Sacred Relics of Buddha Sakyamuni
The account of the last days of the Buddha is recorded in the Pali Canon Mahaparinibbana Sutta: The Great Passing, The Buddha’s Last Days. The other suttas are the Maha Sudassana Sutta and Janavasabha Sutta.
The Nirvana Sutra, or Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra (Chinese: Nièpán Jīng (涅槃經); Japanese: Nehankyō (涅槃経); Tibetan: myang ‘das kyi mdo) is a major Mahayana sutra, generally referred to by its full Sanskrit title, Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Mahā-sūtra (or simply “Nirvana Sutra”).
The Maha Parivirvana of the Buddha took place in 544 B.C. at Kusinara in the country of the Mallas.
The first indication of Nibbana was when the Buddha spent the Rains in Beluva, as in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta:
2.23 And during the Rains the Lord was attacked by a severe sickness, with sharp pains as if he were about to die. But he endured all this mindfully, clearly aware and without complaining. He thought: ‘It is not fitting that I should attain final Nibbāna without addressing my followers and taking leave of the order of monks. I must hold this disease in check by energy and apply myself to the force of life.’ He did so, and the disease abated.
The first mention of Nibbana to Ananda was:
2.25 ‘Ānanda, I am now old, worn out, venerable, one who has traversed life’s path, I have reached the term of life, which is eighty. Just as an old cart is made to go by being held together with straps, so the Tathāgata’s body is kept going by being strapped up. It is only when the Tathāgata with¬draws his attention from outward signs, and by the cessation of certain feelings, enters into the signless concentra¬tion of mind, that his body knows comfort.
At Vesali, Mara asked:
3.8 May the Blessed Lord now attain fined Nibbāna, may the Well-Farer now attain final Nibbāna. Now is the time for the Blessed Lord’s final Nibbāna.’
3.9 At this the Lord said to Māra: ‘You need not worry, Evil One. The Tathāgata’s final passing will not be long delayed. Three months from now, the Tathāgata will take final Nibbāna.’
The Buddha then inform Ananda in:
3.36. ‘And just now, today, Ānanda, at the Cāpāla Shrine, Māra came to me, stood to one, side and said: “Lord, may the Blessed Lord now attain final Nibbāna…Now is the time for the Blessed Lord’s final Nibbāna.”
3.37. ‘And I said: “You need not worry, Evil One. Three months from now the Tathāgata will take final Nibbāna.” So now, today, Ānanda, at the Cāpāla Shrine, the Tathāgata has mindfully and in full awareness renounced the life-principle.’
The Buddha then announced to all the monks gathered at the Gabled Hall in the Great Forest of Vesali:
3.51. Then the Lord said to the monks: ‘And now, monks, I declare to you — all conditioned things are of a nature to decay — strive on untiringly. The Tathāgata’s final passing will not be long delayed. Three months from now the Tathāgata will take his final Nibbāna.’
Thus the Lord spoke. The Well-Farer having thus spoken, the Teacher said this:
‘Ripe I am in years. My life-span’s determined.
Now I go from you, having made myself my refuge.
Monks, be untiring, mindful, disciplined,
Guarding your minds with well-collected thought.
He who, tireless, keeps to law and discipline,
Leaving birth behind will put an end to woe.’
The Maha Paranirvana
The Buddha went to Pava and stayed at the mango grove of Cunda the smith.
4.20. And after having eaten the meal provided by Cunda, the Lord was attacked by a severe sickness with bloody diarrhea, and with sharp pains as if he were about to die. But he endured all this mindfully and clearly aware, and without complaint. Then the Lord said: ‘Ānanda, let us go to Kusināra.’ ‘Very good, Lord’, said Ānanda.
4.38. Tonight, Ānanda, in the last watch, in the sāl-grove of the Mallas near Kusinārā, between two sāl-trees, the Tathāgata’s final passing will take place. And now, Ānanda, let us go to the River Kakutthā.’ ‘Very good, Lord’, said Ānanda.
