Buddha’s relics ［仏舎利］ ( busshari): The Buddha’s cremated remains. Shakyamuni Buddha’s ashes are said to have been divided into eight portions and enshrined in eight countries in stupas built for them. In 1898 relics were discovered at Piprahwa (also spelled Piprava), on the northern border of India, and inscriptions on their receptacle identified them as those of Shakyamuni Buddha. Scholars today believe them to be one of the original eight divisions of Shakyamuni’s remains, the portion that had been enshrined in Kapilavastu (present-day Piprahwa).
According to tradition, King Ashoka erected eighty-four thousand stupas to house the Buddha’s relics. The practice of revering the Buddha’s relics spread to Central Asia, China, and Japan; in these areas the Buddha’s relics consisted of no more than a few small particles. Later some people came to believe that such grains or particles of the Buddha’s relics would appear in response to one’s sincere devotion to the Buddha’s teachings. In China, the first stupa dedicated to the Buddha’s relics is believed to have been erected in the third century, and, from the fourth century on, stupas came to be erected at various locations.
Veneration of the Buddha’s relics flourished particularly during the T’ang (618–907) and the Sung (960–1279) dynasties. In Japan, following the introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century, faith in the Buddha’s relics spread, influenced by the tradition established earlier in India, China, and Korea. Particles of the supposed relics, which were brought at first from Paekche and Silla on the Korean Peninsula and then from China, were housed in pagodas. The Chinese priest Chien-chen, known as Ganjin in Japan, and Japanese priests who went to China to study Buddhism brought such relics to Japan. Ceremonies dedicated to the Buddha’s relics were observed at temples, and a great number of small pagodas were produced.
From a doctrinal viewpoint, two kinds of relics are set forth: the Buddha’s physical remains and the teachings that he expounded. The former are called the relics of the physical body, while the latter are called the relics of the Dharma body. In the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha calls for the enshrinement of the sutra rather than his relics. The “Teacher of the Law” (tenth) chapter of the sutra says: “In any place whatsoever where this sutra is preached, where it is read, where it is recited, where it is copied, or where a roll of it exists, in all such places there should be erected towers made of the seven kinds of gems, and they should be made very high and broad and well adorned. There is no need to enshrine the relics of the Buddha there. Why? Because in such towers the entire body of the Thus Come One is already present.”