ENLIGHTENMENT is the goal of the spiritual seeker: to emerge from the primal night of our animal nature into the sunlight of the presence of God. So it was with me, driving through the darkness of Friday night and the mists of early Saturday: when the sun came, I found myself in Western Kentucky surrounded by trees that staggered skyward like narrow steeples. The leaves looked hammered from precious metals: bronze and gold, rust and copper. When the wind moved amid the birch and sycamore, the undersides of the leaves showed silver.
Following directions, I took the St. Catherine exit into downtown Louisville and found Unity of Louisville about three blocks down Brook St. The description of a brick building with a dome did not prepare me for the reality. I regretted not bringing my camera, but that was one of the decisions I had made: to travel light, to leave the electronics at home (except for the cell phone, necessary for communication and for safety). The building that houses Unity began life as a Jewish synagogue built on Islamic principles after a Byzantine model; Unity is a non-denominational Christian church seeking to respect all religions.
I found it unexpectedly moving. The incense and the chanting evoked the fellowship of the ashram in Lexington where I took my first courses in meditation and Buddhist philosophy. The kindness of the volunteers, who were sharing their time and their unexpected place of worship with me affirmed the principle that Buddha and Christ may have departed the material earth but they are still to be encountered in human hearts.
The relics themselves? I don't think The Buddha himself would blame me for the feelings of skepticism I felt as I looked upon these objects in their beautiful little stupas of gold and glass. He taught that all earthly things are impermanent and ultimately unreal; that seekers of Enlightenment should not blindly accept what they were told but should think and reason and compare it to what he taught.
Reason tells me that the Buddha died approximately 2400 years ago. No clear line of provenance comes with any of these objects. The legend states that bead and crystal-like stones were found in the iron coffin that encased the Buddha's body after it was cremated. Eight kings contended for the relics; a great war was averted when a leading disciple of the Buddha divided the relics into shares. Each contender erected a memorial stupa to house the remains and honor the Buddha and incidentally profit from the pilgrims who came to visit. King Ashoka who came to rule a Buddhist empire is said to have found and opened the original memorials and to have redistributed the relics in 84,000 stupas throughout his realm.
Traditional Account of the Division of Buddha's Relics
That seems to require a heck of a lot of relics.* Reasonable reflection tells me this is no problem. Give me a handful of gravel and a rock polisher and I could create a reasonable facsimile of the supposedly miraculous objects in front of me. Faced with a need for relics to unite his empire, what would King Ashoka do?
But here's the rub of all religion. If your practice of your religion hinges upon some material object or some specific holy verse or any ONE THING, than that one thing is actually your crutch and you don't have a religion. If you need a piece of the True Cross to feel closeness to Christ, then you haven't absorbed the meaning of Christ. But human imagination is powerful. Just as a sliver of wood might provoke a Christian into contemplating the meaning of Christ's death, so these shiny irregular beads, housed in gold and velvet, surrounded by incense and chanting and hungry belief, spoke to me of a man who had left a palace to walk the world dependent on the kindness of strangers. His words and his philosophy still serve as a lamp in dark places.
And amid all these reverent stones, isn't it possible that one really is a survivor of the historical Buddha's funeral pyre? I walk softly.
The first stop in the ritual is a basin of water in which a charming statue of the Buddha as a child stands. One selects a wooden dipper and slowly and reverently pours out water. I poured the water to wash out doubt with the first dipper, the second to wash away stress and the third to open mind and heart.
The second action is the striking of a Tibetan bowl bell. The sweet tone pierces one's flesh, delighting the heart and shimmering in the mind long after the metal has ceased to vibrate.
One then views relics of other notable Buddhist masters. Ananda, the Buddha's loyal companion and servant, was there. He's a favorite of mine, always getting into trouble, wanting to look at women, an ordinary man stumbling after a spiritual genius. He's not highly regarded amid the intellectual monks around the Buddha. The guys who immediately grasp what the Buddha is teaching are sent out to become missionaries; poor unEnlightened Ananda stays by the Buddha's side. After the Buddha is dead, his followers are dismayed. Who can remember the Master's teachings? Humble Ananda stands up and begins to speak, word for word, all the Buddha's sermons. The fellowship gasps; it sounds as if the Buddha is still there, speaking to them from beyond the grave. Ananda gives us all hope; if he can become Enlightened, than all of us can, with due diligence.
One then reads a sacred text and kneels on a cushion while a container of relics is placed on ones head. This is the heart of the ceremony. With my bad knees and physical issues, I could not kneel and expect to get up again. The very short lady doing the ritual held the relics as I bowed and recited the chant. Skeptic or not, I felt an energy radiating through me; I felt it coming from the other people in the room.
After the blessing, one can sit and contemplate or use a gold pen to trace a prayer in a special book. I have always loved to write so I traced the Buddha's name in an empty line that someone else had skipped. By staying at the cheap hotel described in Part I, I could make donation. I put money in the prayer box upstairs to thank Unity for hosting the relics; donated again in the basement to aid the charities supported by the tour and purchased a medallion with the image of Green Tara from the gift shop. All the objects there are made by the Tibetan refugee community in India.
I could not linger. I needed to reclaim my little dog and return to the world. No pilgrimage is complete without this part. To be continued....
For more information on the Buddha Relics Tour, visit this link: Maitreya Project. - Buddha Relic Tour
*For a rather gross and scientific discussion concerning the creation of Buddhist relics from more modern Buddhist masters and a comparison of the crystal like beads with other bodily objects go to:
Mummified Masters and Sarira-like objects from other bodies