Buddhists get criticized as idol worshippers because we bow to statues of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. People mistakenly think that we are superstitiously worshipping idols made of clay and gold inside the statue.
So it’s important to understand the “why” behind this practice – because there are very good reasons why.
Master Hsu Yun answers that the Buddha spoke his teachings to reveal the Truth to people but this can be pretty abstract and difficult for people to conceptualize. So a tangible symbol is used as skilful means to arouse feelings of awe and reverence, feelings of admiration and respect.
If we can’t arouse these sorts of feelings of reverence in someone – they will more easily commit unwholesome acts – that harm others and themselves. So physical symbols are used to represent virtues that people can aspire towards – and the effect that this can have on people can be immense.
Having said that, the symbolism is just a skill-in-means because ultimately, forms are just part of the phenomenal world – forms are not ultimate and so, are not the real Buddha. To find the real Buddha, we need to practice and try to understand the teachings.
The other reason why Buddhists bow to the Buddha is to help get rid of our arrogance. Arrogant people will simply not be able to bow and lower their head to someone that they think is inferior to them. The problem with arrogance is that we think that we’re so smart that we hold on to that view that we’re better than others. But if keep clinging to that view, then we can easily obstruct ourselves from learning, growing and progressing. The practice of bowing helps us relinquish our arrogance, become more humble and so, progress faster and further. So this is the practice of giving up your little self, surrendering the petty self to something greater.
And the final reason why we bow to the Buddha is that bowing in itself is a form of meditation. It is a form of calming the mind and body down to a state of peace. Here, we are harmonising the body with the mind – making them one. Seeking stillness of the mind within movement of the body.