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Many people raise this question, and I think it’s natural for people in our culture. Qualms can easily arise when you enter a Buddhist temple for the first time and see an altar filled with statues and paintings. Your question may help others feel more comfortable with Buddhists and Buddhist settings, so thanks for asking.
It’s easy to make assumptions
Before I respond directly, let me share an anecdote that my teacher, Ven. Thubten Chodron, tells about attending an inter-religious conference in Dharamsala, India with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibetan scholars and a group of rabbis and Jewish leaders.
The discussions went on for several days. Along with the formal proceedings, there were informal gatherings that included a Sabbath dinner, to which the Jews invited some of the older Buddhist scholars. There was much joy and festivity as the Jews welcomed in the Sabbath. As is their custom, the Jewish men faced Jerusalem—which, from India, was westward toward the setting sun. They danced and sang, while the Buddhists sat there.
Later, Ven. Chodron heard the Buddhists’ conclusion from this experience. Since the Jews were facing the sun when they danced, the Buddhist scholars assumed they were worshiping the sun!
Similarly, when we observe religious or cultural customs that are not familiar to us, we tend to draw conclusions based on our own previous experiences and social conditioning. So, a person unfamiliar with Buddhism could easily inspect a Buddhist temple filled with statues and wonder, “Are these people worshiping idols?”
In a word, they are not.
What to expect in a Buddhist temple
Buddhists believe that every living being has the potential to become just like the Buddha himself, a fully awakened being of infinite love, compassion, wisdom and skill. The statues and paintings represent various aspects of that fully awakened mind. They remind Buddhists of the virtuous qualities we aspire to develop and of our potential to do so.
For example, Avalokiteshvara is the Buddha of Compassion beloved throughout Asia. He appears in different forms. In the Chinese tradition he is often female and known as Kuan Yin, “She who hears the cries of the world.”
In the Tibetan tradition, his name is Chenrezig. He often appears with a thousand arms, each with an eye in the palm of its hand, to represent his capacity to reach out to all living beings. Since Mahayana Buddhists aspire to benefit every single living being, we take inspiration from Chenrezig’s wide open arms and try to expand our own compassion in the same way.
In every Buddhist temple you will see a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, the founding Teacher of Buddhism, on the altar. The Buddha is often depicted seated in meditation, his eyes open in a serene gaze. His face and posture evoke a still and gentle peace, reflecting the peace of mind we can attain by following the path that he took to become fully awakened.
Bowing to kindness
In all Buddhist traditions, the practitioners regularly make three bows or prostrations to the Three Jewels of Buddha (the Teacher), Dharma (the Teachings) and the Sangha (the assembly of beings who have realized those Teachings.) Witnessing this ritual is another thing that could make you wonder if Buddhists are worshiping statues.
When we bow, we are not bowing to the stone or metal figure in front of us, but to the magnificent qualities that statue represents. We bow to compassion and wisdom out of tremendous respect for them and with a sense of humility, opening ourselves to receive the teachings that will help us to develop these qualities in ourselves. As we progress in our study and meditation, we aspire to embody the teachings, becoming the realized sangha on the way to becoming fully awakened Buddhas.
In simple terms, you could think that we are bowing to kindness: to the kindness of realized beings and to our own capacity for kindness as well. When you visit a Buddhist center or temple, you may bow or not as you choose. It’s nice, though, to think of opening to great kindness.
In these days when the public discourse seems to be so inflamed, it can be reassuring to gaze on the peaceful face of any holy image—Buddhist or others—and reflect on the qualities of love, compassion and wisdom. These qualities exist in our own minds right now and we can develop them fully. What a contribution it is to bring such kindness and compassion into our world!
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