Category: 

Buddhism: Temples and Holy Places | 8

Buddhism: Temples and Holy Places

Temples and Holy Places

The earliest holy sites in Buddhism were probably associated with the places where the Buddha’s relics were located.

The tradition holds that after the Buddha’s body was cremated, his remains were divided into several portions that were set up in burial mounds (stupas) at important crossroads. These places provided opportunities for laypeople and monks to contemplate the Buddha’s teachings.

The number of these reliquaries soon multiplied—

- Ashoka, the early Indian king, was said to have divided the relics into 84,000 pieces, placing them in stupas throughout India—and generally under the care and protection of monasteries.

Hence, not only were monasteries places of residence for the monks, they also became meeting places for the laity, places to hear the dharma and also to pay homage to the Buddha.

Now virtually every monastic complex has a reliquary or stupa and a central meeting hall where the monks gather to recite the twice-monthly Pāṭimokkha (the Vinaya rules) and receive donations from the laity, and also where the laity gathers to hear dharma talks.

In medieval India 8 special pilgrimage places developed, all associated with significant events in the Buddha’s life:

Bodh Gaya, for instance, is the site of his Enlightenment and continues to be a major place of pilgrimage for monks and laypeople from throughout the Buddhist world,

as well as being home to several important monasteries representing Buddhists from many different countries and traditions.

Outside of India new holy places developed as Buddhism developed, some places having mythological significance, some having specific historical or national significance associated with famous monks.

What Is Sacred?

The earliest Buddhist traditions placed particular emphasis on the remains of the Buddha, which were divided into 3 basic categories:

1. physical relics, such as bones and teeth;
2. objects that the Buddha had used, such as his robe and relic bowl; and
3. representations or images of the Buddha.

The tradition holds that Ashoka divided the physical relics into 84,000 portions and distributed them throughout India:

This is clearly an exaggeration, since the number of bodily relics enshrined in stupas throughout the Buddhist world vastly extends beyond the limits of a single physical body.

Images of the Buddha are the most common object of devotion:

Although it is typically held that images are to serve as objects of contemplation and emulation, an opportunity to cultivate the Buddha’s own auspicious qualities,

they are also often invested with a kind of physical power and, like the relics, said to embody something of the presence of the Buddha himself (particularly in the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools).

In addition to sculptural images of the Buddha, there is in the Mahayana and Vajrayana a vast pantheon of Bodhisattvas who become objects of devotion.

Significant monks, likewise, frequently become objects of devotion.