5.1. The Lord said: ‘Ānanda, let us cross the Hiraññavatī River and go to the Mallas’ sāl-grove in the vicinity of Kusinārā.’ ‘Very good, Lord’, said Ānanda, and the Lord, with a large company of monks, crossed the river and went to the sāl-grove. There the Lord said: ‘Ānanda, prepare me a bed between these twin sāl-trees with my head to the north. I am tired and want to lie down.’ ‘Very good, Lord’, said Ānanda, and did so. Then the Lord lay down on his right side in the lion-posture, placing one foot on the other, mindful and dearly aware.
5.2. And those twin sāl-trees burst forth into an abundance of untimely blossoms, which fell upon the Tathāgata’s body, sprinkling it and covering it in homage. Divine coral-tree flowers fell from the sky, divine sandal-wood powder fell from the sky, sprinkling and covering the Tathāgata’s body in homage. Divine music and song sounded from the sky in homage to the Tathāgata.
5.11. ‘But, Lord, what are we to do with the Tathāgata’s remains?’ ‘Ānanda, they should be dealt with like the remains of a wheel-turning monarch.’ ‘And how is that, Lord?’ ‘Ānan¬da, the remains of a wheel-turning monarch are wrapped in a new linen-doth. This they wrap in teased cotton wool, and this in a new doth. Having done this five hundred times each, they enclose the king’s body in an oil-vat of iron, which is covered with another iron pot. Then having made a funeral-pyre of all manner of perfumes they cremate the king’s body, and they raise a stupa at a crossroads. That, Ānanda, is what they do with the remains of a wheel-turning monarch, and they should deal with the Tathāgata’s body in the same way. A stupa should be erected at the crossroads for the Tathāgata. And whoever lays wreaths or puts sweet perfumes and colors there with a devout heart, will reap benefit and happiness for a long time.
5.19. ‘And now, Ānanda, go to Kusinārā and announce to the Mallas of Kusinārā: ‘Tonight, Vāsetthas, in the last watch, the Tathāgata will attain final Nibbāna. Approach him, Vāseṭṭhas, approach him, lest later you should regret it, saying: The Tathāgata passed away in our parish, and we did not take the opportunity to see him for the last time!”” ‘Very good, Lord’, said Ānanda and, taking robe and bowl, he went with a companion to Kusinārā.
6.7. Then the Lord said to the monks: ‘Now, monks, I declare to you: all conditioned things are of a nature to decay – strive on untiringly.’ These were the Tathāgata’s last words.
6.8. Then the Lord entered the first jhāna. And leaving that he entered the second, the third, the fourth jhāna. Then leaving the fourth jhāna he entered the Sphere of Infinite Space, then the Sphere of Infinite Consciousness, then the Sphere of No-Thingness, then the Sphere of Neither-Perception-Nor-Non-perception, and leaving that he attained the Cessation of Feeling and Perception.
6.9. Then the Lord, leaving the attainment of the Cessation of Feeling and Perception, entered the Sphere of Neither-Perception-Nor-Non-Perception, from that he entered the Sphere of No-Thingness, the Sphere of Infinite Consciousness, the Sphere of Infinite Space. From the Sphere of Infinite Space he entered the fourth jhāna, from there the third, the second and the first jhāna. Leaving the first jhāna, he entered the second, the third, the fourth jhāna. And, leaving the fourth jhāna, the Lord finally passed away.
6.10. And at the Blessed Lord’s final passing there was a great earthquake, terrible and hair-raising, accompanied by thunder.
6.13. Then the Mallas ordered their men to bring perfume and wreaths, and gather all the musicians together. And with the perfumes and wreaths, and all the musicians, and with five hundred sets of garments they went to the sāl-grove where the Lord’s body was lying. And there they honored, paid respects, worshipped and adored the Lord’s body with dance and song and music, with garlands and scents, making awnings and circular tents in order to spend the day there. And they thought: ‘It is too late to cremate the Lord’s body today. We shall do so tomorrow.’ And so, paying homage in the same way, they waited for a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth day.
