The Place of Relic Worship in Buddhism

An Unresolved Controversy?


  • Karel Werner School of Oriental and African Studies



Buddha-relics, Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, sarīra, kāya, shēntĭ, shèli, quánshēn


Although worship of the relics of the Buddha — and its corollary, stupa 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 parinibbana and has reverberated throughout the centuries till the present time. Its source is in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, and it stems from the ambiguity in the meaning of the compound sarira-puja in the Buddha’s reply to Ananda’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 Mahaparinibbana Sutta itself.


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How to Cite

Werner, K. (2013). The Place of Relic Worship in Buddhism: An Unresolved Controversy?. Buddhist Studies Review, 30(1), 71–87.




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