Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera
Buddhists Idol Worshippers?
Buddhists are not idol worshippers
but ideal worshippers.
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.
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.
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?
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
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