Sariras: Ringsels and Mummies
The Veneration of Sacred Remains in Buddhism

by philosophy-dude

中文版

The page is under revision (9.15.07)

(Note: This page is mainly an written as an extension to the Wikipedia article on Ringsels/Sariras. In order to keep in line with Wikipedia's policy of neutrality, I created my own page to express a less religiously oriented view on the matter. For Chinese version see 中文版, also, you might be interested in Dan Martin's more social science oriented article Pearls from Bones: Relics, Chortens, Tertons and the Signs of Saintly Death in Tibet, published in Numen, Vol. 41, No. 3. Sep., 1994, pp. 273-324. or Robert H. Sharf's On the Allure of Buddhist Relics, published in Representations, No. 66. Spring, 1999, pp. 75-99.


0. Introduction: Sariras (舍利)

The term Sarira (from the sanskrit word शरीर (Sarira), originally meaning "body" or "corpse") is a generic term used by Buddhists to refer to the remains of spiritual masters after their passing. There are several types of Sariras:   

1. "Full Body Sariras (全身舍利), or Corporal Sariras (肉身舍利). These are the mummified, often gold plated remains of spiritual masters.

The precess of mummification are generally done with minimal human interventions, and when successful, the resultant mummy is considered to be a sign of incorruptibility (金剛不壞身).

These mummified remains of spiritual masters are highly venerated and are worshiped as deities. The bodies of many well known masters are preserved this way.

 

2. "Broken Body" Sariras. (碎身舍利) These are generally what people refer to when they use the English word "Ringsel" or "Sarira" without qualification. In this sense, a Sarira  is a pearl-like, crystal- like, substance that is found among the cremated remains of spiritual masters. According to Buddhist beliefs, these Sariras are the spiritual remnant of someone who is enlightened: Supposedly, a master who has achieved enlightenment would "will" their essence into Sariras when his body is cremated in an effort to provide spiritual inspirations those who witness the event.

According to some Buddhists, the act of creating Sariras is very similar to the construction of  shrines, because Sarira, like shrines, are physical artifact created to remind one of something that is essentially metaphysical and intangible. Because of this, the word "Sariral" are sometimes translated as "shrine". For example, "Heart Shrine Relic" means "A piece of Sarira formed from the heart", "head Shrine Relic" means "A piece of Sarira formed from the brain" etc.


3.Dharma Body Sariras (法身舍利) Basically. the writings of a Buddha.  According to Buddhist beliefs, a Buddha's teachings are of the same essence as the Buddha himself, hence the teachings of a Buddha are referred to as the Buddha's "body" or "Sarira".

Some Buddhists take this notion seriously and believe that one ought to treat a Buddha's writings in the same manner as one would treat a Buddha in person. 

  

1. The Sacred Mummies: Full Body Sariras (肉身舍利)

a. The Veneration of Sacred Mummies

The mummification of deceased spiritual masters is an age old practice among Buddhists in countries like Taiwan, China, and Thailand.  The mummies, which are technically known as "Full Body Sariras", but more commonly referred to as "Bodhisattvas in Flesh" (肉身菩薩), are highly venerated because it is believed that the incorruptibility (金剛不壞身) of the flesh is a sign of enlightenment. 

The practice itself began in ancient China,  probably as a modified form of second burial, where the bones of the dead are exhumed, washed, and reburied 3-5 years after the initial burial.  The practice is not an indigenous feature of Buddhism, nor does it seem to be supported by Buddhist theology, which generally dismisses the importance of the body.

The mummified remains of Hui Neng >>> (638–713 AD), the sixth patriarch of Zen Buddhism. 

b. Becoming a Sacred Mummy pt. 1: Preparations

The creation of Full Body Sariras is generally seen as a religious ordeal that the deceased undertakes voluntarily.  The process begins with a living will:  A Buddhist master, upon sensing his own imminent demise, would inform his disciples that he wishes to "seek a Full Body Sarira". meaning that he wants to attempt mummification after death. The practice is  not very common, hence explicit instructions is required, otherwise the body would cremated or buried.

<<< The mummy of Chin Yen (清嚴, 1924 -1970) a Buddhist master who achieved nation-wide fame in Taiwan after successful mummification. He is housed in my hometown, Sindian.     

