Why do Buddhists bow to Idols?

It’s like a young basketball player having a picture of Michael Jordan in his room. It gives him inspiration to be like Mike – to be like “The Best” – to learn his techniques, strategies and mindset.  To watch him, listen to his words and learn from the best. Does that make the young player superstitious whilst worshipping his idol? Or does it motivate him to train more?

Similarly, since there were no cameras around at the Buddha’s time, images were built in his honor. There are a few functions of Buddha statues:

  1. To Inspire Reverence – once the mind is reverential, it gets inspired to do what’s wholesome and refrain from the unwholesome. It’s like when people walk into temples and become more respectful compared to how they do whatever they like outside of temples. It inspires the mind to rise up to something higher, to something more noble. This is similar to a basketball player refraining from junk food, eating healthy and exercising because the junk would slow them down. This is like sila – morality and virtue development.
  2. As the physical embodiment of abstract concepts. Concepts like the Deathless, non-duality, wisdom, and compassion may not be easy to grasp for some people. But if it’s personified in a person, you can remember, “Oh, this person is very kind, very compassionate”, “Oh this person has very astute wisdom” etc… This is wisdom development.  This is like how 1 glance at the statue of Rocky Balboa would get you going to train hard – because Rocky is the personification of someone not being born with everything, but training hard to defy the odds and achieve something that he didn’t initially believe was achievable.
  3. As a meditation object. If the Buddha or Bodhisattva statue is an object of your reverence, you can unify your mind and body and breath or chanting as one and bow to them – and use this as a moving meditation. Meditation doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go sit still with your legs crossed. You can meditate in any postures – whether walking, standing, sitting or lying down. And in moving meditation, you seek the stillness within the movement. In fact, great Zen/Chan monks like Master Hsu Yun have made pilgrimages to holy sites bowing to Bodhisattvas every 3 steps. So even Zen Masters practice the devotional aspect as a method of approaching samadhi. This is samadhi development.

Notice that you have all 3 aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path right within reliance upon a Buddha statue as a cultivation method – morality, stillness and wisdom.

So Buddha statues are like a skill-in-means. You have to figure a way how to use them to further your own progress. It’s like being given a key – you have to figure out a way of how to use it to unlock the door and walk out. If you throw away the key, thinking that it’s useless – then you are none the wiser for having had the key within your grasp.

Going back to our basketball analogy – who do you think will progress more? A young kid who worships his idols and constantly wants to be like them and try out their moves? Or a kid who has no inspiration, no example from one of their heroes to follow?

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