Via a Buddhist group at Harvard, I just saw an interesting article from Singapore in 2007, about the tooth relic located in a Singapore temple. For those who are unfamiliar, Buddhists (especially Theravādins) often venerate items said to have come from the Buddha’s body – his hair, nails, teeth. They are housed in stūpas, the tall, pointy and/or circular towers typically located in Buddhist temple grounds.
To a Western audience, at least, this phenomenon provokes an obvious question: did these relics actually come from the Buddha’s body? And in many cases – certainly the case of this Singapore temple – any serious empirical investigation can establish the answer as a pretty clear no. A recent encyclopedia article notes that the Singapore tooth isn’t even human, at least according to the standards we would use to assess any other tooth: it’s too long, and has the longer crown and shorter root characteristic of a herbivorous animal, such as a cow or buffalo. (This is before we consider that there’s no evidence that it came from Burma, as the traditional story of its provenance claims.)
In such a case I must disagree with John Strong when he is quoted as saying that the issue of the “historical authenticity” of Buddha relics “is pretty much an impossible one to resolve.” In many respects it’s actually quite easy to resolve: the tooth of a cow or buffalo cannot have been the tooth of a human being; the Buddha was a human being; all characteristics of this tooth are those of a cow’s or buffalo’s tooth; therefore this tooth did not come from the mouth of the Buddha. QED.
What might make it seem harder to resolve is that many people do continue to believe in the tooth relic’s provenance from the Buddha – and indeed, have supernatural (“theological”) justifications for why this would be the case. Strong points to a traditional belief that relics are “alive” and can multiply; according to such a belief, the Buddha’s real tooth could have spawned others in faraway places without people having to transport them there. Perhaps more importantly when the teeth relics look like animal teeth, the Pali suttas recount that the Buddha has a perfect body, with skin the colour of gold, so fine that no dust can attach to it. Surely such a perfect body could have had teeth larger than life; on a man so well versed in doing no harm, the teeth could have been like those of a gentle animal evolved to eat no meat.
According to the tenets of such traditional Buddhist beliefs, the tooth relic could be exactly that. Within that ancient belief system, there is an internally coherent way to explain that this cow tooth in Singapore could have been the tooth of the Buddha in India. But here’s the problem: as far as I can tell, to anyone who gives the question the serious examination it deserves, that ancient belief system is false. We have no reliable evidence anywhere of objects spontaneously multiplying, nor of human beings having perfect bodies. There may well be some element of truth in those beliefs – say, mental awakening may shine forth outwardly as a greater degree of physical beauty – but this is only a small degree of truth. As stated, there is no good reason to believe that tooth relics really do the things they are claimed to do.
There is one reason repeatedly given in these articles for such belief – namely “faith.” In the earlier article, one Singaporean is quoted as saying “The whole premise of faith is that you must believe — you don’t ask if it’s real.” There is certainly a strong emphasis placed on faith in premodern Buddhism; one is supposed to have śraddhā toward beings like the Buddha, which I have previously rendered “esteem” but can also be rendered “faith.” One has confidence in these beings, trusts them, gives one’s heart to them.
But “faith” doesn’t adequately answer the question either. I do acknowledge the importance of faith, on chastened intellectualist grounds: one’s own thoughts and behaviours can often be so self-defeating that one is best served by trusting in someone else. But then one must have the assurance that that other is worthy of trust; else they may turn out to be an even worse guide than one’s own reason. (The many well documented cases of guru sexual abuse are a testament to this.) People had faith in Stalin, as the saviour and messiah who would bring about a better social order, and similarly in Hitler and Pol Pot and other false gurus. Bad faith is a thousand times worse than the absence of faith. Yet some amount of faith is essential in a world overloaded by knowledge; this is true of science too, in that nearly all of us take at least some of our scientific beliefs on the grounds of our trust in scientists’ authority rather than our having done or observed the experiments ourselves.
How does one tell good faith from bad? That’s a much harder question. One needs to be cautious with giving one’s faith, at the very least. This is especially true for the traditions in which one was raised; it is not good enough to respond to critics of those traditions with “it’s my faith.” Maybe your faith is wrong – and the fact that you accept that faith because of your upbringing is an additional reason to believe that it is wrong, for it suggests a greater likelihood that you have faith because of your fallible personal circumstances instead of the inherent worth of the object of your faith. (This is not a circumstantial ad hominem fallacy; it is a matter of probabilities.) One sign of something being really worthy of faith is its robustness in response to criticism: it can acknowledge criticisms and respond to them in a way that makes sense in the critics’ terms, rather than making ever more tortuous attempts to explain the critics away. If a potential guru believes in the historical nature of relics which – on any grounds other than faith – seem to have no such genuine nature, that is a great danger sign. Faith in the purveyors of such apparent falsehoods should be approached with the greatest of caution.