The Buddha's Tooth
Western Tales of a Sri Lankan Relic
Series: Buddhism and Modernity
- ISBN: 9780226801735
- Published By: University of Chicago Press
- Published: October 2021
John S. Strong’s The Buddha’s Tooth: Western Tales of a Sri Lankan Relic expands the study of Buddhist relics in new directions. Relics are important because they provide unique access to the conceptual world of Buddhist adherents, from the time of Śākyamuni Buddha to the present. This work has two major sections, each addressing different periods in the colonial history of Sri Lanka and how colonial powers engaged the Buddha’s relics.
In the Buddhist tradition, relics are more than simply aids to memory. As parts of the Buddha’s body, they are the Buddha’s presence. In other words, relics do not simply commemorate a past, but manifest a present. The semantic range of the Sanskrit terms that have been rendered into English as “relic” reveals this significance. The word śarira, for example, is often translated as “relic,” but the meaning is closer to “body”—both literally and metaphorically. The term dhātuvara also means “relic” in some contexts, often with the connotation that the relic is the presence of the Buddha Śākyamuni. Examining the uses of the term dhātuvara in Buddhist historical literature, Gregory Schopen concludes that “the relic and the Buddha do not appear to be thought of as separate things” (“On the Buddha and His Bones: The Conception of a Relic in the Inscriptions of Nāgarjunikoṇda,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 108.4/1988, 527–537: 531). Originally constructed at the site where a relic is located, memorial monuments (stupas) are also, therefore, more than merely commemorative. Veneration of the Buddha benefitted those who did so during his lifetime, and veneration of his presence in memorial monuments also brought benefits to worshippers (Kevin M. Trainor, “When is a theft not a theft?: Relic Theft and the Cult of the Buddha’s Relics in Sri Lanka,” Numen, 39.1 1992, 1–26: 3).
Strong’s history focuses on two tooth relics, one he identifies as a Portuguese relic and the other as a Kandyan relic. Frequently, discussion of relics in Buddhism focuses on the context of Buddhist culture. Strong takes the Buddhist cultural context into account, and as the background against which he uncovers the European narratives about these relics. It is European or Western cultural history that is being reflected back to the reader in his examination of these stories about the relics.
The Portuguese and British colonizers of Sri Lanka (present in the country from approximately the 16th to 18th century, and from the 19th to 20th century, respectively) engaged the tooth relics in diverse ways. This diversity reflects the variety of narratives that were already available within these two European cultures. Such narratives included not only those regarding the nature of religion and sacrality, but also those of kingship and commerce. When the Portuguese captured the relic and took it to Goa, conflicting narratives within Portugese culture led to debates about whether it should be commodified as an object of value to be sold or theologized as a manifestation of idol worship. The latter interpretation won out, and in accord with biblical injunctions, that tooth relic was destroyed. While the British ultimately treated the Kandyan relic differently, their interpretations overlapped significantly with Portuguese interpretations. In addition to theological and commercial interpretations, the relic was also regarded as an animal artifact, as a demonic artifact, as an artifact of idolatry, as an object of state authority, and finally as a respected or at least tolerated religious phenomenon.
Strong’s approach in this work differs from both standard Buddhist studies and previous studies of relics. Much of the academic study of Buddhism has focused on doctrinal texts and doctrines—topics such as awakening (bodhi); the absence of permanent, eternal, absolute, unchanging essences (anātman); the ongoing effects of decisions and the acts that follow (karma); and so on. Yet, as Strong points out, the first encounters between Buddhists and Europeans centered on physical objects, not concepts. These encounters, mediated by material objects, stimulated new narratives about the object’s meaning, pointing to the close relation between narrative and material culture.
Strong’s work also adds a new dimension to the study of Buddhist relics. Most studies have worked within the frame of the history of Buddhism in Asian societies. Strong instead uses the two tooth relics to reflect on the societies, histories, and cultures of European colonialism. Employing a historiography focused on details, he avoids leveling out the history of these relics into a single uniform line of events. Instead, we have “a diversity of positions and a multitude of smaller conclusions” (7). By reflecting the complexity of historical reality, the work is made richer, and more informative.
Strong’s work operates at the intersection of the study of material culture and narrative studies, contributing to the range of new approaches that continue to find their way into Buddhist studies. The history revealed by the study of material culture complements more common historical narratives of kings and wars, founders and doctrines. And for the history of Buddhism, perhaps no element of material culture is more important than the relics of the Buddha. Buddhist scholastics created categories of relics, the most potent being the bodily relics, such as fingernails, hair, and as, in Strong’s study, teeth. Without context, however, teeth are just “stuff.” Relics are relics both because of the narratives told about them, and because they are staged in a material setting.
One of the narratives that made relics key objects of veneration in Buddhist cultures tells a story of decline, leading eventually to the extermination of Buddhist teachings. As a repository of sacrality, relics provided some sense of security and stability in an otherwise inevitable process of decline—whatever else was happening, the Buddha continued to be an effective presence in our world. Bodily relics would seem to be singularly evocative as physical markers of a historical reality.
Relics are complex material signifiers, open to alternative and indeed contradictory interpretations. As embodiments of sacrality, they continue to be valued in the present, but can at the same time point to histories and alignments of authority that differ from present ones. The history of relics is a history of contestation, and that history continues in the present.
Richard Payne is the Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California.Richard K. PayneDate Of Review:March 21, 2023