Relics of the revered

by Mary Adamski, Honolulu Star Bulletin, April 1, 2006

An exhibit next week showcases the little-known Buddhist practice of venerating the spiritual remains of teachers

Honolulu, Hawaii (USA) -- Seeking to grasp the essence of Buddhist philosophy, scholars have studied the teachings of the historical Buddha for centuries, and different branches of Buddhism chose one or the other of those sutras as their focus.

A few pieces are identified as bits of bone or teeth, but most of the items displayed in little lotus cups and jeweled containers are tiny beadlike granules which, tradition has it, are the spiritual rather than physical remains of revered masters.

Outsiders, as well as believers, look to centuries' worth of Buddhist art and architecture as signposts to understanding Buddhism, which predates Christianity and Islam.

An exhibit coming to Hawaii next week will offer an aspect of Buddhist belief that people rarely hear about: a reverence for relics.

The Maitreya Project Heart Shrine Relic Tour, which has been shown in 140 cities around the world since 2001, will open Friday at the Hawai'i Convention Center and continue Saturday and Sunday. The exhibition will be free and open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

The relics of 27 venerated masters are included, according to information provided by the show's local sponsor, Honolulu businesswoman Bobbie Fisher. Many of the items were salvaged from Tibetan shrines where they had been held for centuries until Tibetan Buddhists were forced to flee from 20th-century invaders from China.

There are a few pieces identified as bits of bone or teeth, but most of the items displayed in little lotus cups and jeweled containers are tiny beadlike granules which, tradition has it, are the spiritual rather than physical remains of revered masters.

Several of the precious bits are identified as being relics of Shakyamuni Buddha, who originated the Buddhist philosophy and was born more than 2,500 years ago. They came from sources in Burma and Thailand, and some were contributed by the Dalai Lama, according to information presented by the Maitreya Project in Taos, N.M.

"The relics come from purity and are considered to be the pure essence of the holy being," said Carmen Straight, one of the custodians of the relic tour. "It is a way to still have a connection with the holy spiritual master who has passed away. What they leave behind out of love and compassion is their spiritual realizations and positive qualities."

It is a phenomenon that is referred to as "the jewel in the ashes," she said. "It is a tremendous blessing just being in the presence of just one relic," said Straight, a Canadian.

The idea that something physical remains of Shakyamuni Buddha is not accepted by some Japanese branches of Buddhism, said the Rev. Eijo Ikenaga, minister of the Myohoji Temple in Nuuanu. "It is said, when Shakyamuni Buddha passed away, his ashes were divided into eight jars, each placed in a temple. One jar was found in recent history."

Ikenaga said his temple contains a relic of the Buddha, bone fragments that are enshrined in the hall. "People come to worship it, give reverence to the Buddha."

Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, a Buddhist from Thailand, said, "Relics are the remains of beings who devoted their entire lifetime to virtuous spiritual practices. Every part of their body contained positive energy." She said the belief is that after a person is cremated, "If you had a good life, the ash is not black, but white. I remember when my father died, the ash was white. If you become a Buddha, what remains becomes like crystal," said Natadecha-Sponsel, a Chaminade University instructor.

Diana Paw U, a Burmese Buddhist, said she remembers her mother's altar in their home contained "little pellets with a pearl sheen. People feel it will protect you and your family and home. There's a belief that if they are happy, they multiply.

"Belief in relics is not written about," said Paw U. "Professors translate the sutras. I don't think anybody could say it was mentioned in a sutra that there are such entities.

"This is more like a folk religion," she said. "It's a belief. How can you ever prove something like this? If it gives peace of mind or happiness, why not?"

Straight, the custodian, said all of the relics were authenticated by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, a founder of the Maitreya Project. They will be on a world tour until 2010, when they will be enclosed in a shrine to the Maitreya Buddha in northern India. The Maitreya Project is attempting to raise $200 million to construct a 500-foot-tall bronze Maitreya statue depicting the ultimate Buddha.

Natadecha-Sponsel said, "In Buddhist belief there is more than one Buddha. Maitreya will be the last Buddha, the embodiment of lovingkindness, showing the way to bring peace and happiness, eliminate war, famine, disease and disharmony."

Straight said the "main purpose of the relic tour is to give people a chance to reverence them. We are not soliciting money although people do offer."