Do Buddhists Pray and Engage in Idol Worshipping?

May 5, 2019

These are issue that are a bit hard to understand for those who do not have a deeper understanding of Buddha Dhamma.

1. First of all, paying respects to the Buddha (and symbols representing him) cannot be equated with “prayer” in many other religions. Praying is associated with making a request from a higher being (a God, a Brahma, etc), and those requests are for making one’s life better, to solve a mundane problem one has, or asking for a material gain.

  • The prayers are requests to the gods for mundane things and protection. The gods are asked to bestow health, wealth, material things, and to provide for various needs; they are also asked to forgive one’s transgressions.
  • In some cases, offerings are made to the higher being(s) first, and then one prays for whatever one desires, as in Hinduism (nowadays, this is practiced even in some Buddhist temples).
  • Buddhists do not pray. They engage in meditation, contemplating the true nature of this suffering-filled world. There is nothing in this world that is worth craving (and thus praying for).

2. On the other hand, the primary goal of a Buddhist is to stop the rebirth process and attain Nibbāna; see, “A Buddhist or a Bhauddhaya?“.

This itself is hard for many to understand, especially for those who do not believe in the rebirth process. But the Buddha taught that one’s existence does not end at the death of physical body; one will be reborn endlessly in one of 31 realms “in this world”; see, “Buddhism without Rebirth and Nibbāna?“.

  • Rebirth process continues as long as one thinks that existence in this world is fruitful and, some day, will lead to true happiness. The Buddha explained that acting with greed, hate, and ignorance causes this wrong perception.
  • One part of ignorance is not believing in rebirth.
  • Suffering is present at any of those 31 realms and thus suffering exists even in the highest brahma realms; see, “31 Realms Associated with the Earth“.
  • Therefore, the goal of a true Buddhist is to stop the rebirth process all together. This is done by cleansing one’s mind. Learning the world view of the Buddha and following his Noble Eightfold Path, which includes contemplation (meditation) and living moral life (sīla), will lead to cleansing of the mind; see, “Living Dhamma“.

3. Therefore, there is nothing to ask from the Buddha; the Buddha no longer lives in this world. It is actually quite the opposite. Understanding Buddha’s teachings (Buddha Dhamma) leads to the realization that there is nothing in this world that is worth craving or desiring for. In fact, it is those cravings traps one in the rebirth process.

  • The only way to stop future suffering is to learn the true nature of this world and see not only the futility (unfruitfulness), but also the dangers in craving for worldly things.
  • A Buddhist never asks favors from the Buddha nor requests forgiveness for any immoral deeds committed. A true Buddhist tries to abstain from immoral deeds, speech, and thoughts by controlling one’s mind, i.e., by being mindful; see, “Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta“.
  • So, why do Buddhists pay respects to symbols representing the Buddha?

4. A big part of a life of a Buddhist is to “pay back debts” and also pay respects to those with higher wisdom. One of the first acts of the Buddha after his attaining Enlightenment was to look back at previous lives and to recall who helped him (in past lives) in his efforts to attain the Buddhahood; see, “Animisa Lōcana Bōdhi Poojā – A Prelude to Acts of Gratitude“.

  • Then he spent a significant part of his early years after Enlightenment to seek and teach Dhamma to those people, as explained in the above post.
  • True comprehension of Buddha Dhamma leads to the realization that the greatest gift one could have is to receive the true and pure Buddha Dhamma: the way to stop even a trace of suffering from arising.
  • The worship of the Buddha (using symbols that represent him) means paying homage, veneration and devotion to him and what he represents, and not to a stone statue, a picture, etc.

5. There is a second — and equally important — aspect of paying respects to the Buddha. This is more to be experienced. When I was child in Sri Lanka, our family used to go to the temple regularly, especially on Full Moon days when bhikkhu would deliver a discourse (desanā).

  • We would go to the temple ahead the scheduled delivery of the desanā, and would offer flowers to the Buddha, light some oil lamps and incense, and recite several gāthās while make those “offerings”. Then we would sit and listen to an hour-long desanā by a bhikkhu.
  • That really helps calm the mind and get in to a mindset where one is able to forget about the day-to-day stresses and comprehend the desanā.
  • The calm and serene image of the Buddha is conducive to calming one’s mind, and the offerings of pretty flowers symbolize one’s intention of not being attached (and not to crave for) worldly things.

6. Some people say that Buddhists worship statues, in the sense of believing that those statues have some inherent magical power.

  • But such ideas are quite incorrect. Buddhists do not ‘worship’ Buddha statues any more than Christians worship the cross or Muslims the Kaaba.
  • Like the cross and the Kaaba, a Buddha statue, a Bōdhi tree, or a stūpa is a symbol that can be seen as helpful in showing devotion, uplifting and calming the mind, and thus enables one to meditate with a calm mind.

