A Buddhist Verse
In the ‘Exalted Sublime Golden Light Sutra’, there is this verse that talks about a number of impossibilities in nature:
When white lilies grow
In the Ganges’ swift currents,
When crows become red
And cuckoos turn the color of conch,
When palm fruit grows on the rose-apple tree
And on the date tree mangos form,
At that time a relic the size
Of a mustard seed will appear.
The Ganges In Varanasi
Now, it just so happens that my husband David and I saw the Ganges River this past spring as it flowed through various cities in India.
However, as you might easily conclude – never in our travels did we see ‘white lilies grow in the Ganges’ swift currents’, as the poem here proposes.
Relics The Size Of A Mustard Seed
A few weekends ago, however, we did actually see a ‘relic the size of a mustard seed’.
In fact, we saw a number of clusters of them – and it happened here in the cold summer weather of the city of Leeds rather than in the heat of India.
Sacred Objects From Buddhist Masters
We saw these relics at an exhibition called the ‘Maitreya Project Relic Tour: Sacred Relics Of The Buddha’, sponsored by the Jamyang Buddhist Centre in Leeds that was being shown in the Leeds City Museum.
The exhibition of Buddhist relics included some donated by the Dalai Lama. It was qualified as a rare collection that included relics of the Buddha and of masters from different Buddhist traditions.
We were interested to see what these relics were. As we stood in the subdued queue of people waiting to see them, David and I spoke to one another about the Buddhists we had met in India.
We recalled in particular the lovely practitioners of the faith that we had seen in Majnu-ka-Tilla, the Tibetan enclave in Delhi where we had stayed for almost a week when we were in Delhi.
In Majnu-ka-Tilla we had stayed at Wongden House, a friendly hotel with airy rooms that looked out at the Yamuna River and the fields and huts on the riverbank.
Life In Those Alleyways And Byways
Once you leave the hotel, you go through winding, unpaved alleyways and paths where colorful prayer flags, handy Tibetan crafts, mom & pop food shops, clothing stores, phone outlets, and corner pharmacies. Even an Internet cafe or two dot the streets.
As you walk, you often pass Buddhist monks radiant in their simple vermillion robes. Everything and everyone winds down to the very wide boulevard where bicycle rickshaws and some auto-rickshaws (if you are lucky enough to find them!) transport you to the local subway station and from there you can get to the heart of Delhi.
Once in the center of Delhi, you’re back in the thick of it, of course. You can see everything from the ancient to the new in terms of transport, as this photograph of the city traffic reveals:
The Community As Our Refuge
The commercial center of the exiled Tibetan refugee community, Majnu-ka-Tilla is a quiet, peaceful area that offered us respite from such chock-a-bloc traffic and the frenetic, all-guns-blazing hubbub that is Delhi.
Wongden House also has a marvelous small and simple restaurant on its premises where we ate several times.
There one night we met some Buddhists who were passing through en route to a retreat. We asked them questions about their way of life as we ate delicious Tibetan noodle soup called ‘tenthuk’ made with vegetables, steamed dumplings called ‘momos’, and vegetables that sizzled on a huge bed of lettuce.
Visiting The Buddhist Exhibit
Cut from that experience of the Buddhist culture in Delhi this past spring back to the exhibit that we saw recently here in England.
Before entering the exhibit, we were asked to take off our shoes. After that we entered a large, dimly-lit rotunda where calming music was being piped in. The lights were low as all of us museum goers progressed forward on a narrow plush red carpet.
On one side of the queue, people sat on chairs and mats. Some assumed the lotus position as they meditated.
On the other side, a monk dressed in beautiful vermillion robes blessed people who came one by one to kneel in front of him. He placed a golden vessel on each person’s head, which we learned also contained some relics of the masters.
In the center was a large golden Buddha, golden bowls lined up in a semi-circle, and a number of exhibits in glass cases.
As we wound around the table, we also saw a copy of the Exalted Sublime Golden Light Sutra, the same book from which I chose the verse that I used to begin this article.
What Are ‘Relics’ According To Buddhists?
The highlight of the show were the relics of the Gautama Buddha and of other masters.
We discovered that ‘relics’ is the word Buddhists use to describe the bits of hard, pearlized balls of bone that are found in the sifted material that remains after a holy master is cremated.
We saw about 10 glass cases filled with delicate bowls that had about half a dozen or so or fewer of these gleaming remains.
The Two Usual Sources For ‘Pearls Of Wisdom’
And so I wonder: Is this where the term ‘pearls of wisdom’ first came from?
The usual answer about where this phrase comes from is that the phrase is considered to come from two sources.
The first source is considered to be from the Christian religion, specifically from Matthew 7:6 in which there is a reference to casting pearls (that is, the wisdom of the gospel) before swine.
The second source is from James Russell Lowell, the nineteenth-century American Romantic poet, critic, editor, and diplomat who referred to the poetry contained in the classic Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as follows:
These pearls of thought in Persian gulfs were bred,
Each softly lucent as a rounded moon;
The diver Omar plucked them from their bed,
Fitzgerald strung them on an English thread.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is the title that the nineteenth-century writer and translator Edward FitzGerald gave to his famous translation of about 1,000 poems.
The poems were originally written in Persian and are attributed to the Persian poet, mathematician, and astronomer Omar Khayyam who was born in 1048 and died in 1131.
A Possible Third Source For The Expression ‘Pearls Of Wisdom’?
After seeing these relics recently, I now wonder whether they are in fact a third source for the expression ‘pearls of wisdom’.
I asked this of a Buddhist monk who was there and she said that Buddhists believe it is only masters’ remains who yield such relics. However, I do not know what experts of cremation would say about this.
I do know this, however: Although we can use the term “pearls of wisdom” sarcastically, at its heart the expression is meant as intelligent advice, commentary, or instruction that someone imparts to others.
And does that not sound exactly like what the Buddhist teachers and masters strive to do throughout their lives?
The tiny silver- and cream-colored ‘pearls’ glittering so perfectly in their glass cases with the photographs of lovely, smiling Buddhist monks from whom they came next to them makes me think that this derivation seems like it may well be possible.
And so as the poem at the beginning of this article stated, it may well be that flowers don’t bloom in the Ganges, that crows are black and not red, that mangos certainly don’t form on date trees and the like – but we did see a good number of ‘relic[s] the size of a mustard seed’ that came from the bodies of Buddhist holy leaders.
However, whether it’s a bit of magic fluttering in the air a bit or the result of what a truly spiritual person’s remains can leave after his or her body leaves this Earth – well, that I do not know.