Once a master's intention is known, his disciples would begin preparations: this involve obtaining large quantities of quicklime, incense ash, sawdust, tea leafs, spices, charcoal, sandalwood, and two very large terracotta containers. (see right) The containers are called "Gone" and was once a common household item used to hold water.

A Gone, the container that >>> houses the body during mummi- fication. This one is 162 cm high, have a diameter of 92 cm at the sealed end, and weighs 220kg. It was specially made in China and flown to Taiwan. 

c. Becoming a Sacred Mummy pt 2: Sit in the Gone, Zuo-Gone (坐缸)

Upon the master's demise, his body would be placed in the Gone container in a grand ceremony known as Zuo-Gone, or  Sitting in the Gone. During the ceremony, the body is placed in a meditation position inside the Gone and a mixture of ashes, quicklime, sandalwood, charcoal, sawdust, and spices are placed around the body.  

<<<The body of Controversial Taiwanese Buddhist master Kai Fong (開豐) during Zuo-Gone Ceremony. Afterwards, another Gone would be used as a cover. (see below)
 

Optionally, fragrant woods (generally sandalwood), along with tea leafs, charcoal, and quicklime are sometimes placed closed by the Gone to control both moistures and smells. In one recent case (Kai Fong, see above), 750kg of black sandalwood, 200kg of charcoal, 75 kg of dried tea leafs, and 3 metric tons of quicklime where placed outside the Gone. As one can see, Zuo-Gone can be quite  expensive.

A Gone with a smaller Gone >>> placed on top as cover, this is an artifact from the Qing Dynasty. It was unearthed in China with the mummy still inside.

Once the master has been properly seated in a Gone, another Gone would be placed on top of the first Gone (see above) as cover. The two Gones would then be sealed with paint or mud to prevent damages from insects and rodents.  

The process of placing the body into the Gone and is an very important occasion for believers and it is not unusual to see such ceremony being presided over by hundred of monks

<<< Ci Hang (慈航), (1893-1954) the first Taiwanese to obtain Full Body Sarira in the country's history. Photo from 1959.

It should be noted that Zuo-Gone  was not always carried out immediately after death. In ancient times, some masters, upon "sensing" that their death is imminent, would enter a Gone by themselves while still alive, and meditate inside until their death. Supposedly, some have entered a Gone up to nine days before death, suggesting that their death was essentially suicide by de- hydration. Some who enter a Gone by them- selves also fast for many days before entering.

d. Becoming a Sacred Mummy pt 3: The Long Sit  (坐缸)

After the body is sealed inside the Gone,  it would remain there for the next three to six years.  During this time, the Gone may be stored in several ways.

1.  In some parts of China, disciples would bury the Gone inside a dirt mound and a miniature tower known as a Sarira Tower or Sarira Pagoda is built is built on top of the mound. 

2.  Sometimes the Gone would be moved to a large pagoda where the cremated ashes of the dead are stored.  These pagodas are also known as Sarira Towers.

3.  In more modern times, the Gone would simply stay inside the temple where the body entered the state of Zuo-Gone. In such cases, a simple yellow cloth will be draped over the Gone as cover, or, in some cases, a small Sarira tower is built around the Gone as cover. 

A miniature sarira tower, this one was built during the Sui >>> Dynasty (AD 581 - 618).  Sarira towers are very common in Asia.  They are generally used to store cremated remains.  

e. Becoming a Sacred Mummy pt 4: Failure During Zuo-Gone (坐缸)

 The Full Body Sarira of Miao Zhe (妙智,1888—2003) who was once named the healthiest senior citizen in China. >>>

The process of mummification is seen as a kind of test and success is not guaranteed. Unlike the mummification techniques used by ancient Egyptians, the making of a Full Body Sariras does not involve the removal of internal organs or direct drainage of fluids: The body is simply placed inside the Gone "as is."  Because of this, the making of a Full Body Sarira sometimes ends in failure: If a master fails in his quest, as indicated by the smell of decomposition, the body would be removed from the Gone immediately and cremation would take place.

On the other hand, if no signs of decomposition are detected, the body would remain inside the Gone anywhere from three to six years. (The exact length of time a body spends inside a Gone depends on the Master's own instructions.) Whether one is successful in becoming a mummy is believed to be largely determined by one's own effort, determination, and spiritual aptitude. The entire process is seen as a kind of religious ordeal.

