Buddhism Relics
David Quinter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0196


Evidence for the veneration of relics associated with the Buddha dates as far back as evidence for Buddhism more broadly. “Relics” in this article and most English-language scholarship on Buddhism comprise both bodily remains and Relics of Use or “contact relics.” Relics of use include robes, bowls, and other objects that buddhas, bodhisattvas, and Buddhist saints employed or otherwise were strongly associated with. Whereas “relics” as bodily remains suggest intimate connections with Funerary Rites and Whole-Body Preservation, “relics” as objects used by a Buddhist deity or saint—and the extreme importance of materially enshrining both kinds of relics—suggest intimate connections between relics and Material Culture, such as we find in Stūpas and Reliquaries. Also reflecting the significance of enshrining relics, an often-cited Theravada text identifies three categories of shrines (Pali cetiya), adding to those for bodily relics and relics of use such commemorative shrines as those for buddha-images. These commemorative shrines remind one of or re-present the Buddha; see John Strong’s work Relics of the Buddha (Strong 2004, p. 19, cited under General Overviews). Due to this classification, similarities in the cults of relics and images concerning intertwined issues of representing—or making present—the absent Buddha, and such other links as the depositing of relics in statues, many scholars have examined relics and images together or treated buddha-images as a type of relic. By contrast, others have questioned the tendency to lump relics and images together, arguing that more careful distinctions are needed; see, for example, Robert H. Sharf’s article “On the Allure of Buddhist Relics” (Sharf 2004, cited under Visual Culture). In both cases, however, the intertwined significance of relics and images in modern scholarship, and thus the intimate connections between the study of relics and of visual culture, are highlighted. Yet while the emphasis on relics, material culture, and visual culture in recent Western scholarship on Buddhism is often explicitly posited in contrast to an earlier overemphasis on textual studies, the intimate connections between relics and Textual Culture are equally clear. This is due both to the significance of Chronicles and Other Narrative Traditions in promoting the cult of relics and to the frequent textual and epigraphic invocation of scriptures, scriptural passages, and dhāraṇī as forms of Dharma-Relics. Engaged study of the cult of relics thus holds continued promise for integrated analysis of Buddhist material, visual, and textual culture.

General Overviews

Other than encyclopedia entries, few studies tackle the true diversity of the Buddhist cult of relics, with most concentrating instead on a particular geographically defined area. That said, the varied essays in Germano and Trainor 2004 do cover a broad geographic spread and thus can be used collectively as a general overview, suitable both for specialists and for advanced undergraduate or graduate students. Among encyclopedia-type entries, which are similarly useful both for scholars and for classroom use, Strong 2005 stands out as an article on relics across religious traditions, with substantial attention to Buddhism, reflecting the author’s considerable expertise in Buddhist relic cults. Schopen 1998 also examines Buddhist relic traditions alongside Western ones (primarily Christian) but with a sharper critical edge, befitting its inclusion in an edited volume on critical analysis of terms central to the study of religion. Harvey 2010 and Ruppert 2004 are both brief overviews of relics in Buddhism specifically. Harvey’s study devotes the bulk of the analysis to South Asian traditions, while Ruppert’s provides relatively balanced coverage of South and East Asian traditions. Skilling 2005 collates wide-ranging evidence for relic traditions in diverse Asian cultures but is most suitable for specialists. Among Western-language monographs, Strong 2004, although explicitly giving the most attention to South and Southeast Asian traditions, provides the broadest coverage. Strong’s fluid writing style, the plethora of stories from primary sources in the volume, and the study’s scholarly rigor recommend this book for classroom as well as more specialized use. Trainor 1997 is a scholarly monograph on relics in Theravada Buddhism, focusing on the Pali tradition in premodern Sri Lanka, but is also useful for the broader study of Buddhist relic traditions. Similarly, but with a geographic and temporal focus on early medieval Japan, Ruppert 2000 stands out as the most detailed Western-language study of Japanese Buddhist relic traditions; introductory chapters help contextualize the study of Buddhist relics across cultures.

  • Germano, David, and Kevin Trainor, eds. Embodying the Dharma: Buddhist Relic Veneration in Asia. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

    Edited collection of six articles and a detailed introduction on varied relic traditions, including ones in South and Southeast Asia, Tibet, and East Asia. Collectively, the volume provides a scholarly book-length overview of Buddhist relic cults across cultures.

  • Harvey, Peter. “Buddha, Relics of.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Damien Keown and Charles S. Prebish, 133–137. London: Routledge, 2010.

    Brief overview of the relics of the Buddha, focusing primarily on South Asian traditions.

  • Ruppert, Brian D. Jewel in the Ashes: Buddha Relics and Power in Early Medieval Japan. Harvard East Asian Monographs 188. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

    Although the monograph focuses on medieval Japan, introductory chapters help place the specific traditions examined in the broader context of the practice and study of Buddhist relic cults. The most comprehensive Western-language study to date of relics and their social context in medieval Japan.

  • Ruppert, Brian O. “Relics and Relics Cults.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 715–719. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.

    More geographically diverse in its coverage of Buddhist relic traditions than Harvey’s similar-length overview (Harvey 2010), this encyclopedia article is recommended as a good, though brief, introduction to the topic for undergraduates and scholars alike.

  • Schopen, Gregory. “Relic.” In Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Edited by Mark C. Taylor, 256–268. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226791739.001.0001

    Critical overview of issues in the study of Buddhist and Christian relics, with suggestions for further reading. Suitable for both classroom use and specialists.

  • Skilling, Peter. “Cutting across Categories: The Ideology of Relics in Buddhism.” Annual Report of the International Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University 8 (2005): 269–322.

    An erudite overview of the literary and archeological evidence for relic traditions across Asian cultures.

  • Strong, John S. Relics of the Buddha. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

    A fluid yet rigorous and well-documented overview of Buddhist relic cults, especially in South and Southeast Asia. One of the best book-length introductions to the topic, the monograph is useful for both undergraduate courses and specialists.

  • Strong, John. “Relics.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 11. Edited by Lindsay Jones, 7686–7692. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

    Overview study of relics in varied religious traditions—including Hinduism, Israelite religion, Islam, ancient Greece, Christianity, and Buddhism—with bibliographic recommendations. Helpful for undergraduate students and scholars alike for placing Buddhist relic traditions in comparative context.

  • Trainor, Kevin. Relics, Ritual, and Representation in Buddhism: Rematerializing the Sri Lankan Theravada Tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    Scholarly monograph providing an overview of relic traditions in premodern Sri Lanka and a revisionist study of Theravada Buddhism more broadly. The detailed introduction contextualizes the issues within the history of Western studies of Pali Buddhism.

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