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Pearls From Bones: Relics, Chortens, Tertons and the Signs of Saintly Death in Tibet

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Although there has been much work, in recent years, on the sacrum of Christianity, and some important studies have appeared on Buddhist relic cults and related facets of Buddhism, so far very little has been written on Tibetan Buddhist relics. This paper, while offering some material for a historical perspective, mainly seeks to find a larger cultural pattern for understanding the interrelationships of a complex of factors active in Tibetan religious culture. Beginning with problems of relic-related terms and classifications, we then suggest a new assessment of the role of the Terton ('treasure revealer'). Then we discuss 'miracles' in Tibet, and the intersection of categories of 'signs of saintly death' and relics. Much of the remaining pages are devoted to those items that fall within both categories, specifically the 'pearls' that emerge miraculously from saintly remains and images that appear in bodily or other substances connected with cremations. After looking at a number of testimonials on these miraculous relics, we examine the possibility that these items might be 'deceitfully manufactured', looking at a few Tibetan polemical writings which raise this possibility. In the conclusion, we suggest that there are some critical links between three spheres of Tibetan religiosity: 1. sacrum which are not relics, 2. relics, and 3. signs of sainthood. Finally, we recommend an approach to religious studies that takes its point of departure in actual practices, and particularly the objects associated with popular devotional practice.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Sanskrit Harvard University Cambridge, MA 02138 U.S.A.


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