The belief in the link between mummification and spirituality is widespread and is the importance of "effort" and "hard work" is always stressed. For example, one newspaper reads: After 60 years of vegetarian diet, an old lady's effort finally paid off as she became a Bodhisattva in flesh. (see left)  

<<< The mummy of Mrs. Song, who became a Bodhisattva in flesh over 35 years ago. Her mummification is believe to be a testament of her extraordinary spiritual aptitude   because unlike other masters, nothing  than a thin layer of sand was placed in her Gone.

d. Becoming a Sacred Mummy pt. 3: Open  the Gone, Kai-Gong

The Kai-Gone ceremony of Kai Fong on August 4, 2007 >>>

If all goes as planned, after a few years of sitting, the Gone-Sitter's body would be removed from his Gone in a ceremony known as Kai-Gone or Gone opening. This is often a very emotional moment for followers as the the success or failure of Gone Sitting would be revealed. Gone Opening is almost always carried out in full view of the public, although in recent times there have been at least one exception.   

 

In most recent Gone Opening, forensic experts and senior media personalities are also invited in addition to the general public.  Experts from the coroner's office are asked to comment on the stage of decomposition of the body  and senior news reporters are asked to monitor the entire process to assure authenticity.   

<<<the Gone Opening ceremony of monk Kai Fong, 2007.  The ceremony was controversial because shortly after the ceremony the mummified body was hastily moved to another location to be treated with protective paints. Some feels that the need for preservative measures after the Gone was opened violates the common understanding of  "incorruptibility".  

While there is no "official" definition of incorruptibility,  it generally thought once a body has become incorruptible it would require treatments only for aesthetic purposes,  but never for to stop decomposition.

  

(Right) Kai Fong six days after Gone Opening, the black coloration is from the application of three layers of black protective paints and is not the result of mummification.  (The mummy is originally amber in color.)

Kai Fong's body entered the state of Gone Sitting after being refrigerated for 96 days, as per his own instruction. He was suppose to remain in the Gone for six years, but three years into the process, disciples decided to perform Gone Opening after allegedly receiving instructions from Kai in their dreams.

According to reports, Kai's muscles are elastic, and his joints remains mobile. Ordinarily, it would be taken as a sign of "true" Full Body Sarira. (as opposed to simply preservation by drying.) However due to his controversial life, some have speculated that his body might have been chemically treated.  Others argue out that the refrigeration may have dehydrated the body in a manner that is too convenient for the mummy  to be considered "authentic" in a religious context.

News Coverage of the Kai-Gone of ceremony of abbot Kai Fong.  From August 4, 2007

 

2. Ringsels, Sacred Kidney Stones?

On first glance Ringsels is both beautiful and mysterious.  But as it turns out, there is in fact an elegant empirical theory on this matter: Some scientists believe that Sariras / Ringsels is just another name for the holy gallstones of the venerated masters. This, of course, is pure speculation: --as far as evidence is concerned , there has been no chemical analysis done on Sariras due to their rarity and highly sacred, highly venerated status. But really, it doesn't hurt to take a look:

Gallsteones:

Gallstones are basically like kidney stones and liver stones, except that they're in your gall bladder instead of liver / kidney. There are two major types of gallstones.

  • Cholesterol stones: Cholesterol stones are usually green, but are sometimes white or yellow in color and account for about 20 percent of gallstones. They are made primarily of cholesterol.
  • Pigment stones: Pigment stones are small, dark stones made of bilirubin, calcium bilirubinate, and calcium salts such as calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate. They account for the other 80 percent of gallstones.
  • There are also some stones that are called "mixed" or "rare" stones, they're made of fatty-acid carbonates

They say pictures are worth a thousand words, so let's take a look.

