In the 1920s and ’30s, the Old South used music to retain its spiritual traditions and one of the biggest hits on the AM dial was a song called Dem’ Bones. Popularised by the Delta Rhythm Boys in the late 30s, the song was inspired by Ezekiel’s journey through the Valley of the Dry Bones and any good southern boy would have surely known that song.
While Buddhism does not use music to spread its messages, bone relics are sacred to many world religions and an event here in Phuket recently brought my mind back to this song. From the 13th through the 17th of December, Phuket was treated to a sensational series of ceremonies in which the relics of four highly revered Buddhist monks were most auspiciously interred. One of the relics even has been attributed to Buddha himself.
With great pomp and ceremony, the deeply-revered relics proceeded through the heart of Phuket Town amidst a gala parade; ending in an afternoon celebration at Wat Lang San. Ceremonies like this are precious to many Buddhists and, to be sure, bone dedications have a long and winding history in the Buddhist Canon.
Originally, Buddha’s personal ashes were supposed to go to only one kingdom after his passing. However, this nearly ended in conflict. To make all well, Buddha’s relics were subdivided amongst eight ancient kingdoms. Centuries later, King Ashoka further divided many of Buddha’s personal relics and entombed them amidst thousands of ancient monuments.
Today, many Thai Buddhists learn to spend a good deal of time studying their own mortality because Buddha knew that he could not allow his followers to ignore the topic of death. Ignorance of human mortality leads to psychological fallacies that tend to cause considerable stress and unnecessary suffering.
Historically speaking, Buddha lectured on the reality of death on many occasions. More recently, Buddha’s lectures stand out in the minds of international followers who learned Buddhist canon through English-language translations because Buddha’s words are often memorably translated into English as “a heap of bones”.
In one such lecture, a monk had asked how many bones a person would leave behind as a person wanders through multiple rounds of reincarnation. In the Itivuttaka, Buddha is recorded as saying that an unenlightened person would wander through reincarnation for eons and the skeletons of this recycling soul would leave “a heap of bones as large as Mount Vepulla”. (Itivuttaka: 24)
There are other memorable exchanges like this in the ancient texts. Buddhists are well-known to believe in reincarnation and they often intern the bone relics from great sages inside of grand monuments after cremation. Each Buddhist region has its own folklore and legends. However, I acquired Buddhism from particularly fervent Thai Buddhists and they have some beliefs about bone relics which are very unique. Some Thai Buddhists believe that the bones of deeply-revered monks transform into diamonds. They believe that diamond spurs appear inside the bones of great monks because these men possess unique spiritual insight. Diamonds, of course, survive cremation. There are a number of such “diamonds” which are kept on display throughout Thailand.
Only a few displays are open to the public, but I was allowed to see a display at a rural Buddhist temple because I was embedded with a devout congregation for many years. These translucent pearls had been collected from the Master’s ashes after cremation and they were stored inside of small urns which were then enclosed within elaborate glass display cases. At one temple, a wax copy of the deceased monk was displayed close to his urn.
Skeptics have long claimed that these pearls are simply a byproduct of the cremation itself. However, nobody has ever been able to adequately explain why it is that these diamonds seem to appear inside the ashes of highly revered monks only, but never anyone else.
Regardless, bone relics mean many things to many people. For some, they ward off evil spirits. For others, they simply incite grace, and for certain Thai Buddhists, they may represent pearls of supra-human insight.
But whichever of those qualities that a believer might identify with, bone relics do seem to touch believers from all over the world. After all, isn’t it true that life has always leapt forth out from the ashes of our past?
All About Buddhism is a monthly column in The Phuket News where I take readers on my exotic journey into Thai Buddhism and debunk a number of myths about Buddhism. If you have any specific queries, or ideas for articles, please let us know. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will do our best to accommodate your interests.