Although it is customary amongst Buddhists to keep Buddha images and to pay their respects to the Buddha, Buddhists are not idol worshippers. Idolatry generally means erecting images of unknown gods and goddesses in various shapes and sizes and to pray directly to these images. The prayers are a request to the gods for guidance and protection. The gods and goddesses are asked to bestow health, wealth, property and to provide for various needs; they are asked to forgive transgressions.
The 'worshipping' at the Buddha image is quite a different matter. Buddhists revere the image of the Buddha as a gesture to the greatest, wisest, most benevolent, compassionate and holy man who has ever lived in this world. It is a historical fact that this great man actually lived in this world and has done a great service to mankind. The worship of the Buddha really means paying homage, veneration and devotion to Him and what He represents, and not to the stone or metal figure.
The image is a visual aid that helps one to recall the Buddha in the mind and to remember His great qualities which inspired millions of people from generation to generation throughout the civilized world. Buddhists use the statue as a symbol and as an object of concentration to gain a peace of mind. When Buddhists look upon the image of the Buddha, they put aside thoughts of strife and think only of peace, serenity, calmness and tranquillity. The statue enables the mind to recall this great man and inspires devotees to follow His example and instructions. In their mind, the devout Buddhists feel the living presence of the Master. This feeling makes their act of worship become vivid and significant. The serenity of the Buddha image influences and inspires them to observe the right path of conduct and thought.
An understanding Buddhist never asks favours from the image nor does he request forgiveness for evil deeds committed. An understanding Buddhist tries to control his mind, to follow the Buddha's advice, to get rid of worldly miseries and to find his salvation.
Those who criticize Buddhists for practising idol worship are really misinterpreting what Buddhists do. If people can keep the photographs of their parents and grandparents to cherish in their memory, if people can keep the photographs of kings, queens, prime ministers, great heroes, philosophers, and poets, there is certainly no reason why Buddhists cannot keep their beloved Master's picture or image to remember and respect Him.
What harm is there if people recite some verses praising the great qualities of their Master? If people can lay wreaths on the graves of beloved ones to express their gratitude, what harm is there is Buddhists too offer some flowers, joss-sticks, incense, etc., to their beloved Teacher who devoted His life to help suffering humanity? People make statues of certain conquering heroes who were in fact murderers and who were responsible for the death of millions of innocent people. For the sake of power, these conquerors committed murder with hatred, cruelty and greed. They invaded poor countries and created untold suffering by taking away lands and properties of others, and causing much destruction. Many of these conquerors are regarded as national heroes; memorial services are conducted for them and flowers are offered on their graves and tombs. What is wrong then, if Buddhists pay their respects to their world honored Teacher who sacrificed His worldly pleasures for the sake of Enlightenment to show others the Path of Salvation?
Images are the language of the subconscious. Therefore, the image of the Enlightened One is often created within one's mind as the embodiment of perfection, the image will deeply penetrate into the subconscious mind and (if it is sufficiently strong enough)can act as an automatic brake against impulses. The recollection of the Buddha produces joy, invigorate the mind and elevates man from states of restlessness, tension and frustration. Thus the worship of the Buddha is not a prayer in its usual sense but a meditation. Therefore, it is not idol worship, but 'ideal' worship. Thus Buddhists can find fresh strength to build a shrine of their lives. They cleanse their hearts until they feel worthy to bear the image in their innermost shrine. Buddhists pay respects to the great person who is represented by the image. They try to gain inspiration from His Noble personality and emulate Him. Buddhists do not see the Buddha image as a dead idol of wood or metal or clay. The image represents something vibrant to those who understand and are purified in thought, word and deed.
The Buddha images are nothing more than symbolic representations of His great qualities. It is not unnatural that the deep respect for the Buddha should be expressed in some of the finest and most beautiful forms of art and sculpture the world has ever known. It is difficult to understand why some people look down on those who pay respect to images which represent holy religious teachers.
The calm and serene image of the Buddha has been a common concept of ideal beauty. The Buddha's image is the most precious, common asset of Asian cultures. Without the image of the Buddha, where can we find a serene, radiant and spiritually emancipated personality?
But the image of the Buddha is appreciated not only by Asian or Buddhists. Anatole France in his autobiography writes, 'On the first of May, 1890, chance led me to visit the Museum in Paris. There standing in the silence and simplicity of the gods of Asia, my eyes fell on the statue of the Buddha who beckoned to suffering humanity to develop understanding and compassion. If ever a god walked on this earth, I felt here was He. I felt like kneeling down to Him and praying to Him as to a God.
Once a general left an image of the Buddha as a legacy to Winston Churchill. The general said, 'if ever your mind gets perturbed and perplexed, I want you to see this image and be comforted.' What is it that makes the message of the Buddha so attractive to people who have cultivated their intellect? Perhaps the answer can be seen in the serenity of the image of the Buddha.
Not only in color and line did men express their faith in the Buddha and the graciousness of His Teaching. Human hands wrought in metal and stone to produce the Buddha image that is one of the greatest creations of the human genius. Witness the famous image in the Abhayagiri Vihara in Sri Lanka, or the Buddha image of Sarnath or the celebrated images of Borobudur. The eyes are full of compassion and the hands express fearlessness, or goodwill and blessings, or they unravel some thread of thought or call the earth to witness His great search for Truth. Wherever the Dhamma went, the image of the great Teacher went with it, not only as an object of worship but also as an object of meditation and reverence. 'I known nothing,'says Keyserling,' more grand in this world than the figure of the Buddha. It is an absolutely perfect embodiment of spirituality in the visible domain.'
A life so beautiful, a heart so pure and kind, a mind so deep and enlightened, a personality so inspiring and selfless -- such a perfect life, such a compassionate heart, such a calm mind, such a serene personality is really worthy of respect, worthy of honour and worthy of offering. The Buddha is the highest perfection of mankind.
The Buddha image is the symbol, not of a person, but of Buddhahood -- that to which all men can attain though few do. For Buddhahood is not for one but for many: 'The Buddhas of the past ages, the Buddhas that are yet to come, the Buddha of the present age; humbly I each day adore.'
However, it is not compulsory for every Buddhist to have a Buddha image to practise Buddhism. Those who can control their mind and the senses, can certainly do so without an image as an object. If Buddhists truly wish to behold the Buddha in all the majestic splendor and beauty of His ideal presence, they must translate His Teachings into practice in their daily lives. It is in the practice of His Teachings that they can come closer to Him and feel the wonderful radiance of His undying wisdom and compassion. Simply respecting the images without following His Sublime Teachings is not the way to find salvation.
We must also endeavor to understand the spirit of the Buddha. His Teaching is the only way to save this troubled world. In spite of the tremendous advantages of science and technology, people in the world today are filled with fear, anxiety and despair. The answer to our troubled world is found in the Teaching of the Buddha.
By Late Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera