Until last weekend, the Shrine of St. John Neumann — with its bones, teeth and skull fragments — basically had a lock on Philly’s holy-relic market. But that was before the Worldwide Buddha Relic Tour rolled in to Chua Bo De Temple at 13th and Washington, drawing, organizer Lam Nguyen estimates, more than 2,000 visitors.
At an opening ceremony Friday evening, mid-level Vietnamese-American dignitaries (e.g., the education commissioner of Pennsauken, N.J.) gave lengthy speeches in Vietnamese before worshippers clad in gray, temple-issue robes. A corps of Tibetan monks had traveled from Maryland; their representative, a tall, Caucasian man in saffron robes, told the crowd, “I won’t give you any special teachings today, because all that’s available on the Internet, or websites or YouTube or whatever.” In any case, the main attraction was the chance to get a blessing over the relics, crystals obtained from the ashes of cremated Buddhist masters and dispatched on a 65-country tour by the Maitreya Project. Guests stood at a respectful distance from the ostentatious display of relics in jars and boxes, below a golden Buddha shaded by a double parasol.
Barbara Shivelhood of Northeast Philly had waited in line for hours to see the relics while visiting Iowa a few weeks ago, and was back for more. “It was just an incredible experience,” she recalls. “I actually felt a tingling sensation in my head.” Nguyen agrees: “You feel something amazing.” But as the event began, Tom Thoren of South Philly (who says he is “not Buddhist, but Buddhist-leaning”) was rather Buddha-like in his outlook. “It’s just: Whatever happens, happens.”
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