the following year the sariras were dug out, placed in a new vessel and a wooden box, and buried in the pillar foundation again.
During the Asuka period, temples with outstanding stupa, such as Hoko-ji Temple, Ikaruga-dera Temple (now Horyu-ji Temple), and the existing Shitenno-ji Temple, were built, whose stupa were dedicated to Buddha's sariras.
There is a description in the "Nihon Shoki" that Buddhist statues, a golden stupa and sariras were sent by Jinpyeong-wang of the Silla Kingdom in July, 623 (in old lunar calendar). It is said that the sariras were dedicated to Shitenno-ji Temple.
In Buddhism's early days, Buddhist doctrine was valued so statues were not created based on the Indian customs and religious observances. Therefore, Buddha's sariras were the only subjects of religious belief having a concrete shape. However, when Buddhism was introduced into Japan, Buddhist statues existed from the beginning, so Buddha's sariras and stupa, which were dedicated to the sariras, were not necessarily at the center of the religion.
While Jianzhen visited Japan with Buddha's sariras in 754, Kukai brought back a large number of Buddha's sariras with Shingon Esoteric Buddhism in 806. Subsequently, worship for Buddha's sariras was reignited in Japan and people started to worship not only sariras in stupa but also in a vessel for Buddha's sariras within the building.
Because of the national seclusion in the Edo period and the anti-Buddhism movement in the Meiji period, interactions with overseas countries broke off, but there were a few cases where Buddha's sariras were given as a result of interactions with the countries of Theravada Buddhism such as Sri Lanka and Thailand after 1900, at the end of the Meiji period.
True or False
There are many mysterious traditions about Buddha's sariras.
Buddha's sariras will disappear if owned by someone who does not deserve to have them.'
Buddha's sariras will multiply in number, become bigger or change colors if owned by someone who deserves to have them.'
As described above, it is said that there will be changes depending on one's depth of faith.
This tradition has been a hotbed of craft such as, 'If Buddha's sariras increase in number, it is a sign of good business,' as seen in a comment by Hogen FUKUNAGA, founder of Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo, a religious organization, who stated, 'When I was given genuine Buddha's sariras, they multiplied by 100 due to my supernatural power.'
According to another version, the so-called sariras of Buddha spread throughout Asia in a combined weight of two tons.
There are genuine Buddha's sariras that are the remains of Buddha's bones and ashes, as well as substitutes such as gems, etc; over the years it has become confusing and unclear which of Buddha's sariras, whether genuine or substitutes, were dedicated in which temple. Therefore, the Sri Lankan government conducted research on actual conditions and manages them by collecting Buddha's sariras where possible.
The Sri Lankan government says, 'We do not give away Buddha's sariras as an exchange for money (donation), but we give them to the temples that deserve to receive them based on our investigation and selection.'
What is deemed to be the true remains of Buddha's bones, archaeologically, was excavated in India in 1898 and subsequently transferred by the United Kingdom, which ruled India at that time, to Siam (now the Kingdom of Thailand). A portion of the sariras was given to the Japanese people by Rama V of Siam, and Kakuozan Nissen-ji Temple (now Kakuo-zan Nittai-ji Temple) was built to deposit it.
Rights and Wrongs of Worshipping Buddha's Sariras
Buddha, in his later years, said to his disciples, 'All things must come to an end; when I am dead, my teachings will lead you; never shirk, but keep studying.'
Because the Buddha explained that the handing down of doctrine was of the greatest importance as Shogyo-mujo (all things are impermanent) is inevitable, in later years there were some who believed that worshiping and venerating the Buddha's sariras, which exist as tangible things, deviates from the Buddha's intention.
However, in the Theravada Buddhism introduced from the south, Buddha's sarira was undoubtedly the object of worship, as explained above.
Also, in the Mahayana (greater vehicle) Buddhism introduced from the north, Buddha's sariras are interpreted as identical to "Truth Body" or "Buddha-nature."
Nehan-gyo preaches the following:
As described above, there is an interpretation that people can get closer to the world of Buddha by creating stupas and Buddhist statues and staring into the eyes of Buddha-nature within; thus there are those who believe the philosophy that respects and worships Buddha's sariras is not an unrighteous act.