Buddhist Studies Review, Vol 30, No 1 (2013)

The Place of Relic Worship in Buddhism: An Unresolved Controversy?

Karel Werner
Issued Date: 7 Oct 2013


Although worship of the relics of the Buddha — and its corollary, stūpa worship — is a widespread feature of Buddhist devotional practice among both lay Buddhists and monks, there is in some quarters a view that, while recommended to lay followers, it is forbidden to monks. This controversy started very early after the Buddha’s parinibbāna and has reverberated throughout the centuries till the present time. Its source is in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, and it stems from the ambiguity in the meaning of the compound sarīra-pūjā in the Buddha’s reply to Ānanda’s two questions concerning the actions to be taken after the Master’s death with respect to his body. The resolution of the controversy depends on a correct understanding of the nature of the Buddha’s replies to the two questions. This paper analyses the relevant passages of the sutta and the way they have been translated, correctly or incorrectly, into Western languages and into Chinese, and finally arrives at a solution derived entirely from within the text of the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta itself.

Download Media


DOI: 10.1558/bsrv.v30i1.71


Allen, Charles. 2003. The Buddha and the Sahibs. London: Murray (First ed. 2002).
Allen, Charles. 2008. The Buddha and Dr Führer. An Archaeological Scandal. London: Haus Publishing.
Dutt, N. 1945. ‘Popular Buddhism’. The Indian Historical Quarterly 21 (4): 245–270.
Hinüber, Oskar von. 1996. A Handbook of Pāli Literature, repr. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.
Hirakawa, Akira. 1963. ‘The Rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism and its Relationship to the Worship of Stupas’, Memoirs of the Research Department of the Tōyō Bunko 22: 57–106.
Hirakawa, Akira. 1987. ‘Stupa Worship’. In The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade, vol. 13, 2nd ed. 2005, pp. 8796–8799. New York: Thompson.
Jayawickrama, N. A. 1977. Vimānavatthu and Petavatthu. London: Pali Text Society.
Kern, H. 1963. Saddharmapuṇḍarīka or The Lotus of the True Law. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. (1st Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1884, ‘The Sacred Books of the East, XXI).
Last Days of the Buddha. 1964. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.
Malalasekera, G.P. 1974. Dicionary of Pāli Proper Names. London: Pali Text Society.
Nyāṇatiloka. 1919. Die Fragen des Milindo I. Leipzig: Verlag Max Altmann (Part II at Oskar Schloß, München-Neubiberg, 1924).
Rahula, Walpola. 1978. Zen and the Taming of the Bull: Towards the Definition of Buddhist Thought. London: Gordon Fraser.
Rhys Davids, T. W. and C. A. F. Rhys. 1959. Dialogues of the Buddha II. London: Luzac for PTS, 4th edition (first 1910).
Rhys Davids, T. W and J. Estlin Carpenter. 1966. The Dīgha-Nikāya II (DN). London: Luzac for PTS, London (first 1903).
Rhys Davids, T. W.1963. The Questions of King Milinda I. New York: Dover (first 1890).
Schopen, Gregory. 1997. Bones, Stones and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu. The relevant passage is discussed in Chapter VI, ‘Monks and the Relic Cult in the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta. An Old Misunderstanding in Regard to Monastic Buddhism’ which is a paper reprinted here ‘with stylistic changes’ from Koichi Shinohara and Gregory Schopen, eds., From Benares to Beijing: Essays on Buddhism and Chinese Religion. Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1991.
Silk, Jonathan. 2002. ‘What, if Anything, is Mahāyāna Buddhism? Problems of Definitions and Classifications’. Numen 49(4): 355–405. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/156852702760559705
Silk, Jonathan. 2006. Body Language. Indicśarīra and shèlì in the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra and Saddharmapuṇḍarīka (Studia Philologica Buddhica, Monograph Series XIX) Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies of The International College for Postgraduate Buddhist Studies.
Strong, John S. 2004. Relics of the Buddha Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Waldschmidt, Ernst. 1944, 1948. Die Überlieferung vom Lebensende des Buddha: Eine Vergleichende Analyse des Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra und seiner Textentsprechungen. Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, Dritte Folge 29, 30. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.
———. 1950, 1951. Das Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra: Text in Sanskrit und Tibetisch, verglichen mit dem Pāli nebst einer Übersetzung der Chinesischen Entsprechung im Vinaya der Mūlasarvāstivādins. Abhandlungen der Deutschen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, Jahrgang 1949 Nr. 1; Klasse für Sprachen, Literatur und Kunst, Jahrgang 1950 Nr. 2, 3 volumes. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.
Walshe, Maurice S. 1987. The Long Discourses of the Buddha. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Wogihara, U. and Tsuchida, C. 1935. Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtra (romanized and revised text), Tokyo: The Seigo-Kenkyūkai.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Equinox Publishing Ltd - 415 The Workstation 15 Paternoster Row, Sheffield, S1 2BX United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 (0)114 221-0285 - Email: info@equinoxpub.com

Privacy Policy