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Calcium bilirubinate

from World Journal of Gastroenterology

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Ringsels formed from the blood of Shakyamuni aka Siddhārtha Gautama better known as The Buddha

from Xinhuanet (official Chinese government news site)


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Human uric acid kidney stone

from http://www.herringlab.com/photos/2/index.html



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Canine calcium oxalate monohydrate bladder stone

from American College of Veterinary Surgeons

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Human magnesium phosphate hydrate kidney stone

from http://www.herringlab.com/photos/2/index.html

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Ringsels formed from the brain of Shakyamuni aka Siddhārtha Gautama better known as The Buddha

from http://tech.china.com/zh_cn/science/life/1032/20050803/12539149.html








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Gallstones from a cow

from http://www.alibaba.com/catalog/11139665/Ox_Cattle_Gallstone.html

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Ringsels from Geshe Lama Konchog

from Buddhist TV

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Human cholesterol gallstone

from http://www.curezone.org/gallstones/


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Ringsels from one of the Arahants

from Xinhuanet (official Chinese government news site)


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Human mixed gallstones

from Department of Surgery I , Kyushu University , Faculity of Medicine


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Ringsels from one of the reincarnations of Avalokitesvara(泗州大聖舍利子)

from Xinhuanet (official Chinese government news site)

These Ringsel were discovered under an ancient pagoda in November 2003.


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Human pigment gallstone

from http://gensurg.co.uk/lap_chole%20-%20presentation.htm



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Ringsels from Shin Ann Gu Lemarla

from http://iask.sina.com.cn/b/5940437.html

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Human cholesterol gallstone

from http://www.curezone.org/gallstones/


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Canine bladder stone 100% ammonium acid urate

from http://lbah.com/canine/urolithiasis.htm


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Feline bladder stone also 100% ammonium acid urate

from American College of Veterinary Surgeons


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Ringsels formed from the bone of Shakyamuni aka Siddhārtha Gautama better known as The Buddha

from http://blog.mjjq.com/archives/1204.html

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Sheep bladder stone

from American College of Veterinary Surgeons

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Ringsels formed from the blood of Shakyamuni aka Siddhārtha Gautama better known as The Buddha

from http://tw.netsh.com/eden/bbs/705389/html/table_5344074.html

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Ringsels formed from the flesh of Shakyamuni aka Siddhārtha Gautama better known as The Buddha

from http://tw.netsh.com/eden/bbs/705389/html/table_5344074.html

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Human cholesterol gallstone

from http://www.herringlab.com/photos/2/index.html

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Human mixed gallstones

from Department of Surgery I , Kyushu University , Faculity of Medicine

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Human pigment gallstone

from http://www.smbs.buffalo.edu/pth600/IMC-Path/y1case/y1ans14.htm

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Ringsels from Mahomaudgalyona, one of the Arahants

from http://blog.yam.com/taol/category/386647

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Human cholesterol gallstone

picture from Department of Surgery I , Kyushu University , Faculity of Medicine

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Ringsels formed from the brain of Shakyamuni aka Siddhārtha Gautama better known as The Buddha

from http://hi.baidu.com/tanxinwl/blog/item/afa4b10fd852a4edab6457d1.html

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Human calcium oxalate monohydrate kidney stone

from http://www.herringlab.com/photos/Urinary/Oxalates/Com/

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Ringsels formed from the bone of Shakyamuni aka Siddhārtha Gautama better known as The Buddha

from http://tw.netsh.com/eden/bbs/705389/html/table_5344074.html

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Human Sodium acid urate kidney stone

from http://www.herringlab.com/photos/3/photospage3.html

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Human kidney stone, Calcium oxalate monohydrate deposited over apatites

from http://www.herringlab.com/photos/2/index.html

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Human kidney stone, struvite

from http://www.herringlab.com/photos/2/index.html

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Ringsels from a 107 years old Chinese Buddhist nun.

from http://news.china.com/zh_cn/social/1007/20050624/12431243.html

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Other stones

Yellow Gallstone
from dkimage


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A slightly pinkish human kidney stone

from J.Köppen's webpage

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Human Calcium oxalate monohydrate kidney stone

from http://www.herringlab.com/photos/index.html




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Human Calcium oxalate monohydrate kidney stone

from http://www.herringlab.com/photos/index.html

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Canine bladder stone

from Gun Dog Magazine

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Human Struvite kidney stone

from http://www.herringlab.com/photos/index.html

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Canine Kidney stone

from Cambridge

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Canine silica kidney stone

from http://www.herringlab.com/photos/index.html

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Human uric acid kidney stone

from http://www.herringlab.com/photos/index.html

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Human uric acid kidney stone

from http://www.herringlab.com/photos/index.html

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