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Buddhist Studies Forum Featuring Julia Cross – Relic Transfers and Statue-Reliquaries in Medieval Japan
April 18, 2022 @ 5:00 pm – 6:30 pm
Speaker: Julia Cross, Postdoctoral Associate in East Asian Studies and Lecturer in Religious Studies, Yale University
Prior to the medieval period, Buddha relics (Sk. śarīra; dhātu) in Japan were typically under the domain of the court or court-related temples. In the Kamakura era (1185–1333), this shifted, however, as relic worship became increasingly accessible to temples and shrines outside of court circles. As social anxieties magnified that the Buddha’s teachings were slowly slipping away (i.e., mappō), the desire to be close to his relics increased. These relics, seen as “essential ingredients” of the Buddha, facilitated a physical proximity to his body. Accordingly, Buddha relics, remainders found in the Buddha’s funeral pyre, were gifted, swallowed, stolen, and transferred through dream-like-visions. It was through this physical proximity—almost osmosis—to the Buddha’s body (i.e., his bones) that devotees moved closer to the Buddha and to their own spiritual salvation in the afterworld.
Along with this revival of relic worship came the revival of the nunhood, which had lost much of its power by the late Heian period (794–1185). This paper shows that Kamakura era nuns used relics, seen as direct access to the Buddha, to argue for their right to practice. It contends that nuns used such relics to re-establish their monastic power and spread their teachings. By examining historical records, origin narratives, and material culture this paper argues that nuns utilized relics to create Dharma networks and strengthen their monastic ties. Many of these relics can be traced back to China and India, and, ultimately, to the Buddha himself.