Buddhist Cult of Relics: Inspiration or a Sham?

Tibetan Buddhist Relics in India

Tibetan Buddhist Relics in Dharamsala, India, 2012

It’s hard to know just where to begin with the question of relics in Buddhism. To believe, or not to believe, perhaps.

I find that I, as an ex-Catholic, ex-anti-everything, quasi-Buddhist practitioner, don’t buy into relics that much. To be honest, they look creepy and remind me too much of the odd veneration of dead people that I found so very disturbing in my teens as a quasi-Catholic. Do such ‘relics’ really validate a religion? The site hosting these images certainly thinks so, stating, in broken English: “The relics of Lhadam Palden Choegyal Tulku’s speak it all against the challenges of critics  of religions. It is unexplainable to see with our naked eyes the formation of various statues on the remains and skull of Lhadam Palden Choegyal Tulku.”

Have a look. What do you think?

My immediate response, when an American-born Tibetan monk friend of mine posted this on facebook was: “I may be the horrible skeptic here, but I’d love to see these analyzed in a lab… of course if I wanted to be cynical I would note the even more amazing manifestation of cash notes around said relics.” And to be fair, my friend noted that they come from the Tibetan Children’s Village, a very worthy charitable organization. My response, still very skeptical was, “Well if [the Virgin] Mary appeared on a cheese sandwich in the Pope’s own kitchen…”

The responses of other friends and fellow Buddhists was more supportive of the relics, along the lines of “wow, how wonderful.”

For some reason I expected my friend who posted this, and other friends, to somehow accept my skepticism and endorse it themselves. But this really didn’t happen.

After the last fifty or so years, in which religion has been cast under a close light and so many of these ‘miracles’ – where objectively examined – were seen as frauds, I can’t help but wonder why my Buddhist friends wouldn’t share the same skepticism I have, even for objects and people within their own faith. I mean, after all, people are willing to fake (and believe in) some pretty strange stuff:

Animal Planet’s fake Mermaid Documentary “fools millions… AGAIN” (updated June 2013)

Why not carve up some Buddha statues (perhaps even using human skulls, as is possible in India) and toss them into the cremation fire of a great monk, or just say they were removed from the ashes afterward? Of course it’s dishonest, but… Just google “fake gurus” and you’ll find about 2 million links to discussions of fraud in Indian religions, often by legitimate teachers. Those of us who know about Western receptions of new religions will see that India is just as prone, or even more so, to the kind of exaggerated claims and slight of hand that so many others fall prey to in their quest for religious grounding. My only advice is: be careful. Be very careful.

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(note our friends Geshe Michael Roach and Lama Christie McNally at around 15 seconds in)

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  • Peter

    My guess is that it’s 99% chance sham. What do these “relics” really have to do with the practice of Buddhism? In ancient times the notion of relics may have served the purpose of providing illiterate peoples a way of expressing faith in Buddhism, especially where traditionally you had monks “practicing” and lay people “supporting”. For modern Buddhists I would think it’s either silly or a non-issue.

    • hugh

      Relics can have value if one’s mind is attuned to their source. A saint’s relics can have a great deal of meaning to Eastern Orthodox or Catholic or Islamic followers if they feel connected to the origin of the relic. Believers feel reconnected to their beliefs & by touching or looking at the relic one can awaken a sense of mystery & awe which may be missing in everyday life. The miraculous nature of relics is in the sensibilities of the beholder. I grew up honoring relics in a sometimes syrupy way, then for many years I rejected those beliefs. Now I see them as having value, like a sacred picture or statue, in terms of re-locating my attention to the contemplative side of my nature. We often lead lives that distract us from sacred reality so to have daily reminders can present us with spiritual replenishment.

  • http://mvofb.blogspot.com/ Tony

    I’ m looking for the teacher who leaves no relics. Have you seen/not seen him?

    • Tell

      Dear Tony,
      There is no such thing…. as, “a teacher who leaves no relics”. You really have to up your understanding of the spiritual domain.

      • Justin Whitaker

        I’m a bit confused by what this means: a “teacher who leaves no relics.” I imagine this is a matter of tradition – Tibetan Buddhists are fond of relics and thus are more likely to find/leave relics. Zen teachers typically don’t leave relics, although there is the extremely rare tradition of self-mumification in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, which leaves a pretty cool relic. As far as I know, Theravadin teachers generally don’t leave relics after death, but perhaps hair, blessed amulets, etc serve the same purpose.

        Tell, what do you mean by “up your understanding” – can you give specific examples?


  • http://www.mybuddhistlife.com Padma

    Whether or not they’re actually what they are claimed to be, I have no idea. But having so much devotion poured onto something does seem to make a difference. I visited the relics with an open mind and had an extremely strong meditation with very little effort on my part.

    • Justin Whitaker

      That’s a great point, Padma. I think there is interesting work to be done on ‘the feeling’ one gets around relics or places that one finds holy. There is something very real about that phenomenon. But with it comes the potential for, and actual cases of, abuse.

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  • Yudron

    Relics are a part of every Buddhist tradition, including Theravada, and the Buddha’s relics were put a stupas after his passing. I think it is fine to be skeptical about over-the-top detailed sculptures, of a different color or colors than bone, appearing on the bones of the deceased, especially in places where they would have protruded from the skin or impinged on brain functioning in the skull cavity when the adept was alive. I do feel that genuine relics have blessings, but…