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Essay: Discussion of relics each reliquary holds & whether the reliquary symbolises its contents

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It is said that in India at around 400BC, the time of death of the Buddha, the ashes of the Buddha were separated into nine sections and commemorative stupa were built to protect and house these remains. Approximately 230 years later, King Asoka divided the nine sections into a further 84,000 sections, which he then proceeded to use to make stupas all over India. More stupas enabled more believers to come into contact with the precious relic of the Buddha’s remains. Relics were hugely important in the Buddhist religion as their very essence represented the Buddha’s presence and acted as a continuation of his life, ‘when relics are present the Buddha is present’ . According to Brian O. Ruppert, ‘relics and reliquaries constituted a ‘legal person’ because the Buddha was viewed as a living entity and the rightful owner of offered objects’ . Over time, relics changed from solely being the Buddha’s ashes, to objects connected with the Buddha, such as his begging bowl. Eventually depictions of the Buddha or pieces of bones from high-ranking priests began to serve as relics, and this tradition of worshipping relics spread throughout Asia. Therefore, reliquaries were having to be built to house these relics. Japanese Buddhist reliquaries originally took the form of pagodas in around the 6th century and became one of the focal points of the religion. Similar to relics themselves, reliquaries began to change gradually from architectural structures to sculptures or even small, carved boxes. This essay will first look at the Hōryū-ji pagoda, 6th century, of Ikaruga, before moving on to two examples of sculptural reliquaries: Seiryō-ji’s ‘Sakyamuni Buddha’, 9th century, and Kōen’s ‘Jisō’, 1249. I will discuss the relics each reliquary holds and conclude as to whether the reliquary symbolises its contents.

As previously mentioned, originally reliquaries were architectural structures housing relics. In India they are known as Stupas, which were copied by the Japanese in around the 6th century in the form of pagodas. Pagodas, a tiered tower with multiple eaves, evolved with time, eventually losing the original function as a reliquary. The Hōryu-ji pagoda (figure 1), in Ikaruga, Japan, is considered the oldest wooden building existing in the world, completed in 607. It is five-storeys high and contains treasures from the 6th-7th century. The relics vary from bones donated from China in 719, to bells, glass, beads and other trinkets. Most of the temple relics come from unknown sources, such as one relic that is considered particularly special: the Kudara Kannon. This is a Buddhist statue dating back to the 7th century. Although the origin of the statue is yet unknown, it is agreed that it was probably made in Japan due to its material of Cinnamomum camphora, which was commonly used when carving Japanese Buddhist statues at this time.

In the case of pagodas, they seemed almost to mark the place of a relic rather than symbolise the relic. Their height and recognisable form would have instantly let people know that they held a relic. Their form does not symbolise the relics they hold, as one pagoda can hold many different relics. The pagoda also gave a context to relics. By context, I mean it provides a home for the relic, and connects it with the town or place where the pagoda is situated.

The Sakyamuni Buddha (figure 2) of the Seiryō-ji temple in Japan, Kyoto is a five-foot-high wooden sculpture of the Buddha. The sculpture is life-size as it is meant to be a portrait of the Buddha and the use of wood refers to the living Buddha, by being a natural, once alive material. The facial features of the figure are stylised and symmetrical, with the prominent arch of the brow framing unrealistically large eyes. One hand is raised in a gesture of teaching and the figure is framed by an intricately carved mandorla. The face and hands are large when compared with the body and have been carved with the most detail, signifying their importance. The whole sculpture is constructed from fourteen pieces of Chinese cherry wood. This construction was important to ensure that the wood would not split in Japan’s humid climate and that if one of the blocks did split it could be easily replaced. Due to the veneration of the Sakyamuni image in Kyoto, the sculpture is concealed in the temple, being brought out for the worshippers to see only on special, religious occasions. The sculpture came to Japan by a Japanese monk, Chōnen. Chōhen was on a pilgrimage in China who then commissioned the statue in around 985 to be a copy of the famous Udayana Buddha, which, now lost, was supposedly a direct portrait of the Buddha. Chōnen then brought the statue back to Japan to increase an interest amongst the Buddhists there in the Sakyamuni, which he failed to do until the mid 13th century. The statue, however, is not just a statue but also a reliquary. At the back is a hidden hollow containing documents and relics. These include a catalogue, an itinerary, the oath, two handwritten sutras, five documents printed by wooden blocks, a series of holy pictures of the Sakyamuni, a mirror, fragments of turquoise glass, a bell, silver pieces, cut mica, over four-hundred fragments of different textiles and coins.