7. Now let us discuss the significance/purpose of making offerings.

  • There are many kinds of offerings: meals to the bhikkhus are the most meritorious among the “giving” (dāna) category.
  • Making offerings to the Buddha is also done traditionally; small portions of the food that is prepared for the Bhikkhus is first offered in the name of the Buddha, before the food is offered to the bhikkhus.
  • Giving to poor or anyone in need and even feeding hungry animals are all meritorious deeds.

8. Making offerings to devas is just another category. The mechanism of how that works is hard to imagine for most people.

  • I remember listening to a desanā by Waharaka Thero, where he mentioned that those food offerings can be used by higher devas to feed their underlings (there are different levels, just like in the human world). He mentioned that when people offer nice-smelling fruits etc, just after the offering, the aroma would be gone (if it is done right). That means the “essence” (ōjā) of the food has been extracted.
  • However, one does not need to offer large quantities. The higher devas can make the offering to “multiply” to feed many.
  • I don’t want to get into that issue right now, since this is not a critical issue, and could bring out more questions than answers. There are many things about other realms (as well as about our own realm) that we do not fully understand.

9. Offering flowers, incense, etc do not belong to that “dāna” category discussed in #7 and #8 above.

  • In Buddhist temples, such “offerings” are made to the Buddha.
  • In reality, these “offerings of the second kind” setup the necessary background for the mind to grasp the Buddha Dhamma, and thus to lead to “bhava uddha” (stopping existences in any of the 31 realms), which is the real meaning of “Buddha”; see, “A Buddhist or a Bhauddhaya?“.
  • For example, those flowers symbolize the anicca nature. They are pretty when they offered, but in a couple of days they become wrinkled and eventually wither away. One is supposed not to admire the beauty of the flowers, but to contemplate on the anicca nature clearly displayed by the decay of those flowers; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta“.
  • The incense offered emit an odor that conducive to meditation. Even though it is a pleasing odor, it is very different from those fragrances that one wears to a party, which has the tendency to encourage “seeking sense pleasures”.
  • In other words, those fragrances worn to a party lead to sensual thoughts, whereas the smell of incenses is conducive to meditation, since it helps calm the mind.

10. Lighting of candles or oil lamps also provide a suitable background for meditation and contemplation. Light symbolizes wisdom.

  • Comprehending Buddha Dhamma leads to the opening of the “Dhamma eye”, and enables one to “see the true nature of the world of 31 realms”, i.e., existence in any of those realms is NOT devoid of suffering.
  • Furthermore, an oil lamp symbolizes the how the rebirth process is maintained by cravings. Just as oil keeps an oil lamp burning, cravings (taṇhā) fuel the rebirth process.

11. Finally, the practice of paying respects to the Buddha using symbols representing him was started at the time of the Buddha. There are at least two accounts in the Tipiṭaka where the Buddha himself recommended this practice.

  • First, in the Mahā­pari­nib­bā­na Sutta, when it was getting close to the Parinibbāna (death) of the Buddha, Ven. Ananda asked him how people can pay respects to the Buddha after his Parinibbāna.
  • The Buddha advised: “..stūpās should be made for the Buddha at the crossroads. People can offer flowers, incense, etc and pay respects, and that will be for their benefit and happiness”.
  • Here is the relevant section: Mahā­pari­nib­bā­na Sutta, DN 16 (Section 29. Ānanda­pucchā­ka­thā), where it is stated: “..Cātumahāpathe tathāgatassa thūpo kātabbo. Tattha ye mālaṃ vā gandhaṃ vā cuṇṇakaṃ vā āropessanti vā abhivādessanti vā cittaṃ vā pasādessanti tesaṃ taṃ bhavissati dīgharattaṃ hitāya sukhāya“.

12. There is another sutta which describes how planting of Bōdhi trees was recommended by the Buddha himself too: When the Buddha was absent from Jetavanarāma, devotees naturally missed him, so Ven. Ananda, Buddha’s attendant, asked the Buddha what in his absence might be used to pay homage to him.

  • The Buddha answered that bodily relics, things reminiscent of him and things that he had used, in particular the great Bōdhi tree under which he had attained Enlightenment.
  • Ven. Ananda then had a seed of the Bōdhi Tree brought to Jetavanārāma and planted so that it would be, as the Buddha himself said, as if the Buddha were constantly present at Jetavanārāma.
  • This account is in the Kāliṅ­ga­bodhi­jātaka; see the English translation: “Kalinga-Bōdhi Jātaka“.

The bottom line is that just like giving (dāna) or living a moral life, paying respects to the Buddha via any of those different ways cannot directly lead to Nibbāna (magga phala). But all of them can help set the background for one to get to the mindset that makes it easier to comprehend the deep Dhamma of the Buddha.

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