Dharma Master Fa-Ben of Shanghai's Jade Buddha Monastery entered into Nirvana in March 1993, at age 83. After the cremation, more than a dozen sharira of varying sizes were collected. I was fortunate to see three of them. One looked very much like a Buddha pearl with a hole. Another came out from his bones; it was very small just like a fresh sprout coming out of dried wood. The third one had the same quality as the other two, being greenish in hue, but it was not round. Sharira can be distinguished from ordinary bones by their gleaming appearance in sunlight.
Dharma Door Monastery in Shanshi province is famous for displaying the finger sharira of Shakyamuni Buddha. In ancient India, small kingdoms vied with each other for Shakyamuni Buddha's sharira. The Chinese consider sharira to be sacred and believe that they can ward off evil spirits.
There are several stupas in the mountains of Inner Mongolia containing the sharira of lamas who cultivated samadhi in seclusion. When I stepped onto the terrace of one of those stupas, ignoring the warnings of the locals, my feet were stung by some invisible force and I was in severe pain. Sharira really carry some mysterious clout.
Once when a cultivator was engaged in astral travel, he met a cosmic being who told him by telepathy, "When you sit in stillness with no self and no desire, when you help others with a good heart and renounce your own interests, the son of your pure spirit is born within your body." What a poetic and lofty interpretation of sharira!
The Heart Sutra says, "Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form (...) Shariputra, all dharmas are empty of form (...)" Of course, here Shariputra is not the Buddha's bones, but the name of a disciple of the Buddha. [In Chinese, both ‘sharira’ and “Shariputra’ are transliterated using the same characters she-li-zi.]
In the Sutras, people's names often carry meaning, for instance, Great Giver, Increaser of Blessings, Wish-Fulfiller, Seeker of Goodness. Why can't we assume that Shariputra is also a symbolic name? Shariputra was deemed in wisdom among all the Arhats, and wisdom is needed to explain the meaning of Buddha's discourses. Further, everything in this world is characterized by emptiness, how much the more our fleeting human life. Even the greatly wise Shariputra was at his wits’ end when Buddha was about to enter Nirvana; all he could do was end his own life sooner.
The true wise man can achieve eternal life only after he recognizes the pure body which neither is born nor perishes. In order to reach that level, one must relinquish all one's burdens in life. This is the true meaning of "entering the door of emptiness”; without emptiness there is no response, and without a response one cannot understand the Buddha's mind.
The Buddha's mind is like the mind of a parent, a filial son, and a benevolent person; it is the most wonderful, sublime, and indescribable ordinary mind. And so when I read about Shariputra in the Heart Sutra, I felt very close to the Buddha. I felt the Buddha was calling out to remind us about our situation. Was the Buddha only calling out to Shariputra? No, anyone whose mind is awakened has affinities with the Buddha; the Buddha's compassion is aimed at anyone with a still mind. Although the Buddha's state is far beyond us, we yearn to achieve it.
Living in this noisy, bustling world, have we ever thought about sharira? Generally speaking, when babies gaze at the world and those who are dying recall their entire lives, they posses more light than we do. These lights are meaningless and dim, like the light of a fire. However, the light from sharira is dazzling like the sun or the moon; it is seen not with our eyes, but with the mind. If we cultivate the Way without seeking longevity or fortune, we can attain great freedom and ease, and sharira are tangible proof of it. This is the wonderful principle of the universe.
From the Venerable Master Hua’s Talks on Dharma
The Vajra Sutra says, “All conditioned things are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, and shadows, like dewdrops and lightning flashes; we should contemplate them thus.”
Conditioned things have form and appearance, but they are ultimately unreal. Ordinary people are deluded by false appearances and cannot distinguish the real from the unreal. They turn away from enlightenment and join with defilement, “taking a thief to be their son.” Just as a dusty mirror cannot reflect things, their inherently pure minds, obscured by worldly defilements, cannot distinguish true from false. Thus they waste their time in confusion.
All material and visible things are unreal like dreams, illusory visions, castles in the air, water bubbles that pop when touched, and ethereal shadows. They are like dewdrops that evaporate in the morning sun, or fleeting lightning flashes or sparks of fire. Not recognizing that appearances are false, people busily chase after them all day long. Some people crave wealth and won’t stop at anything to make money. Others seek to indulge their sexual desires day and night; lust is constantly on their mind. Some are confused by fame and seek a good reputation. Others are connoisseurs of good food and fine clothes. Some may not be attached to wealth, sex, fame, or food, but they love to sleep.
The desires for wealth, sex, fame, food, and sleep are causes for falling to the hells. We should realize that these and all conditioned things are unreal, like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows, dewdrops, and lightning flashes.