Ep. 084: The Temple of King Ashoka

Recipient of an Indian "souvenir"

Let's continue our day trip in the eastern outskirts of Ningbo. In the morning, we had visited Tiantong Temple, the origin of Japan's Soto Zen sect. Now we were on our way to Ayuwang Temple, said to possess an authentic relic of the Buddha--a piece of his skull! For reals? Come along and find out in this episode of--


At the end of Episode 082 I mentioned that we (the people I was staying with, the driver, and myself) stopped for "lunch in a country diner." Let me just say: you'd think that a diner on the road between two major temples would make some effort to cater to Buddhists, maybe offering that amazing mock-meat cuisine for which some restaurants are famous. Nah. When a vegetarian is traveling in off-the-beaten-track China, usually the best he can get is broccoli with garlic, oily julienned potatoes, an unadorned block of steamed tofu, and rarely--rarely--veg dumplings (which are almost always suspect). No dumplings that day, so I was running on empty. Salad? Don't make me laugh! A cheese sandwich? You're killing me!


The Search for the Bones of the Buddha

This reliquary is said to contain a skull bone of the historic Buddha.

Ayuwang Temple is located near the Ningbo-Beilun highway. It's named for King (wang) Ashoka (ayu), the great unifier of India, who lived from around 304 to 232 BCE. One of Ashoka's well-known acts regarded the relics of the Buddha's body. The story, in brief, is this: At the death of the Buddha, eight kings were prepared to duke it out in the "War of the Relics" to gain control of his remains. Drona, the disciple in charge of those remains, wisely decided to divide them up eight ways. Eight stupas (burial mounds) were built, and the matter was settled.

A few centuries later, Ashoka came along. Initially a brutal conqueror, he converted to Buddhism and, in atonement for the atrocities he had committed, set out on an ambitious program to identify the sites of the Buddha's life (many still marked with "Ashoka pillars"). He also gathered the Buddha's relics together again, and then redistributed them, dividing them into 84,000 parts, and building 84,000 stupas. Ayuwang Temple claims to have a portion of the Buddha's skull, sent out at that time. (Ashoka's capital, by the way, was at Pataliputra, modern Patna, from which the British later administered the distribution of another substance to east Asia: opium.)

Ashoka sets out to recover some of the Buddha's relics; from the Great Stupa at Sanchi, believed to house ashes of the Buddha. (Wikipedia)

A redistribution of relics "all over the face of Jambudvipa" (the known world) was undoubtedly a means of consolidating Ashoka's power. Such redistributions have been carried out by Chinese emperors numerous times since, and relic "gifting" is still done for political reasons. When I worked at Hsi Lai Temple, in California, they had a relic in a "stupa room" in the temple museum. It had been presented to the master, Hsing Yun, on a trip to India, to consolidate a relationship.

It's a small, round bit of bone, between the size of a grain of sand and that of BB shot. When kneeling to view it, you’re grateful for the magnifying glass that has been mounted over it.

I once asked the abbot of the temple, a sophisticated man, about the number of relics in the world. Wouldn't they, if reassembled, be bigger than the statues at Bamiyan?

With a perfectly straight face, he explained that when venerated, relics multiply.



Now, did the Buddha's cremation really produce 84,000 relics? Impossible, to be sure. Let's say, then, that "84,000" signifies "a very large number," like when we say, "I have a million things to do today."

The number has several connections that may explain its attachment to the Buddha's relics.

  1. For one, it's said to be the number of verses in the Buddha's teachings. So by spreading the Buddha's remains, Ashoka was mirroring the spread of the dharma, the Buddha's teachings.

  2. Secondly, some traditions say the world is made up of 84,000 constituent parts (primitive "atoms"). So in spreading the remains, Ashoka was creating a sacralized world parallel to this one.

  3. Finally, another tradition said that the day the Prince Siddhartha--who would become the Buddha--was born, 84,000 boys were born in the world. So Ashoka may have been "rounding out" that event by spreading 84,000 tokens of the Buddha's death.

So, What's a Relic, Anyway?

Buddhist relics are properly called sharira. Although the word can sometimes refer to body parts, and even whole corpses like the mummy of Zen's Sixth Patriarch at Nanhua Temple in Shaoguan, it is most technically used for the bead-like remains that can be sifted out of the ashes after the cremation of a Buddhist saint. Sharira don't result from burning common folk; they are, perhaps, the crystallization of a master's wisdom, and therefore worthy of veneration.

Sharira come in three colors: the most common are the white "bone relics" (like the one I saw at Hsi Lai); the least common, the black "hair relics"; and in the middle, the red-colored gruesomely-named "meat-relics."

White, black, and red: These are not just the colors in the old joke about newspapers ("What's black and white and red [read] all over?"); they are also the colors of the three gunas or "qualities" in Indian thought: sattva (the active) is white; tamas (the passive) is black; and rajas (the passionate) is red.

Whole pieces are found from time to time, however. In 1987, after the collapse of a Tang-dynasty pagoda, a finger bone of the Buddha was found at Famen temple near Xi'an. Its popularity cannot be over-estimated: 100,000 came out to see it when it toured Taiwan in 2002, and six times that in Hong Kong in 2004. Never have so many been so happy to be given the finger.

