Han Yu: “Memorial on the Buddha’s Bones”


Han Yu’s “Memorial on the Buddha’s Bones,” in conjunction with his pro-Confucian essay “The Original Tao,” came to be viewed by later generations of Chinese as the polemical foundation for the Confucian revival known as Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism became the dominant social-political discourse from the twelfth through the nineteenth centuries.

In 819 ce, Emperor Xianzong of the Tang Dynasty held a ceremony in which finger bones reputed to be relics of the Buddha were publicly displayed. Although their provenance is unclear, in 558 the relics were enshrined in a special underground chamber of a stupa (a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine) built at the Dharma Gate Temple in Shaanxi Province. The relics were said to have the power to protect the surrounding area and to bestow good fortune on those who venerated them. Because the imperial family was responsible for the empire’s well-being, such ceremonies also underscored the power of the ruling family. During the Tang Dynasty...

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Stones inscribed with the writings of Confucius, Temple of Confucius, Beijing (Library of Congress)

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