A Digit of Devotion: Buddha's Finger Bone
Relics are important in Buddhism in that they provide tangible links to enlightened figures and their teachings. When the Buddha's finger bone was discovered in an ancient Chinese monastery, worshippers from all over the world gathered to pay their respects and experience the profound presence of this ancient relic. What was the extraordinary significance behind a single bone that sparked such devotion?
Who was the man most commonly referred to as the Buddha?
Siddhartha Gautama was born in 563 BC into nobility as an Indian prince of the Sakya kingdom. His family's kingdom lay on the border of what are now known as Nepal and India. At age twenty-nine, he rejected his privileged life and embarked on a spiritual journey that led to his eventual enlightenment. As the Buddha (the enlightened one), he founded Buddhism, teaching the Four Noble Truths and promoting mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom. In 486 BC, the old man who had spent over fifty years guiding worshippers to inner peace and escape from suffering passed away. Although his cause of death is still shrouded in mystery, there is no question as to how his compassion drew disciples from all areas of life, and his teachings continue to inspire millions today.
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How relics can carry a religion
In 1981, an extraordinary discovery was made at the Famensi monastery: a preserved finger bone. The revered Buddhist site was established by the Tang Dynasty in 672 AD and is located in Shaanxi Province, China. Since its inception, it has served not only as a sanctuary for religious practitioners but also as a center of learning, art, and profound spiritual experiences. During renovations in 1987, a hidden chamber was uncovered, revealing four precious relics. Each of these four findings was linked to Siddhartha Gautama himself, but one was more remarkable than the others: a finger bone. This sacred bone was carefully preserved in a golden casket. A silver lock on the golden casket kept the precious bone secure, but it wasn't the only thing doing so. The casket was housed in the center of eight boxes, each enclosing a smaller, more complex box. The outer box, which was made of sandalwood, had deteriorated in harsh conditions, but the jade, silver, and even gold boxes continued to endure in their protection of the relic. Its discovery created great excitement and reverence among Buddhists, who consider such relics powerful symbols of the Buddha's presence and teachings.
The true relic that is yellow-colored has bone-like secretory granules and is believed to be a finger bone of the Gautama Buddha. (© Peter Potrowl/CC BY 3.0)
Buddhism went from India to China along the ancient Silk Road, a spiritual highway for cultural and religious exchange. Relics hold immense significance in Buddhism, building a connection to enlightened beings and their teachings. People were captivated by these relics, tangible links between the spiritual realm and the world they could touch. Relics became integral to Chinese Buddhist rituals and practices, shaping art, architecture, literature, and daily life.
The Finger of Healing and Inspiration
The sacred finger bone of the Buddha held immense significance and was believed to possess healing properties. During the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), when Emperor Gaozong fell seriously ill, the sacred finger bone was transported from the Famensi Monastery to Chang'an, the ancient capital of China, now more commonly recognized as Xi'an. The intention was to place the relic near the ailing emperor, with the hope that its presence would bring about better health. Given that the Emperor is thought to have also used acupuncture and bloodletting in his treatment—by this point, he was completely blind—it is unclear whether the finger had any curative properties. Since he finally passed away in 683 AD, all the treatments inevitably failed. The gesture of entrusting one's health to a mere finger bone demonstrates the widespread belief in the miraculous power of relics to alleviate suffering and bring spiritual well-being.
The finger bone also played a pivotal role in inspiring the monk Fazang, who lived in the Famensi monastery during the Tang Dynasty. Ignited both physically and spiritually, for Fazang was so moved by the relic that, while on his pilgrimage to Famensi, he set his own finger on fire as a tribute to the temple and the Buddha himself.
Inspired by the relic, Fazang dedicated his life to studying and growing Buddhism. His writings and teachings emphasized the concept of self-immolation as an act of ultimate sacrifice and devotion to the Buddhist way of life. He fiercely maintained the cultural significance and devotion of such practices. Fazang’s writings had a lasting impact on the development of Buddhist philosophy.
A Japanese print of Fazang, a Buddhist monk. 13th century, Todaiji, Nara, Japan. (Public Domain)
Pointing to Unhealthy Practices
The worship of the Buddha's finger bone was not without controversy, as it occurred at a time when Confucianism and Buddhism coexisted in China. The ancient Chinese belief system of Confucianism is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and has a long history dating back to the teachings of Confucius in the 5th century BC. Buddhism, on the other hand, began to gain attention in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) and continued to flourish in the following centuries.
Confucian scholars like Han Yu expressed their concerns about certain Buddhist practices, including the veneration of relics and self-immolation. He was influenced by Confucian teachings that emphasized social order and harmonious relationships. Han Yu's criticisms reflected a clash of philosophical beliefs and cultural traditions.
When it came to religious practices, Confucianism and Buddhism didn't always see eye to eye in ancient China. Confucianism, known for its emphasis on respecting ancestors and being a responsible member of society, had a different take on things compared to Buddhism. Buddhism, on the other hand, focused on finding inner peace, spiritual enlightenment, and breaking free from suffering.
Portrait of Han Yu. (Public Domain)
The Finger of Contention
Han Yu's bold criticism of Buddhism didn't sit well with everyone, especially the emperor at the time, who was a self-professed Buddhist. In fact, his outspokenness led to his banishment from the imperial court. However, Han Yu's legacy lived on through his influential writings, particularly the ‘Memorandum on the Bone of Buddha.’
This document not only sparked debates but also revitalized Confucianism, reinforcing its place as the dominant ideology in ancient China. Han Yu's firm stance against what he perceived as unhealthy practices in Buddhism helped strengthen the Confucian tradition and solidify its influence on Chinese society for centuries to come.
The debates and discussions sparked by Han Yu's writings highlight the interplay between Confucianism and Buddhism in ancient China. It points to the diverse philosophical landscape and the evolving religion that shaped Chinese society during that time.
Touching the Finger of Faith
Relics have a special place in Buddhism, and the story of Buddha's finger bone is a fascinating example of their power. However, relics are not exclusively Buddhist. Many other religions also hold sacred relics that carry deep meaning and inspire devotion.
In Christianity, the relics of saints are highly worshipped. For instance, relics associated with saints like St. Peter, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ, are cherished and displayed in churches worldwide.
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Similarly, in Islam, the Black Stone in the Kaaba in Mecca is considered a holy relic believed to have been given to Abraham by the angel Gabriel. Muslims from all over the world make the pilgrimage and seek blessings by touching the Black Stone.
These examples illustrate how relics hold significance and captivate the hearts of believers across different faiths. They serve as connections to revered figures, embodying the spiritual essence of their teachings. Relics have a powerful ability to evoke devotion, inspire awe, and bring people closer to their faith, regardless of religious traditions. Amidst their power and devotion, one wonders: can relics inspire misguided or unhealthy beliefs and practices today?
Top image: Buddha’s finger became a sacred relic of healing and well-being in Buddhism faith. Statue Source: Natthapong/Adobe Stock
China Daily, 2004. A euphoric last glimpse of Buddha finger bone. Available at: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2004-06/04/content_336553.htm.
Jstor, 2011. The Buddha's Finger Bones at Famensi and the Art of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23046568.
Philosophy Talk. 2015. The Bone that changed China. Available at: https://www.philosophytalk.org/blog/bone-changed-china.