When visiting Buddhist temples, one can often find Buddha statues everywhere. In some countries such as Thailand, most people worship these statues like the real Buddha by prostrating. Are Buddha statues really worthy of such reverence? Let’s examine the history and the suttas regarding Buddha statues.
Statues are Not New
Statues of important people have been around even before Buddha was born. For example, the Lion Man statue found in Germany in 1939 is about 40,000 year-old. From this evidence, we can tell that the technology to create statues when Buddha was alive definitely existed long before that.
However, there is no historical record of any Buddha statue that was made when Buddha was alive. The oldest known Buddha statue is said to be the Seated Buddha from Gandhara. It was made between 100 and 300 AD, or about 1,800 years ago. Buddha was alive between 500 and 400 BC, or about 2500 years ago.
By this simple analysis, it is clear that Buddha never taught anyone to worship statues. If Buddha’s teaching is about prostrating to statues, there must be more Buddha statues from the time when Buddha was alive.
The Best Worship for Buddha
Although people want to continue worshiping Buddha after his death, Buddha said the best way to worship him is to live by his teaching.
And the Blessed One spoke to the Venerable Ananda, saying: “Ananda, the twin sala trees are in full bloom, though it is not the season of flowering. And the blossoms rain upon the body of the Tathagata and drop and scatter and are strewn upon it in worship of the Tathagata. And celestial coral flowers and heavenly sandalwood powder from the sky rain down upon the body of the Tathagata, and drop and scatter and are strewn upon it in worship of the Tathagata. And the sound of heavenly voices and heavenly instruments makes music in the air out of reverence for the Tathagata.
“Yet it is not thus, Ananda, that the Tathagata is respected, venerated, esteemed, worshiped, and honored in the highest degree. But, Ananda, whatever bhikkhu or bhikkhuni, layman or laywoman, abides by the Dhamma, lives uprightly in the Dhamma, walks in the way of the Dhamma, it is by such a one that the Tathagata is respected, venerated, esteemed, worshiped, and honored in the highest degree. Therefore, Ananda, thus should you train yourselves: ‘We shall abide by the Dhamma, live uprightly in the Dhamma, walk in the way of the Dhamma.'”
No amount of flower, prostration, incense, or statue pays respect to Buddha more than conducting oneself with Dhamma. If Buddha’s teaching is about worshiping Buddha, his teaching would be no different from other theistic religions. Buddha’s teaching is about exiting the cycle of rebirths that always ends with suffering.
How Idolatry hinders Buddha’s Teaching
In the past, it was appropriate to prostrate to the living Buddha to show respect. It was a good thing to do. But it was never the point of his teaching that people should worship him. The modern practice of statue worship is even more far off from the point. First, let’s go back a bit to understand Dhamma.
The core concept of Dhamma is the three universal truths. Impermanence, Suffering and Non-self. Anything in the universe is impermanent and causing suffering. For example, human bodies are impermanent because they always change constantly. From birth to old age, bodies change all the time. We generally want to stay young and healthy permanently, But that’s just not possible. And that’s suffering. We naturally do not want to get old, get sick and die. But bodies don’t belong to us so they get old and die anyway. The way to exit the cycle of rebirth is detachment from our bodies along with many more other practices..
Worn out is this body,
a nest of diseases, dissolving.
This putrid conglomeration
is bound to break up,
for life is hemmed in with death.
Even with physical objects like statues, they too are impermanent like human bodies. Statues can break due to accidents. Statues can corrode from weather. If statues are made from something valuable, someone could steal it away. So statues can cause suffering because they are impermanent. For example, the famous “Emerald Buddha” statue of Thailand has changed hands in many wars throughout history. The statue now sits in the temple of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Now imagine if someone steals the statue, a lot of people who worship statues would suffer because they have a strong attachment to it. Instead of practicing detachment, they have another thing to suffer from.
Here is an excerpt from Ādittapariyāya Sutta about being attached to objects that are pleasing to the eyes (including statues).
You’d be better off mutilating your eye faculty with a red-hot iron nail, burning, blazing and glowing, than getting caught up in the features by way of the details in sights known by the eye. For if you die at a time when your consciousness is still tied to gratification in the features or details, it’s possible you’ll go to one of two destinations: hell or the animal realm. I speak having seen this drawback.
A noble disciple reflects on this: ‘Forget mutilating the eye faculty with a red-hot iron nail, burning, blazing and glowing! I’d better focus on the fact that the eye, sights, eye consciousness, and eye contact are impermanent. And the painful, pleasant, or neutral feeling that arises conditioned by eye contact is also impermanent.
This excerpt shows that the pain caused by mutilating your eye is better than being attached to images that are seen by the eye. And if you happen to die while being attached to something, your next rebirth will not be pleasant. The right way to handle contact through the eye is to realize that all things that can be seen is impermanent. Do not hold on to impermanent things that cause suffering.
Materialism in Modern Spirituality
To add fuel to the fire, most Buddha statues today are made to look valuable. For example, most Buddha statues in Thailand appear to have a gold texture. A discerning person must ask. “When a person prostrates to a golden Buddha statue, is he worshiping the gold or the Buddha?”
In today’s world where everything is about money, it is ironic that when a person seeks a spiritual path, he ends up worshiping money subconsciously. Most Buddhist temples are very extravagant and beautiful in Thailand. They cost a lot of money to build. And in return, visitors would visit and donate money to the temples. Modern Buddhist temples are not the place to learn Dhamma anymore. And it is because people care more for the physical objects like money, temples, and statues more than actual Dhamma.
Not Worship but as a Reminder
People who worship Buddha statues often say they only use statues as a symbol of Buddha. They don’t actually worship statues. The problem with this excuse is how do they know what Buddha actually looked like and why does it matter. The only thing that separate Buddha from normal people is his knowledge of Dhamma and his ability to teach it. Nothing else matters. The only symbol that truly represents Buddha is Dhamma. If there is a person who look exactly like Buddha statues, but he does not know and teach Dhamma, what good is it to worship such person?
To truly understand Dhamma, one must let go of unnecessary practices that do not benefit the learning process. Worshiping statues only causes people to misunderstand Dhamma. And as reminder, the best worship for Buddha is to understand his teaching and practice it.