The catalogue lists the major items within the cavity. The itinerary gives an account of the adventures of Chōnen, written by a Chinese monk, Chien-tuan. The oath was written in 972, between Chōnen and his friend Gizō. In the oath they agree to commit to the Buddhist faith and build a monastery on Mount Atago. The woodblock prints depict images of certain Bodhisattvas, such as Mañjuśrī Boddhisattvas riding a lion. The mirror is known as a ‘moon in the water Kuan-yin mirror’ and the bell is commonly used in Buddhist worship. The fragmented textile pieces are most likely the material priests wore. Ancient traditions and practice dictate that priest’s robes should be patched to inhibit priests from ostentation. Textile viscera were also found in the compartment, which was not uncommon to find in reliquaries, represent the living Buddha. This act also shows how Buddhist relics and reliquary were thought of as his actual presence and a living entity and treated as such.

The Sakyamuni Buddha sculpture does not symbolise the relics it contains physically, given there is such a diverse array of relics. It does, however, symbolise the Buddhist religion as a whole, with each relic relating to Buddhism as well as imbuing even greater holiness on the reliquary. It was believed that holiness could be added to already holy objects, by placing relics inside them.

It was common for certain statues that were regarded as having a particular religious aura and power, to have copies made from them. It was believed that those magical qualities of the original statue could be transferred to the copy. An example of this is the miniature Sakyamuni Buddha statue, a copy of the statue in Seiryō-ji, which was found inside another statue, ‘Jisō’ by Kōen (figure 3). This statue was made in 1249 out of wood and is around 80cm high. Jisō was a bodhisattva, usually depicted as a Buddhist monk, who made a vow to delay his process of achieving enlightenment until all hells were emptied. The sculpture by Kōen has depicted Jisō as buddhist monk, with a simple robe and shaved head. The face is carved similarly to that of the Buddha, with closed, large eyes and pronounced brows. The stylised drapery of the robe creates a repetitive pattern, giving the sculpture more movement and texture. Inside the reliquary, certain documents, as well as the miniature Sakyamuni statue and other relics, were found. One of the documents gives details of who and when the ‘Jisō’ reliquary was made, as well as describing how it is actually a replica of a statue commissioned by Genshin, a monk who was seen as the father of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan. The Genshin statue, now lost, was considered the focal image of the religious practises of Genshin and was thought of as miraculous. The other objects found in the ‘Jisō’ include busshari (buddhist relics), 6,126 inbutsu (printed images of the Buddha), religious scriptures and two gilt bronze statues, one of which being the copy of Seiryō-ji’s Sakyamuni and one being a replica of the Amida statue at Shinnyodo, Kyoto.

The reliquary is a replica of a particularly revered statue and contains a further two more replicas of important statues, thus creating an especially divine combination. These statues were not only combined simply to bestow on them more holiness, but each statue is a reflection of Pure Land Buddhist teachings. It was taught that Sakyamuni will guide deceased believers to the Pure Land and that Amida, lord of that paradise, greets souls who are reborn there. Jisō himself is also linked with the afterlife and is believed to rescue souls from hell. ‘Relics were signs that simultaneously represented death and the conquest of death’ . The combination of these three statues all represent death and the continuation of life in the afterlife. In this case, the reliquary does have a more direct link with the contained relics, however this link cannot be seen physically from simply looking at the reliquary.

After looking at these three examples of reliquaries and the relics they contain, I do not believe that the reliquaries symbolise their relics physically, nor, I think, are meant to. The pagodas seem to act as protection and a house for relics, marking their place, much as Ancient Greek temples do for cult statues. Statue reliquaries are slightly more complex as they often are a depiction of the Buddha himself rather than simply an architectural structure. Again, however, the relics inside statue reliquaries have little to no correlation to each other, and simply seem to be precious objects within a precious sculpture. In my opinion, reliquaries are a symbol of the Buddhist religion as a whole, with each relic connecting to different aspects of the Buddhist religion. Perhaps the inclusion of such a vast array of relics within each reliquary, is a way of trying to encompass the diversity and different sections of the Buddhist religion in one whole.


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