Relics in Japan

The rounded stupa of Ashoka's day has evolved into the pagoda of east Asia; any time one sees a pagoda, it represents, if it does not actually contain, the body of the Buddha or another Buddhist "saint." When I was a pilgrim in Japan, I saw dozens of pagodas, but never heard that any of them contained bits of the Buddha, though one was said to contain remains of Xuanzang, the Tang Dynasty monk who went to India to bring back scriptures; the Japanese had looted this from Nanjing in 1942 and brought it back for enshrinement (see Episode 017). Interestingly, Xuanzang himself is reported to have had 150 "meat relics" of the Buddha among the many souvenirs he brought back from India.

I have since read that there is one certified set of Buddha sharira in Japan. Discovered in India in 1897, some were presented by the British to the King of "Siam," who in 1900 gave a portion to the Japanese emperor. He had a new temple built in Nagoya to house them, and named it Nissenji ("Japan-Siam Temple"); it has since been changed to Nittaiji to reflect the change of Siam's name to Thailand. These are considered to be the only "authentic" Buddha relics in Japan.

China, on the other hand, is crawling with such relics.

In Which I Saw the Relic--or Did I?

But I had read in several places that the relic at Ayuwang Temple had been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

When a driver, Mr. Fan, picked me up at the airport upon my arrival in Ningbo, I told him about my impending trip to Ayuwang Temple, and that I was disappointed that the relic was gone. So imagine my delighted surprise when he protested, "No, no! My friend was there yesterday, and he saw it!"

Could it be?

"…the actual hall where the relic is housed…"

Well, sort of. After a quick tour of the ancient-looking temple buildings, I sought out the hall where the relic is kept. Laypeople misdirected me several times--one, standing in the actual hall where the relic is housed, sent me off to another! I don't know if they didn't know that the relic was there, or if they were trying to hide it from the foreigner, or if maybe my Chinese just sucked that much.

Another view of the reliquary and its altar

Anyway, I saw it. But I didn't. Because it was enshrined in a beautiful red and gold reliquary, a sort of miniature stupa, with a pagoda-style top and a glass window in front.

Relics scholar John Strong says that some reliquaries may be designed to obscure rather than reveal; indeed, to see a stupa with a bone hidden underneath may be more impressive than the bare bone itself (like the one I saw at Hsi Lai). Another scholar, Patrick Geary, says that a "bare relic ... is entirely without significance."

The "Sleeping Buddha" lies behind the reliquary.

Strong says that the most effective way to display a relic is to contextualize it. Thus Buddha relics are often surround by images from the Buddha's life; the relic (or at least the reliquary) at Ayuwang Temple has an image of the "Sleeping Buddha" (actually, the Buddha at his death) behind it. This provides context for the display of the relic, showing it near a statue of the one of whose body it was once a part.

In the final analysis, then, it may not matter whether a bone is authentic, or even if it's there. What matters is the situation surrounding the relic, and the veneration given to it.

The Tooth Relic of Kandy

A famous case of "bait-and-switch" is that of the renowned Tooth Relic of Kandy.

One of Sri Lanka's most prized possessions, in historical fact it was captured by the Portuguese in 1560 and destroyed as a "relic of the devil." Historical accounts state, "The tooth was placed in a mortar by the archbishop [at Goa, India] in the presence of the court, and reduced to powder and burned, its ashes being scattered over the sea."

Nevertheless, what appears to be a two-inch piece of yellowed ivory is still on display today. When challenged, the monks in charge explain unabashedly that what was nabbed by the Portuguese was a stand-in, not the real thing, which had been secreted away.

Thus does faith trump history.

This needlessly cruel act, some say, led to the Portuguese losing their grip on "Ceylon." Meanwhile, all is as it was before, with the tooth enshrined and venerated. Standard sources do not even mention the historic destruction.

But due to local tensions, the tooth has not made its annual appearance since 1990. And what do the faithful do instead? "In the meantime," we are told, "the casket [reliquary] is honored as its representative." Just like, perhaps, the one at Ayuwang Temple.

But there will be a reckoning, a test of authenticity, according to one tradition, called "The Nirvana of the Relics": just prior to the arrival of Maitreya, the next Buddha (currently represented in China by the figure of the "Laughing Buddha"--see Episode 003), all of the relics of the previous Buddha will rise up and fly through the air to Bodh Gaya, site of the tree under which he was enlightened, where they will assemble themselves into the resurrected Buddha. He will perform some miracles, and then spontaneously combust, consuming all the physical remains and disappearing forever. Any bogus bits will remain behind.

The Temple Today

The Heavenly Kings' Hall lies across a large pond from the parking lot.

Again, the temple follows the typical pattern: a pond (next to the parking lot) in front of the Four Kings' Hall, the Buddha Hall, then the Sharira Hall, with a Sutra repository behind it. Various other halls lie on either side. The temple grounds are spacious, with pagodas on the east and west (which, arriving in the late afternoon, we didn't have time to see), and numerous ponds and bamboo groves.

View of the East Pagoda past one of the halls

A sign says the temple was built in 282. Ashoka died in 232 BCE; what the relic was doing in the five-centuries-plus between these two events is not explained. (Nor how it got to China, well outside of Ashoka's ambit.)

With a feeling of accomplishment, we got back into the car and headed back to Beilun, where I got a good night's sleep before the next day's foray.

The Abbot's Hall and garden


Well, that's gonna do it. Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: We'll visit lovely Oka-dera in the hills outside Asuka in Nara, Japan.