Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Let the Dead Bury the Dead

I took this photo at the Museo de Mummies in Guanajuato, Mexico, where bodies buried a hundred years before were discovered to be somewhat preserved by the climate and soil conditions.

At the Baan Aree Library in Bangkok last night, the Ven. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni , the only currently ordained nun in Thailand, chose to talk about Buddhist relics rather than her revolutionary attempt to bring democracy and equality to Thai monasticism. This interest no doubt comes from her nearly 30 years as Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, professor of religion and philosophy at Thammasat University. But the subject of relics makes me uncomfortable. Surely the Buddha did not teach that we should hold onto the dead by any fragment of bone (or the True Cross)?

But despite my discomfort, I found Dhammananda to be a wonderful storyteller, starting with her son (she was married before becoming ordained in 2001) who "doesn't believe in anything," but became excited by relics because "it was the real thing." Veneration of relics is important in Buddhism and tall stupas dot the landscapes of Asia to house them. Her primary goal last night, it seemed to me, was to explain the presence of relics of the Buddha in the Golden Mount in Bangkok. These sacred objects were given to King Rama V of Siam by Lord Curzon, British viceroy of India, after they were discovered in the 1890s by an amateur British archaeologist, William Claxton Peppe, under a stupa near Piprahwa, a town on the India border of Nepal. Much of her narrative had to do with the dispute over the location of the city of Kapilavastu. The Buddha was born in Lumbini near Tilaurakot in Nepal which some think is the legendary Kapilavastu, land ruled by his father the King. Others, particularly Indians, claim Piprahwa to be Kapilavastu. For Dhammananda, the evidence is conclusive: Piprahwa is Kapilavastu and the relics under the Golden Mount in Bangkok are genuine.

But, I asked at the end of her talk, how are relics to be understood in relation to our practice, our following of the eight-fold path in order to end suffering and attain enlightenment? In other words (and someone later thanked me for asking the question), what different does it make to me whether they are genuine or not? Why should we care about relics at all? Of course, the broader question is: what if the Buddha (like Jesus) is only a myth and not history? Does that invalidate the teaching?

Her answer was wonderful: "Don't worry. Whatever you believe or do not believe about relics is not important. Only your practice is important for you. There are many controversies. For example, some people now are arguing over the number of steps the Buddha first took when he was a baby." And Christians in the Middle Ages used to debate how many angels would fit on the head of a pin.

The historical Buddha is of interest to academics, and the existence of relics might offer evidence that he really lived, where he was born and where he died. Dhammananda made the argument that archaeologists should read Buddhist scripture in order to find where they should dig. Accounts by two Chinese visitors to Buddhist places of pilgrimage in India in the 7th century have been invaluable in locating some sites important to the Buddha's life, like Lumbini. Scripture is supported by history, she said, and recounted various struggles in the Sakyan Republic during the final years of the Buddha who died at the age of 80. As a trained historian, I share her excitement about uncovering facts and constructing interpretations.

But for a lecture to Bangkok residents eager to hear the dhamma explained in English, the Buddhist nun's topic was interesting but not of much help in answering the big questions, like "Who am I" and "What shall I do." Venerating and worshipping dry bones does not appeal to me, although it might be important in this ritual-conscious society where I now live.

In Sienna I saw the head of St. Catherine (her body is in Rome), and I prayed by the bones of St. Francis and St. Clare in Assisi. So I am not immune to the charms of relics. Pieces of robes worn by the late Pope John Paul II, a candidate for sainthood, can be purchased on eBay along with "the air that Christ purportedly breathed, the supposed wing of the Holy Spirit and the alleged hand of Saint Stephen," according to information from one web site. Simony, or the sale of relics, was one cause of the Reformation in the 16th century. Along with usury and the sale of indulgences, it has now been banned by Roman Catholic canon law. For a long time I had the antler of a deer found in the forest on my altar, along with statues and icons of deities and saints. In the outside sala at Wat Pah Nanachat, there is a full sized skeleton hanging next to the altar, not because it's owner was a notable practitioner, but because Ajahn Chah believed we should almost be reminded of death when we meditate. I understand the yearning of Dammananda's son for "the real thing," something tangible that can be associated with divinity in whatever form it may take. But I also understand the saying: "If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him." As Jesus would say, "let the dead bury their dead." Living faith and practice is more important than preserving the past.

In an attempt to understand the facts of her story, I went on the web this morning to research early Buddhism and the discovery of relics and pilgrimage sites in Nepal and India. The man who declared Lumbini to be the Buddha's birthplace was Dr Alois Anton Führer, a later discredited (for creating relics) German archaeologist working for the British. He is the subject of a long article called "Lumbini on Trial: the Untold Story" by T.A. Phelps that I found on the web. Peppe made his discoveries at Piprahwa under the influence of Führer. Another useful source of information is "Buried with the Buddha," an article in the London Sunday Times from 2004 by Vicki Mackenzie. I also found a curious article by Ranajit Pal that argues for Iran, not India or Nepal, as the birthplace of the Buddha and the location for his enlightenment and teaching. The whole story of the discovery of ancient Buddhism in India by western linguists and archaeologists is a drama not far removed from The Da Vinci Code and Indiana Jones movies. A good perspective on all this comes from articles in the important volume, The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger.

I suspect that Dhammananda Bhikkuni the faithful academic might have some problems with criticism of the authenticity of Buddha relics. But as a nun and dhamma teacher, I believe she would say: "Don't worry about it."

Dhammananda Bhikkuni's monastery, Songdhammakalyani Temple, is located in Nakhon Pathom and her web site is (in English and Thai).

On another matter, my son Luke marked his 40th year yesterday. There were times when it wasn't certain he would make it, but today he is creating a new life for himself in Boston where he feeds the penguins and turtles at the Aquarium, among other things. And unlike his brother or myself, he appears able to grow a beard. This picture taken recently shows the beginnings of a good one. The rest of us Yaryans are a little weak on the testosterone. Congratulations, Luke! Last year I was able to fly back to Boston and join him on his birthday where we feasted at restaurants in the suburb of Waltham where he lives, an intercontinental culinary zone. Since Luke is an amateur chef of some accomplishment, the choice of a place to live was auspicious. Hopefully by next year he will figure out a way to come to Southeast Asia to celebrate his 41st.

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