The Bone that Changed China

15 April 2015

The Famen Buddhist Temple (in what is now Shaanxi Province, in the People’s Republic of China) has been an important center for Buddhism since it was built near the end of the Six Dynasties period (220-581 CE).  The temple is particularly famed for housing a Buddhist religious relic, an alleged finger bone of the Buddha.  The relic had the reputation of producing miraculous cures, and several times during the Tang dynasty (618-906) it was brought to the royal palace, in nearby Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), when the emperor or empress was ill.  During one procession from Famen to Chang’an, the bone was said to have restored sight and hearing to the blind and deaf along its route. 

One of the most influential forms of Chinese Buddhism is Huayan.  The monk Fazang (643-712 CE) was the Third Patriarch of Huayan Buddhism, and he is best known today for his philosophically sophisticated works such as “The Rafter Dialogue” and “Essay on the Golden Lion.” Less well known is his association with the Famen Temple.  At the age of 16, he made a pilgrimage to Famen, and was so inspired by the bone of the Buddha that he set fire to his own finger as an offering to it.  Much later, after becoming a leading figure in Chinese Buddhism, Fazang wrote a commentary on the apocryphal Fanwang sutra, the primary canonical source used to justify Buddhist self-immolation and bodily mutilation.  In his commentary he enthusiastically supported the orthodoxy and piety of such actions, disagreeing with more moderate Buddhists who regarded stories of bodily mortification as metaphorical or simply upaya (myths used for pedagogic purposes).

About two generations after Fazang, Emperor Xianzong ordered that the bone of the Buddha be temporarily brought from Famen to the palace, so he could venerate it in person.  This provoked the Confucian scholar Han Yu (768-824) to write his famous essay, “Memorandum on a Bone of the Buddha.” In this work, Han Yu harshly criticized Buddhism, claiming that its practices were foolish, and that its tax free monasteries and temples were a drain on state resources.  One of Han Yu’s particular objections to Buddhism was that it encouraged people to engage in unhealthy practices of bodily mortification.  (We can see from the example of Fazang that this charge is not without merit.)  For Confucians like Han Yu, self-immolation and bodily mutilation are not only unnatural but also a violation of filial piety, because they involve intentionally damaging the body one received from one’s parents.  Although Han Yu was banished by the emperor (who was an ardent Buddhist), his essay became a seminal document in Neo-Confucianism, the movement that revitalized Confucianism. 

Zongmi (780-841 CE), the Fifth Patriach of Huayan Buddhism, was a contemporary of Han Yu’s, and wrote On the Origin of Humanity, a polemical work arguing for the superiority of Huayan to Confucianism, Daoism, and even other sects of Buddhism.  (The title of this work may be a play on Han Yu’s essay “On the Origin of the Way,” another text critical of Buddhism.)  Zongmi was also a supporter of religious self-mutilation, and lavishly praised a man who was so inspired by one of Zongmi’s public lectures that the man cut part of his own arm off as an offering.  I am tempted to speculate that some of the Buddhist enthusiasm for self-mutilation was a manifestation of apotemnophilia, a mental illness in which individuals see parts of their own body as alien to themselves and crave their removal.  (Apotemnophilia is recognized as a type of “Body Dysmorphic Disorder” according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.)

Famen Temple was temporarily closed in 845 CE as part of the Buddhist Persecution carried out under Emperor Wuzong (814-846 CE).  One might expect, given what we have heard about Han Yu, that Wuzong’s anti-Buddhist crusade was instigated by Confucians.  In fact, it was Daoists who encouraged Wuzong to eliminate Buddhism from China.  When Buddhism first came to China from India during the Han dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE), relations between Buddhists and Daoists were cordial.  The two religions often saw important parallels between each other’s teachings, and some even speculated that Laozi, the legendary founder of Daoism, was the same person as the Buddha.  However, Buddhism and Daoism later became increasingly sectarian (perhaps because they were competing with one another for the support of the general populace and the government).  Consider an incident from the classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West. This famous fantasy is inspired by the historical monk Xuanzang, who made a long and dangerous pilgrimage to India to bring back Buddhist sutras.  In one chapter of the novel, Xuanzang and his two companions (the Monkey King and Pigsy, an anthropomorphic monk-pig) use magic to liberate a city of Buddhists who are enslaved by evil Daoists.

The Buddhist Persecution ended with the death of Emepror Wuzong a year later, but Buddhism in China never regained the extent of influence it had among intellectuals and rulers in the Tang dynasty.  Neo-Confucianism, inspired by the writings of anti-Buddhists like Han Yu, came to dominate intellectually and politically.  Nonetheless, Buddhism remained an important popular religion, and Famen Temple continued to be an active center up until the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949).  In accordance with Marx’s teaching that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” the practice of Buddhism was discouraged under Chinese Communism.  Although the Famen Temple itself was nominally protected by law as a historical site, it was ransacked by members of the paramilitary Red Guard at the beginning of the ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).  In an effort to protect the religious artifacts from the Red Guards, the abbot of the temple, Liangqing, immolated himself at the entrance to the True Relic Pagoda.  (Perhaps Liangqing was the reincarnation of Fazang or Zongmi.) 

When Mao Zedong died in 1976, the Cultural Revolution came to an end, and a much more moderate government assumed power.  China’s contemporary government is largely supportive of tradition (as a way of encouraging nationalism).  As a result, Famen temple is one of many historical sites that has been restored. The Chinese government also encourages capitalistic economic development, like tourism, so the grounds of Famen Temple have been enlarged to host the crowds who visit the temple (including close to 100,000 tourists on the first day of Chinese New Year alone).  Fortunately for tourism (and Buddhism), Liangqing’s self-sacrifice was apparently successful, because when the True Relic Pagoda was restored in 1987, the relics were re-discovered, including the finger bone of the Buddha.   Admission to the temple is ¥28, while admission to the museum is ¥45.

The colorful history of Famen Temple and the alleged finger bone of the Buddha (allegedly rediscovered in 1987) is fascinating in its own right, and helps to illustrate the complex interplay of religion, politics, economics, and philosophy down to the present day.       


Chen, Jinhua, “Fazang, the Holy Man,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 28.1 (2005):  11-84.  (Excellent brief biography of Fazang, along with some information about Zongmi.)

Tiwald Justin and Bryan W. Van Norden, eds., Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2014).  (Includes representative works by Fazang, Han Yu, and Zongmi.)

Waley, Arthur, trans., Monkey:  A Folk Tale of China (originally published 1942).  (An abbreviated version of the classic novel, Journey to the West.)

Wang Zhiyong, “China’s Buddhist Mecca – Famen Temple – Enlarges,” (5 September 2007), (accessed 16 April 2015).

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