When I moved to Japan, the first walk I took around the neighborhood where I rented my apartment, in the city of Nagoya, ended up in a large Buddhist temple. From its yard, I could partially see, enclosed by high walls, a beautiful stupa (construction used to preserve relics) of granite topped with beautiful trappings. Months later, visiting another temple in Nagoya, I recognized the picture of the curious stupa in a brochure. An insert in English explained that the remains of the Buddha were deposited in that stupa.
“Surely, there must be an error in translation,” I thought as I processed that information, “How could the relics of the Indian master have ended in such a place as Nagoya?” I investigated the story and found it fascinating.
About five hundred years before Christ, a prince named Gautama lived in a kingdom of northern India, bordering what is today Nepal. At 29 he gave up his aristocratic life and began an intense spiritual search that culminated six years later with a great discovery. Since that time, he became known as Buddha, what in Sanskrit means “awaken.” He dedicated the rest of his life to explain how to achieve such an awakening or enlightenment. He died at 80 after giving his last instruction: “All composite things pass away. Strive for your own liberation with diligence.” He was cremated and his ashes divided into eight parts to be enshrined in different places of India, but their locations were lost with the passing of centuries.
However, in the year 1897, a very unique archaeological object would be dig up in northern India: an urn whose inscription attributed the relics it contained to those of the Buddha.
At that time, the Viceroy of India decided to donate the urn to the King of Thailand (then Siam), because it was the only independent country officially Buddhist. In 1904, the King of Thailand would give part of the relics to the Japanese people, whose population was –though unofficially– also Buddhist. However, all the many denominations who existed in Japan claimed to be worthy of receiving such a special gift, which degenerated into a conflict of interests finally resolved by building a non-sectarian temple and stupa. The site chosen was at the center of Japan, at Nagoya.
With the passing of the last century, the inhabitants of Nagoya have forgotten their treasure, as I could witness in the many occasions I went up to its surroundings, always deserted. Currently, the stupa is among the municipal and the military cemeteries, and a bleak monolith in the form of missile competes in height, and gains in visibility, the sacred shrine.
I came from a culture where to be close to a splinter of the cross where Jesus died, or to a strand of his shroud, or to a mere incorrupt appendage of a saint, exerted an irresistible attraction to the catholic devotees. Even to find the cup Jesus used during his last supper would be the motif of many adventures of legendary knights.
The attractive capacity of such relics on the youth of today is negligible, regardless of being from Jesus or Buddha.
Nevertheless, I must admit that the situation could have been reversed in Nagoya, because, at the time I was leaving, a public initiative was planning to organize a tour to the stupa combined with a visit to the zoo and to an amusement park, both relatively close by. No kidding.