6.16. At that time even the sewers and rubbish-heaps of Kusinārā were covered knee-high with coral-tree flowers. And the devas as well as the Mallas of Kusinārā honored the Lord’s body with divine and human dancing, song…; and they carried the body to the north of the city, brought it in through the north gate, through the middle of the city and out through the eastern gate to the Mallas’ shrine of Makuṭa- Bandhana, where they set the body down.
6.17. Then they asked the Venerable Ānanda: ‘Lord, how should we deal with the body of the Tathāgata?’ ‘Vāseṭṭhas, you should deal with the Tathāgata’s body as you would that of a wheel-turning monarch.’ ‘And how do they deal with that, Lord?’
‘Vāseṭṭhas, the remains are wrapped in a new linen-cloth. This they wrap in teased cotton-wool…; then having made a funeral-pyre of all manner of perfumes, they cremate the king’s body and they raise a stupa at a cross roads…’
6.18. Then the Mallas ordered their men to bring their teased cotton-wool. And they dealt with the Tathāgata’s body accordingly…
6.22. Then the Venerable Kassapa the Great went to the Mallas’ shrine at Makuṭa-Bandhana to the Lord’s funeral pyre and, covering one shoulder with his robe, joined his hands in salutation, circumambulated the pyre three times and, uncovering the Lord’s feet, paid homage with his head to them, and the five hundred monks did likewise. And when this was done, the Lord’s funeral pyre ignited of itself.
6.23. And when the Lord’s body was burnt, what had been skin, under-skin, flesh, sinew, or joint-fluid, all that vanished and not even ashes or dust remained, only the bones re¬mained. Just as when butter or oil is burnt, no ashes or dust remain, so it was with the Lord’s body…, only the bones were left. And all the five hundred garments, even the inner¬most and the outermost cloth, were burnt up. And when the Lord’s body was burnt up, a shower of water from the sky, and another which burst forth from the sāl-trees extinguish¬ed the funeral pyre. And the Mallas of Kusinārā poured per¬fumed water over it for the same purpose. Then the Mallas honored the relics for a week in their assembly hall, having made a lattice-work of spears and an encircling wall of bows, with dancing, singing, garlands and music.
6.24. And King Ajātasattu Vedehiputta of Magadha heard that the Lord had passed away at Kusinārā. And he sent a message to the Mallas of Kusinārā: The Lord was a Khattiya and I am a Khattiya. I am worthy to receive a share of the Lord’s remains. I will make a great stupa for them.’ The Licchavis of Vesālī heard, and they sent a message: The Lord was a Khattiya and we are Khattiyas. We are worthy to receive a share of the Lord’s remains, and we will make a great stupa for them.’ The Sakyas of Kapilavatthu heard, and they sent a message: The Lord was the chief of our clan. We are worthy to receive a share of the Lord’s remains, and we will make a great stupa for them.’ ‘The Bulayas of Allakappa and the Koliyas of Rāmagāma replied similarly. The Brahmin of Veṭhadīpa heard, and he sent a message: ‘The Lord was a Khattiya, I am a Brahmin…’, and the Mallas of Pāvā sent a message: “The Lord was a Khattiya, we are Khattiyas. We are worthy to receive a share of the Lord’s remains, and we will make a great stupa for them.’
6.25. On hearing all this, the Mallas of Kusinārā addressed the crowd, saying: “The Lord passed away in our parish. We will not give away any share of the Lord’s remains.’ At this the Brahmin Dona addressed the crowd in this verse:
‘Listen, lords, to my proposal.
Forbearance is the Buddha’s teaching.
It is not right that strife should come
From sharing out the best of men’s remains.
Let’s all be joined in harmony and peace,
In friendship sharing out portions eight:
Let stupas far and wide be put up,
That all may see — and gain in faith!’
‘Well then, Brahmin, you divide up the remains of the Lord in the best and fairest way!’ ‘Very good, friends’, said Dona. And he made a good and fair division into eight portions, and then said to the assembly: ‘Gentlemen, please give me the urn, and I will erect a great stupa for it.’ So they gave Dona the urn.
