Signs and Symbols

Have relics been important in Buddhist practice?

Practically since the Buddha’s final entry into nirvana, which coincided with his physical death, Buddhists have placed great importance on sacred relics. Numerous early accounts tell of the distribution of Buddha’s cremated remains to political rulers so that they could enshrine them as sacred markers. One account says the great King Ashoka built 84,000 stupas as reliquaries for the Buddha’s ashes. Some sources report that Buddha’s followers discovered among the ashes a tooth, still intact. In Kandy, Sri Lanka, the Shrine of the Tooth claims to possess the only authentic dental relic, said to have been brought there ten days after Buddha’s death. But as recently as the late 1990s, a tooth kept in Beijing made news when it was flown to Hong Kong after the Chinese takeover there, in time for a celebration of the Buddha’s birthday. Meanwhile a tooth in the possession of a Tibetan monk was installed in Taipei, Taiwan, amid mainland Chinese denunciations of its authenticity. Other relics of the Buddha included his staff, begging bowl, and robe.

Buddha’s footprint does not belong to the sacred relics of the first-class (actual bodily remains) or the second-class relics (personal effects of the sacred person), yet it is still important throughout the Buddhist world. Many temples claim to possess an “actual” print, but most are highly stylized stone or metal images that devotees bathe with various liquids and adorn with flower petals. Prints frequently have various symbols of the Buddha on the sole. Most common are the Wheel of the Law and sets of either 32, 108, or 132 hallmarks of the Enlightened One. Footprints belong to a third category of relic, items that directly remind one of the Buddha. All images of the Buddha, as well as physical copies of the sacred texts, are therefore considered a type of relic.

In addition to relics of the Buddha himself, symbolic reminders of numerous other holy persons have become prominent. First- and second-class relics of Bodhisattvas, patriarchs, and eminent monastic founders and teachers are enshrined in stupas and pagodas throughout Asia. Miniature stupas and pagodas, made of wood, stone or metal, have often provided the visual and devotional focus in temples, monasteries, and even private dwellings.


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