Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Lathe of Time

This greatly enlarged, and admittedly poor quality photograph is of a soapstone reliquary, thought to have been crafted in the fifth century BCE. 

If you examine this carefully, you see that it was fashioned on some sort of lathe. Below, are other reliquaries of the type, including another view of the one above. If these were not turned on a lathe, then I do not know how else they could have been manufactured. These are solid soapstone: not "thrown" pottery. Since the earliest known illustration of a lathe, from Egypt, dates to 300 BCE, these items from 500 BCE push the lathe's invention back at least two centuries. Nicely done, are they not?

The reliquary in our first photograph, above, was discovered in January 1898 by a man named W.C. Peppe. Mr. Peppe was manager of the Birdpur Estate, in northeastern Basti District, Upper Pradesh, India. The reliquary was found inside a ruined stupa, near Piprahwa, which was a small village on this estate.

Ruined stupa at Priprahwa where reliquary discovered

Although the matter is not without controversy -- some suspect a British plot -- it is generally agreed that this reliquary held the bone relics of Shakyamuni Buddha. The following year (1899) these bone relics were presented by the (British) Government of India to King Chulalongkorn of Siam, who in turn presented portions to the Sanghas of Burma and Ceylon.

The classic bit of scholarship on Buddha's relics is "Asoka and the Buddha Relics," by T.W. Rhys Davids, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1901. He begins:
Our oldest authority, the Maha-parinibbana suttanta, which can be dated approximately in the fifth century B.C.,  states that after the cremation of the Buddha's body at Kusinara, the fragments that remained were divided into eight portions. These eight portions were allotted as follows:--
1. To Ajatasattu, king of Magadha.
2. To the Licchavis of Vesali.
3. To the Sakyas of Kapilavastu.
4. To the Bulis of Allakappa.
5. To the Koliyas of Ramagama.
6. To the brahmin of Vethadipa.
7. To the Mallas of Pava.
8. To the Mallas of Kusinara.
So, somebody in Kusinara went to the stone turner, acquired eight soapstone reliquaries, and divided up Buddha's bones. When all was said and done -- when breath came no more, when the fire finished its work -- the last stop was the stone turner's art. Stands to reason. Because of their metallurgical expertise, the ancient Indians were able to produce cutting tools that helped them become the finest stone sculptors the work has ever known. If you look at Indian temples, monuments, pillars, statues, and so forth, you will come to agree.

We are only awake in this human form a very short time. We have only a few potentially productive years, and then we pass away to take up some other form, some other potential. We try to cooperate with each other to achieve things, but no matter how durable these things may seem -- iron or stone -- they are all subject to decay.

Thus, we are all on the lathe of time. We are constantly spinning, and the material of life is constantly removed. Once, Shakyamuni walked the earth; next, there were bits of bone and ash in a crafted urn, buried beneath a mound. 

What do you suppose Longchenpa might say?
There are many shortcomings to what has been constructed and has no substance;
Think about samsara as also being of this nature.
Once you have thus deeply felt and understood that all the sundry manifestations of an external world
Are similar to a dream or a phantasmic play,
Let everything go into the vibrant dimension of space,
Being's consistency with itself and everything else.
Now the urn is broken, the mound disturbed and weathering away. What a magical show! Men argue with each other, asking, "Is it real?"
Do not engage in affirmation or negation; dismiss your ruminations;
By going about your daily life in this manner, you will be able to take everything in stride;
Pure experience that is not something that comes into existence and goes out of existence,
But is intrinsically genuine, will come to the fore.
The lathe of time does not stop spinning for buddhas, for artisans, for foolish people like me, or thoughtful people like you.

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3 reader comments:

Stephen said...

I experienced a very deep sense of peace when I venerated those relics now enshrined in Wat Saket Ratcha Wora Maha Wihan (a.k.a. Wat Saket), a Buddhist temple (Wat) in Pom Prap Sattru Phai district, Bangkok, Thailand.

Lazarus said...

Great blog. Great artifacts.

Thank you for an uplifting read.

Anonymous said...

Buddhist Relic Tour