6.26. Now the Moriyas of Pipphalavana heard of the Lord’s passing, and they sent a message: ‘The Lord was a Khattiya and we are Khattiyas. We are worthy to receive a portion of the Lord’s remains, and we will make a great stupa for them.’
There is not a portion of the Lord’s remains left, they have all been divided up. So you must take the embers.’ And so they took the embers.
6.27. Then King Ajātasattu of Magadha built a great stupa for the Lord’s relics at Rājagaha. The Licchavis of Vesālī built one at Vesālī, the Sakyans of Kapilavatthu built one at Kapilavatthu, the Bulayas of Allakappa built one at Allakappa, the Koliyas of Rāmagāma built one at Rāmagāma, the Brah¬min of Veṭhadīpa built one at Veṭhadīpa, the Mallas of Pāvā built one at Pāvā, the Mallas of Kusinārā built a great stupa for the Lord’s relics at Kusinārā, the Brahmin Dona built a great stupa for the urn, and the Moriyas of Pipphalavana built a great stupa for the embers at Pipphalavana. Thus, eight stupas were built for the relics, a ninth for the urn, and a tenth for the embers. That is how it was in the old days.
6.28. Eight portions of relics there were of him,
The All-Seeing One. Of these, seven remained
In Jambudīpa with honor. The eighth
In Rāmagāma’s kept by nāga kings.
One tooth the Thirty Gods have kept,
Kalinga’s kings have one, the nāgas too.
They shed their glory o’er the fruitful earth.
Thus the Seer’s honored by the honored.
Gods and nāgas, kings, the noblest men
Clasp their hands in homage, for hard it is
To find another such for countless aeons.
(DN16, note 100: These verses were, as Buddhaghosa (DA) obviously correctly says, added by the Sinhalese Elders.)
The Sacred Buddha Relics were divided by Brahmin Professor Dona amongst the 8 claimants as follows:
Brahmin Dona (Urn)
What are Relics?
All the religious objects of the Buddha are considered sacred. They are classified into 3 categories:
A The corporeal or body relics (saririras), i.e. the actual remains of parts the Buddha’s body,
e.g. Tooth, Bones, Hair;
B The utilitarian or contact relics (paribhogika), i.e. the objects that once belonged to the Buddha,
e.g. Alms bowl, Robes, Staff, Bodhi tree;
C The teachings relics (darma), i.e. things associated with the teachings,
e.g. sutras, dharani, mantras;
D The commemorative objects (uddesika)
e.g. Buddha images, shadow image, footprints.
Sariras, the Sanskrit name for relics, refers to the remains of a body part usually after cremation. In Buddhist context, sariras refers to the crystallization of solid remains of especially Buddha Sakyamuni after His cremation. Henceforth, relics are also broadly defined to include solid remains of other Buddhist practitioners, regardless of Sangha and secular disciples.
The emergence of relics signifies that the spiritual energy of Buddha or the spiritual practitioner during their lifetime is constant and serene, untainted by nature’s forces yet elevated due to persevering religious practices. Hence, this energy is converted to physical forms to what we known as relics. Relics are the essence of wisdom, the fruit of spiritual labour, which are free of lust, greed and wrath.
Relics are classified into Dharmakaya sariras and physical sariras. Physical sariras, also known as physical bone sariras, refers to solid remains left behind after the cremation of Buddha’s body. Dharmakaya sariras refers to all Buddhist scriptures and canon by Buddha, signifying His spirit in teaching the Truth.
The history and distribution of Buddha’s relics
Two hundred years after Buddha’s demise, King Asoka, a staunch follower of Buddha’s Dharma, emerged into the scene and advocated Buddhism enthusiastically to be the state religion. In the Samyuktagama, Asoka go to the 8 stupas to re-gathered all the relics, then re-distributed and enshrined the relics to 84,000 stupas around his land, for his subjects to venerate and revere.