Buddhism’s Black Holes

The title for this blog-series is in reference to Bernard Faure’s excellent article, Buddhism’s Black Holes: From Ontology to Hauntology. In actuality it all has to do with the nature of Buddhist Icons and Relics, which also will be the main thrust of this series. Faure’s special focus in his article concerns the “practice of inserting miscellaneous things (relics or śārīra, fragments of stone and crystal, cloth viscera, texts, written incantations, list of donors, coins, etc.) inside Buddhist statues, known in Korea as bokjang 腹蔵.” He begins by relating certain doubts concerning this kind of ritual, as particularly expressed by another scholar in the field, Robert Sharf. Sharf argues, in his review of Helmut Brinker’s book on icons and relics, that this has much to do with “western projections”—that its mere conjecture on what is otherwise simply ethnographic practices that has very little to do with some mystic significance. He writes: “I sense that there is something almost voyeuristic or prurient in our fascination with relics… It may be a little more than yet another projection of contemporary needs and concerns onto the complex ink blot that is Buddhism. Except that this time, instead of projecting our own rationality as did the previous generation of scholars, we now project our irrationality.” Faure counters this with, “Even if they were, why would their interest have to be “voyeuristic or prurient,” and what kind of dark purposes would they be projecting? Why would scholarly fascination, say, with “Storehouse consciousness” (ālaya-vijjñāna) or any other doctrinal topic fare any better in that respect?” Indeed, Faure further expresses his disagreement with Sharf:

In many of his writings, Sharf has presented forceful critiques of various aspects of the Buddhist and scholarly doxa, and I usually find myself in agreement with him. This time, however, I feel obliged to express my disagreement. In spite of its appeal to common sense, his critique of current scholarship on relics and icons, by questioning the questioner’s motivations, presents in my view the risk of discouraging (and disparaging) further questioning and inquiry. The method that consists in withdrawing from the object to turn the inquiry toward the questioner himself is justified as long as it does not lead to neglecting the object itself, to indulge in the delights of auto-analysis, as happened in the nineties with a certain trend of postmodern anthropology.

(his footnote): This is part of Sharf ’s broader criticism of the notion of religious experience or consciousness. While I agree with some aspects of his critique, I do not follow him in his “eliminativist” or quasi-behaviorist conclusions, inspired in part by the philosopher Daniel Dennett.

I totally concur with Faure. Sharf fares better when he writes objectively concerning icons, rather than with his subjective opinions. Faure further argues the true nature of the significance:

“Did the Greeks believe in their myths,” to use Paul Veyne’s words, and the Buddhists in their rituals? Probably more than they (and we) believe. The Asian monks who recite the Heart Sutra during morning and evening services as a kind of invocation may have no idea of its philosophical content, but this does not make the latter irrelevant. Likewise, the fact that the Christian Mass has become an “ordinary” and rather empty ritual for many Catholics, who have probably never heard of the dogma of the transsubstantiation, does not prevent still large numbers of them to be deeply moved by the mystery of the eucharist…

Though we may not be able to answer the question raised by relics and animated icons, but we must keep it alive, rather than affirming that it is empty. We should instead study how these practices are determined by certain metaphors that influence our perceptions of the “things in themselves.” Icons are the “black holes” of Buddhism, which can never be filled by the objects inserted into them, or by the ideas stuffed into our arguments.

That is the part that interests me, while the practice of “animating” Buddhist statues with sundry articles is kosher, the true import of the icon or relic can never be totally realized—yes, their true-nature is indeed cosmic—like a black-hole bottoming out into boundlessness. On the other hand, Helmut Brinker’s book on icons and relics, “Secrets of the Sacred, Empowering Buddhist images in clear, in code, and in cache,” introduces some fascinating forays into the subject matter:

Miniature figures of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other divinities would be placed in the hollow interior of icons, as integral to their animations, and were thought to enhance the power of the unseen sacred and to increase its degree of presence in the image…images deposited within are known as “Enshrined Buddhas, or as the Buddhas of the Womb’s interior and thus may be considered to be the essential seed of Buddhahood in satu nascendi. (pg. 10)   

Faure further stresses the very vivifying import of Buddhist reliquaries:

In an earlier work, taking my cues from Paul Mus, I defined the Buddhist reliquary and the icon as “mesocosms,” an intermediary space between the microcosm (the body of the officiating priest) and the macrocosm (the divine world) (Faure 1991). For Mus, the temple and its main altar palace play the same role, that of a magic copula (or linking together the divine and the priest—inclusion mine.)

The first and foremost Buddhist reliquary is arguably the Nāga-palace at the bottom of the sea, where not only the bodily relics of the Buddha, but also his Dharma-relics, i.e., the Buddhist scriptures, are said to have been stored during the age of the Final Dharma to wait for the coming of the future Buddha Maitreya. In the Japanese imaginary, this palace merged with that of the dragon-king. (See Bialock 2002–2003). In Japanese esoteric Buddhism (mikkyō 密教), it came to be linked with the Iron Stūpa in Southern India.

The stūpa in question was conceived as a reliquary or repository of sorts, a temple, a womb, and, by extension, as the whole cosmos. It represents the plane of ultimate reality (dharmadhātu or vajradhātu), and perhaps as well the Storehouse consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna, Jp. araiyashiki 阿頼耶識) and the Tathāgata Womb (tathāgatagarbha, Jp. nyoraizō 如来蔵). His occupant is Vajrasattva, an emanation of the cosmic Buddha Vairocana.

The image of the Nāga-palace became the model for various repositories or treasure-houses (hōzō 宝蔵). One of the most famous was the Uji Repository (Uji hōzō 宇治宝蔵), the treasure-house of the Fujiwara regents in Uji (south of Kyōto), which was perceived as increasing the power of the things stored in it.9 The image of the repository or storehouse provides a link with doctrinal notions such as the Storehouse consciousness and the Tathāgata Womb. The Uji repository contained, among other things, a renowned and powerful icon of Aizen Myōō. According to a kind of fractal logic, storing relics and other things in a statue was perceived as structurally equivalent to storing statues in a storehouse or enshrining them in the inner sanctum of a temple. By removing these objects and in a way “sacrificing” them (lit. “making them sacred”), it was possible, not only to acquire merits, but also to transform these places into sacred sites, and in return to increase the sacredness and power of the things they contained.

Wanted to post this as a general introduction to this series. Am awaiting further references coming by way of snail-mail, so please stay-tuned…I would however like to leave you with the following concerning the import of the Nāgas. Again, from Faure:

Stūpas and icons were nodes in an extensive network of relic worship, but they were also, like the Nāga-palace and the Iron Stūpa, vanishing and/or entry points in the Buddhist imaginary, sites where absolute reality may irrupt or erupt, and at the same time gates from which one may leave this world (through awakening or death).

My dear reader, all this has much to do with these reliquaries being a form of “Mind-Portal”. Yea, a great “Rainbow-Bridge—a bifrost” between the world of the sacred and profane. Also, the role of the Nāgas come into play here as protectors of the Buddhadharma. Just as they allowed Nāgārjuna to partake in the holy reliquaries of the sutras, they will once again reclaim them in the coming age of Götterdämmerung (in this sense a collapse of civilization marked by catastrophic violence and disorder; broadly: downfall) —just as the gold was returned to the Rhine Maidens.

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