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Buddhadharma : Winter 2007
winter 2007| 68 |buddhadharma ondary literature in his interpretation of the somewhat unusual events following the death of the Buddha (i.e., the daily postponing of the cremation for seven days, the five hundred layers of shroud, the iron coffin, etc.). strong analyses the “admittedly bizarre details of his obsequies” under six head- ings: the shrouds, the sarcophagus, the veneration of the Buddha’s body, the cre- mation, the collection and distribution of the relics, and the stupas. Each stage is interpreted with reference to the produc- tion of relics. strong evokes the image of the Bud- dha’s body (wrapped in cotton and soaked in oil) as a “human torch or oil lamp” and quotes other “legendary Buddhist exam- ples” of self-immolation in imitation of the Buddha’s funeral (see also strong’s “images of ashoka,” 1994). Most versions of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra state that of the five hundred layers of cotton shroud wrapped around the Buddha’s corpse, only two layers, the innermost and the outer- most, remained intact after the cremation. The two remaining layers served, accord- ing to strong, as an envelope for the rel- ics, separating them from the surrounding wood ash. similarly the sarcophagus, the oil-filled “iron coffin,” which seems highly out of place in a cremation context and has puzzled many scholars, functioned in strong’s view as an urn containing the uncontaminated relics. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra mentions seven days of festivities and worship of the Buddha’s body, which are for strong the anticipation of the seven-day relic festivals recounted elsewhere in Buddhist literature. Moreover, the actual cremation not only distinguished the Buddha from other renouncers (who are traditionally buried in india), but, according to strong, also sped up the production of relics. These few examples illustrate how strong, by reading the text with relic- tinted glasses, arrives at convincing explanations for some of the unusual and bewildering things in the Mahaparin- irvana Sutra. The strength of this essay does not so much lie in new findings (strong himself points out that some of the material was already considered in his Relics of the Buddha, 2004), but in the fresh approach to what is for many Bud- dhists an all too familiar text. in the next essay, Gregory schopen does what he does best: he presents a num- ber of weird and wonderful stories (in this case about cemetery fights and cannibal- ism from the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya), associated with a compellingly simple idea (wearing rags from charnel grounds is not something done in ancient india), and he gives it a eye-catching title (“Cross-dress- ing with the dead”). schopen sets the scene: the beginning of the Christian era, during which time Buddhist monasteries spring up in india and grow increasingly dependent on laypeople for financial sup- port. according to schopen, this is also when the bulk of the Vinaya, which was mainly concerned with ensuring that the Buddhist order did not alienate itself from society (and thereby cut itself off from financial support), was compiled. One ascetic practice, which schopen says was sure to alienate the ancient indian society preoccupied with notions of purity and pollution, was that of wear- ing rags collected from charnel grounds. he makes the case that in order to keep their supporters happy, the compilers of the Vinaya discouraged and even ridi- culed this ancient practice and its practi- tioners, whom they considered a danger to the establishment. Throughout his article, schopen refers to two strands: one represented by Mula- sarvastivada Vinaya discouraging this extreme ascetic practice, and the other found in early Mahayana sutras encour- aging it. he seems to assume that the monks themselves were not averse to the ascetic practice but were merely too timid and conservative to stand up to society. schopen states in his concluding remarks that it is the indian concept of pollution that gives “both urgency to the Vinaya masters’ concerted and repeated attempts to contain and restrain the wearing of shrouds by Buddhist monks and ascetic meaning to the fact that some did.” it seems that what is polluting for ordi- nary people is precisely what gives ascet- ics a certain plausibility and credibility. smearing one’s face with ashes or walking about naked, for example, is not usually accepted in society, but when practiced by a saivite ascetic or a Jaina digambara monk it inspires awe and faith in the sup- porters. what, then, if laypeople, rather than being appalled by the practice of wearing refuse rags (as schopen seems to suggest), were actually impressed by the monks who did so? and what if this extreme ascetic lifestyle was not to every monk’s liking? after all, already in the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga, chapter ii) we find thirteen ascetic prac- tices all described as occurring in three degrees (very strict to weak), thereby tak- ing into account that not everyone was inclined to severe asceticism. Maybe then, as now, some monks preferred nicely made silk robes to rags from a charnel ground. what if those monks ridiculed the practice not because it was unaccept- able to indian society, but rather precisely because indian society preferred their more ascetically inclined colleagues? whatever the case might be, schopen puts his finger on a very interesting phe- nomenon: wearing rags from a charnel ground is not promoted in the Mulasar- vastivada Vinaya at all, but rather treated with caution. schopen himself raises the obvious question: why didn’t the Vinaya “categorically forbid the wearing of such stuff?” But, alas, he does not answer it. Maybe early Buddhists could not forbid the ascetic practices because they were precisely what set ascetics apart from society, what made them special and worthy recipients of gifts. and even when they did, in fact, discontinue the practice of wearing refuse rags (pamsukula) from the charnel ground, the name pamsukula was retained (as in modern-day south and southeast asia) and applied to a very different practice, that of offering a new piece of cloth at funerals. at 491 pages (including a long intro- duction, glossaries for Chinese, Korean, and Japanese terms, and a general index), this is not a slim volume. however, the editors themselves point out two areas in particular that have not been touched upon: abhidharma concepts and compar- ison with other religions. One might add a few others, such as the ancient indian background on the importance of the moment of death, and the extremely inter- esting question, raised in the introduction, of how Buddhism has assimilated existing death rituals, which deserves a study in its own right. Furthermore, southeast asia is slightly underrepresented. This, however, is not meant as a criticism, but rather as an indication that this area of research is far from exhausted. rita lanGer is a lecturer in buddhist studies at the uniVer- sity Of bristOl and authOr Of bUDDhIst rItUals of Death anD rebIrth: ContemPorary srI lanKan PraCtICe anD Its orIgIns (rOutledGe, 2007).