Recently, I received an inquiry from a man who collects Buddha statues. He said that although he was not a Buddhist, he found the statues gave him a sense of calm. Someone told him that his collection might be blasphemous since he was not a Buddhist. He wondered if this was true. The simple answer is, No.”
Buddha statues come in many forms. Some represent Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical figure commonly referred to as the Buddha. Others represent various aspects of the Dharma teachings. Then, there is the “Laughing Buddha”, the big-bellied figure that is said to bring you luck when you rub his belly. This figure is not a buddha; he is a representation of an ancient Chinese monk, Ho-Tei, storied to have traveled the countryside giving gifts to children. In our usual American misunderstanding of Asian culture, he became the “Laughing Buddha.” As Buddhists, we find this funny, not blasphemous.
In early 2001, when the Taliban still controlled Afghanistan, they decided to destroy two huge Buddha figures carved into a mountainside. They considered these images an affront to their religious beliefs. The historical and artistic communities throughout the world were distraught. In their minds, these statues were irreplaceable works of art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York offered the Taliban $20 million to spare the statues. During this time, people asked if, as a Buddhist, I too felt outrage. I replied that although it was a shame that these historical statues might be destroyed, I disagreed with the museum’s effort. Buddhism teaches impermanence and non-attachment. To give money to a repressive government just to save some statues contradicted the teachings. If all the Buddha statues in the world ceased to exist, the Dharma teachings would continue.
Buddha statues are not objects of worship. An interesting Buddhist story illustrates this point. Hundreds of years ago, a wandering Zen monk stopped at a temple for shelter. It was the middle of winter with freezing temperatures. Inside the temple, it was not much warmer than outside. The resident monks were shivering. The fire was almost out, and they had nothing more to burn. The wandering monk bowed to the wooden Buddha statue and threw it into the fire. He proclaimed, “Now it is finally good for something.” After all, it was just a statue.
There is a difference between respect and worship. When one worships a statue or image, any attack or insult directed at this object results in anger. The blasphemer must pay for their sin. We fight wars, people die, all because objects are not properly worshipped. Buddha statues are objects of respect and gratitude. Bowing to the statue and offering incense are acts of respect and gratitude. Not for the statue, but rather for what it represents. The Buddha attained his awakening and chose to share his revelation with everyone. The statues remind us of his generosity and we are grateful.
For information about Zen meditation contact me at BASEWI@aol.com.