|This article deals with an important and intriguing aspect of the history of Buddhism in China──the Buddha's bodily relics and the imperial veneration of these relics. It discusses the relic-veneration ritual performed in the palaces of the imperial dynasties from the Wei-chin period through the T'ang dynasty. Focusing on the ritual performed separately by Kao-tsung ( r.650-683 ), Empress Wu ( r.690 ~ 704 ) Su-tsung ( r.756 ~ 761 ), Te-tsung ( r.779 ~ 804 ), Hsien-tsung ( r.805 ~ 819 ), and I-tsung ( r.859 ~ 872 ), it analyzes possible reasons for the occurrence of each ritual. While acknowledging its existence, the article also calls readers' attention to how this ritual grew out of a created or invented tradition. It reveals the formation and the growth of the tradition as resulting from the creation or historicization undertaken, consciously or unconsciously, by historians and Buddhist scholars at different stages of China's imperial time. The process of this creation or historicization involved the fusion of legend, lore, and historical facts as evidenced by some accounts, including official histories and Buddhist works on the basis of which modern scholars write their historical works. The result of this fusion was the mixture of logos and mythos, a blending of historical facts and fictions, or what may be called "mythishtory."
The subject in question is discussed under several headings, beginning with the documented relationship between the relics and imperial rulership culled from various secular and Buddhist accounts. All accounts point to the magical property of the legendary A`soka relics which fascinated a number of emperors, kings, and princes before the T'ang dynasty. These accounts recognize the theurgies associated with the relics and their proselytizing effect, thus reflecting the influence of their lore upon themselves. To elaborate this point, the second portion of this paper centers on the discussion of how the lore was transformed into a historical, or strictly speaking, a quasi-historical narrative. The works of Tao-hsüan, a renowned Buddhist writer, are used to exemplify the complicated process of this transformation. Tao-hsüan's story about Liu Sa-he and his finding of the relics at the Ch'ang-kan ssu is discussed in detail within the context of imperial veneration.
The third section of this article takes note of imperial veneration of the relics which seemingly appeared in two major traditions : the veneration of the Buddha's tooth and the veneration of finger bone. Based on the information provided by Tao-hsüan and the inscription unearthed in 1987 at the Fa-men ssu, this section suggests the possibility that two relic-veneration traditions existed in pre-T'ang times. It points out that the finger bone tradition was made prominent and became the dominant tradition in the T'ang . The fourth section takes up this theme and demonstrates how and why T'ang emperors from Kao-tsung to Te-tsung showed their veneration of the finger-bone relic and performed the relicveneration ritual. It argues that they used this ritual to help solidify their authority whenever they found it had diminished because of weakening health, political instability, military failure, and so forth.
Imperial veneration of the finger-bone relic was written into dramatic episodes in the T'ang history, as is discussed in the fifth section. Based primarily on official historical accounts, this section discusses the sumptuous reception, display, and imperial observance of the relic which occurred during the reigns of Hsien-tsung and I-tsung. It also suggests that official histories, which seem to recognize the finger bone as a component of the so-called Aśoka relics, made the rituals held in these two reigns look unprecedented, obscuring its possible historical link to earlier incidents. This missing link is discussed in the sixth section which introduces modern scholars' interpretations of the unearthed inscriptions, pointing out the merits and problems of their interpretations which show an attmpt to historicize the notion of imperial veneration of the finger-bone relic provided by the lore. It questions the dating method and asks for a more tenable explanation of the appearance of one piece of so-called "holy bone" and three grains of so-called "duplicate bones" discovered among some seven hundred excavated objects.
The concluding section recapitulates the theme of legend and lore at work in the formation of historical accounts. It raises questions as to how a historian can better use sources which contain fiction and facts when one may have difficulty drawing a clear-cut line between them. While arguing the possibility of reconstructing, or as a matter of fact, constructing the intriguing history of the Buddha's relics and relic-veneration ritual, the article also poses questions and delineates some problems of this task in hopes of furthering investigation of issues relevant to the subject.