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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