I was first introduced to the idea of relics, that is, physical artifacts associated with the personal life of great beings, as a child. However, for the most part they did not make a strong impression on me until years later, after I had matured myself to understand their importance. Relics connect us to the past, and while they need not always be of what readers of this article may call “the spiritual,’ they do in fact exist on a host of levels. Among the first relics to come into my possession were my great-uncle’s ritual dagger, mirror, notebooks, ritual apron, and miscellaneous ritual tools. I separate these out from other personal objects, such as books in general, because while important, they did not play the same role in daily life or spiritual practice.
The dagger is old school. It is handmade with a moonstone handle and the blade is etched with simple Rosicrucian mottos. The mirror is indistinguishable from any mirror, and the apron of course is particular to his preferred lineage. The notebooks are not unlike my own. They contain notations, recitations, inspirational passages, and technical notes of interest to particular practices. However, they also contain a fair amount of the normal day to day workings of esotericism, and while such information is important to the person who writes it, after a while it trails off as being just more chatter of the mind – an important lesson in its own right. These are neatly kept and are a reminder to me of where I have come from, and where I am going. Many of the smaller items, of interest only to students of particular associations, were given away as relics, and I use this term specifically rather than artifacts, or items in my collection, because they are just that, relics, or something that has interest because of its connection to the past, as well as to a holy person. These are not baseball cards, lava lamps, or back issues of Popular Mechanics Magazine that are being traded. They are a veritable psychic and physical link to another time, place, and therefore, other states of consciousness.
The power of the human relic however, that actual physical remains of a human being, seen as a means of spiritual power, was first brought to my attention in a tangible manner almost a decade ago when I worked at St. Michael’s School for Boys outside of Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania. Originally established as an orphanage, the school transformed into a reformatory in the 1970s and eventually became a school and facility for adjudicated youth. When the School was built in 1915 a Roman Catholic chapel was part of the design. Constructed of Italian marble and German stained glass, this is among one of the most beautiful churches one will see, as it holds over 300 people. In the main altar and each of the side altars are small marble inlaid recesses that contained relics of saints. I discovered them when cleaning one of the altars of flowers after a public event wherein some of the water had spilled. They were small bone fragments, wrapped in white paper, with Latin inscriptions, sealed in wax, and placed in small, flat, lead boxes. They were apparently of more interest to me than to the Chaplin, whose ability to read the Latin inscription was not much better than my own. Apparently, they had gone unnoticed for several decades until I rescued them from water damage.
Now, relics of the human type are not limited to the Roman Catholic Church, and this summer has been in some ways the “Summer of My Tibetan Relics”. Without going into the details of how and why, there came into my possession in late July several Relic Pills, or small pea sized balls said to contain the essence energy of 280 ingredients, including the (clearly diluted or at a homeopathic level) physical remains of Buddha, Padmasambhava, his consort Yeshe Sogyal, and others. One of these pills is said to open all of the mandalas, or divine psychic visions, if taken at the time of death. The renowned medicine known as “dutsi,” used to remove hunger during retreats and long fasts was also given. These pills were taken from the original stash of His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, the former head of the Nyingma order from when he was forced to flee Tibet with his family during the Communist Chinese invasion. Truly alchemical products indeed, and all highly prized. To say it was a pleasant surprise to be presented with them by his son, Shenphen Dawa Rinpoche, is an understatement.
Several weeks later, my wife, children and I were present for the concluding ceremonies, or the forty-ninth day of ritual work performed for Khenchen Paldren Sherab Rinpoche, of his parinirvana, or physical death. The ritual was short by traditional standards, only five hours long. At the conclusion the presiding lamas were greeted, and in turn, each of us was presented with an envelope containing a beautiful card and photograph of this renowned Nyingma master. There was also enclosed a smaller envelope, wherein there was blessed rice, and a piece of Rinpoche’s robe, stamped with the seal of one of his revealed teachings, also known as a Mind Treasure. Objects such as this, be it rice, salt, the robes, or anything that has been in contact with the teacher at the time of their entering into the death state is considered extremely important.
Now, many may look at this as simple superstition, but to those of us who are actively involved in esoteric practices, there could be no more important objects in this world. Just as we go through complex or simple rituals to charge talismans, perform eucharistic rites, or make amulets, such as the famous medals of the saints, or red protection cords of kabbalah, the period of one’s death is the time when the greatest of all energy is released into the atmosphere – it is the very life essence of a person, and totally infused with their consciousness. Therefore, anything associated with this person and this time holds their last thoughts as an imprint.
There are some who may question the use of human remains, but until the early Twentieth Century this was less an issue than it is today, and I suspect will be even less of a one in the future. When great beings die, phenomena is often associated with their passing, and even with the quantity and quality of the physical remains that are left as well. I am aware of one alchemist in Twentieth Century America who left very little behind as far as a corpse goes, and Dudjom Rinpoche’s body was said to shrink to the size of an eight year old boy as his energy left. This goes far beyond the clinical records of several ounces of weight loss associated with death. Of course, the phenomena can also include rays of light, small tremors or earthquakes, and small stone or gems left within their cremated remains. They in fact represent the Enlightened Mind made complete in the here and now.
Within the various schools of Western esotericism that I am familiar with, this notion of relics, be they possessions, or actual physical remains of deceased teachers is not something that is practiced, and often misunderstood. Among the most prized relics I possess is oddly a small glass jar of sand, sand that was taken from between the paws of the Sphinx and for me is a tangible physical link to Egypt. As such, it is important, as we progress within our various practices and either seek to establish, maintain, or strengthen traditions, that we look to this ancient and respected practice and adapt it to our current climate.