Buddha's Finger

            While director of the Southern Historical Center, one of the strangest donations we received was a lock of white hair. The legend of this hair begins with one of our now departed retired officers who was a barber in his youth. William Booth was on his last tour of America in 1903 and he needed a haircut. Someone remembered this young officer’s previous employment and he was immediately summoned. After shearing the head of the lion this young officer supposedly saved one of the shorn locks. Cherished over the years, it was now donated to the Historical Center. The problem with such a donation is that there needs to be confirmation because, in the final analysis, how can it be confirmed that it was really William Booth’s hair? Someone will suggest a DNA scan but we couldn’t think of the expense when we had nothing but the many-told tale of the hair’s past.

Transition with me now to the Buddhists in Taiwan who were excited a few years ago about the arrival there of Buddha’s finger. Estimated to be 2,500 years old, the finger is kept and transported in a miniature gold pagoda. Hundreds of Buddhist monks gathered at the airport in Taipei to welcome the sacred bones and form a procession through the streets. Not risking anything, 24 specially trained ninja Buddhist monks were sworn to protect the finger with their lives.

            The bones have quite a history. After the Buddha’s body was cremated in India, apparently some of his followers wanted a souvenir so they saved this one unburned remaining part. When Buddhist monks arrived in China to evangelise, the bones came with them to be stored in a special cave at the Famen Temple. Emperors were among those who came to worship the finger in elaborate ceremonies. But the finger was lost some time during the nineteenth century, only to be rediscovered in 1987 when workers were rebuilding a collapsed pagoda at the site.

            On its recent arrival in Taiwan, one monk said, “Looking at the bones is like seeing Buddha himself.” Referring to the strained relations that Taiwan has with mainland China, another said, “We hope Buddha’s finger could inspire friendly love and peace across the Taiwan Strait.”

            We know from the history that the veneration of relics is a part of Christianity as well. Reputed slivers of Jesus’ cross were sold to Holy Land pilgrims from the earliest days of the Roman Empire. The traditional tomb of Jesus at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has long since been damaged by the chipping away of pebbles and the touch of believers’ hands, until today almost nothing is left. A generation ago, moviegoers around the world watched in reverential awe as The Robe told how the last garment of Christ wove its way into peoples’ hearts, converting the heathen and healing the sick. Then there is the intrigue of the Shroud of Turin that legend says is the burial cloth of Christ. This latter relic is perhaps the most intriguing of all as scholars have been divided, some denouncing it, others affirming it, but all seemingly mystified by it.

            But in all these Christian relics, real or imagined, there is nothing like the finger of Buddha. There are no remains of the body of Christ. No finger. No hair. Part of the glory of the Easter story is that the tomb was whisked clean. In the reanimation of His body, Jesus took it all with Him. Splinters of the cross there may have been. The tomb itself may have been worn away. But the body suffered no further damage than was already inflicted at Calvary for our salvation. Though scarred, it was intact. And intact, it left the grave on that first Easter morning.

            Our Buddhist friends may be quite excited about the Buddha’s finger. But what could be more thrilling than a resurrected Lord? What fills us more than the emptiness of Jesus’ tomb? Who needs a relic when we have a Redeemer?