Volume 17 • Issue 20 | October 08 - 14, 2004

Buddhist relic tour comes to Chinatown

By Hemmy So

When the Buddhist lawyer Victoria Ewart began managing the Maitreya Project’s Relic tour, she was skeptical about the tour’s contents. But after she personally witnessed mysterious changes in her inventory, she could not deny its spiritual energy.

“If people have faith, it creates a condition where more [relics] can appear. It’s an interactive process,” Ewart said.

The relics — crystalline, pearl-like deposits found in the cremation ashes of Buddhist spiritual masters — are on display this weekend at the Yung Wing School Auditorium on Division St. in Chinatown. During its three-year tour, the objects in the Maitreya Project Relic tour have shifted in number, size and color. The transformations have occurred despite secure handling that prevents human tampering.

“Someone is authorized to keep [the collection] at all times,” Ewart explained. “It’s never left unattended.”

Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the spiritual director of Maitreya Project, a Buddhist educational organization, released the collection from Buddhist temples in March 2001 for the tour. So far, the relics have toured 111 cities in 11 countries on four continents.

 “[The exhibit] will appeal to people who practice Buddhism and people who are interested in the mystical aspect of Tibetan Buddhism,” said Ganden Thurman, Tibet House director of special projects. Thurman said that for many people who practice Buddhism, the relics serve as touchstones to the Buddha – a man who achieved enlightenment. Tibet House, a New York organization devoted to preserving Tibetan culture and Buddhism, has no affiliation with the tour.  

The American Buddhist Confederation in New York is sponsoring the exhibit’s show in Chinatown and also helped bring the collection to Stony Brook University on Long Island. Harry Leong, A.B.C.’s English-language public relations manager, worked to bring the collection back to New York City for another exhibit. “I’m very excited because it’s such a rare opportunity for these relics to be available to be in one place at the same time,” he said.

The tour is crisscrossing the globe in an effort reach as many people as possible before the relics are enshrined in a 500-foot bronze Maitreya Buddha statue in northern India. The statue, which will be by the Maitreya Project, will be completed in 2008.

The exhibit is mostly comprised of relics from Shakyamuni Buddha and his well-known disciples, Maudgalyayana, Ananda and Sariputra. But other relics from Chinese, Indian and Tibetan traditions are also included. Visitors can even see a hair from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama – technically not a relic, but still considered a holy object.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche checked the authenticity of the relics, some of which date back to circa 500 B.C. Though little is known about authenticating relics, Lama Zopa Rinpoche used spiritual techniques described in sutras, Buddhist scriptural texts. Applying these methods, Lama Zopa Rinpoche examined several relics offered by numerous sources before he decided which to include in this display, said Ewart.

An opening ceremony of Buddhist chants will start the exhibit at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning. Blessing services will also be available for visitors throughout the day. To offer blessings, a Buddhist nun will take a container of relics from the display and place the vessel on the crown of a person’s head.

“It’s a blessing, a healing to the whole body. It’s rare when people say they don’t feel anything,” Ewart said. “People seem to enjoy that because it’s very personal.”

The relic tour exhibit ends at 5 p.m. on Sunday and then heads to Trung Tam Phat Giao Chieu Kien, a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple in the Bronx.

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