Symbols of Buddhism

Non-Buddhists often ask whether or not Buddhists worship images. The answer is that the true Buddhists know who and what the Buddha is. We do not worship an image nor pray to it expecting any worldly boons or sensual pleasures while we are living or a pleasurable state of existence such as heaven, after death. The images we pay homage to are only representations of one to whom we pay respect in gratitude because he, through his own efforts and wisdom, discovered the way to real peace and made it known to all beings. The offerings we make are but symbols of our reverence for the Buddha and are a means of concentrating our minds on the significance of the words we are reciting. Just as people love to see a portrait of one dear to them when separated by death or distance, so do we Buddhists love to have before us a representation of our teacher, because this representation enables us to think of his virtues, his love and compassion for all beings and the doctrine he taught.

1. The Image Of Buddha (Butsu in Japanese)

The Buddha statue or other depiction is a symbol in the same sense as the American flag. The American flag is a symbol of a country. It has 13 stripes and 50 stars, which represent the original 13 colonies and the 50 states. The 3 colors, red white, and blue, represent the spirit of courage, purity and loyalty. This flag stands for our country; therefore, we as citizens, respect and honor our flag. The Buddha image is a symbol of an ideal, the enlightened one. It represents perfect compassion and perfect wisdom.

The Buddha image is not an idol as many non-Buddhists think. While it is placed upon the altar, it also exists in our minds and hearts. Buddhists do not worship the image; In fact, the word “worship” as it is known in the West does not exist in Buddhism. The word “Buddha” means Enlightened One. Buddha was a man, a human being, just as you and I are, but he was enlightened; that is to say, he came to understand the truth about life and the world and he lived that truth.

Because the Buddha image is a symbol of our ideal, the images made in India are the ideal for Hindus; images in Thailand are the highest type for the Thais; similarly, images in Japan are the ideal for the Japanese. The Gandhara school of art (Graeco-Buddhist) developed a type of Buddha image that may be acceptable to Caucasians as Buddhism increases in the West. The expression, “beautiful as a Greek god, ” suggests the acceptance of an ideal in this image.

The image is the creation of an artist representing the highest ideal of the perfect one. The Buddha image is not absolutely necessary for a Buddhist temple. Without the Buddha image we could still have temples. However, it is a point of focus. It is a reminder. We obtain inspiration by which we encourage ourselves to attain enlightenment.

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