If you want to remember what’s inside of a box, you write a list of the contents on the outside. This comes in handy when looking for stuff in the attic, frozen food in the freezer and remains of religious leaders. Wait, what?
“The monks Yunjiang and Zhiming of the Lotus School, who belonged to the Mañjuśrī Temple of the Longxing Monastery in Jingzhou Prefecture, gathered more than 2,000 pieces of śarīra, as well as the Buddha’s teeth and bones, and buried them in the Mañjuśrī Hall of this temple.”
The “śarīra” are the cremated ashes of the Buddha, so this message found on a box in 2012 by locals in Gongchi Village, Jingchuan County, China, is describing an effort by two monks to preserve them, along with 260 Buddhist statues buried in the same location. The full excavation was led by Hong Wu, a research fellow at the Gansu Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, who published two articles about the discovery in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics. The articles were revealed this week by LiveScience. (pictures on the Chinese Cultural Relics Facebook page)
Are these the actual ashes of Gautama Buddha? What little is known about the death of the 80-year-old Buddha sometime around 483 BCE is that his cremated remains were divided among the 8 royal families and eventually divided into smaller portions and distributed to 84,000 stupas (shrines). A container of alleged ashes and a skull fragment were found last year and identified, in a similar manner to the recent discovery, by a note on the vessel. That may be enough evidence for religious leaders and true believers, but it’s not solid proof for archeologists
Unfortunately, the newest find doesn’t have much either besides the writing on the box. There’s no way to do a DNA test on the ashes nor the teeth and bone fragments found with them. The 260 statues of Buddha and others were no help. Ranging in size from 13 inches to 6.5 feet (2 meters) in height, only one had writing on it and the date May 26, 571. It’s not certain if the statues were buried at the same time the box was interred by the monks. The report also revealed that other artifacts found at the site may be pieces of the lost Mañjuśrī Hall temple.
Other than the note on the box, there appears to be no other historical evidence of the existence of the monks, Yunjiang and Zhiming, or their quest to collect all things Buddha, including his remains. There’s also no way to positively identify the ashes or bones. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting find and worthy of additional study.
And a good example of the importance of labeling.