I love Buddha statues. Wherever I live they tend to proliferate, gracing my home and garden.
I have been asked, “Why do you have those idols?” in a not especially friendly tone of voice.
But this is a misunderstanding.
The Buddha is not a god, and statues of the Buddha are not idols.
Idols are Hindu. In a Hindu mandir can be seen shrines to the differing aspects of the divine – Ganesh, Hanuman, and so on. The colourful statues in the shrines only become idols when they have been consecrated, at which point they are regarded as becoming holy, a concentration of the divine in the earthly realm. This is similar to holy water or the Eucharistic host in the Catholic Church; it is imbued with the holy upon consecration. Same idea.
But a Buddha is an awakened self. When Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism and also called the Buddha, was alive, people came to him mystified and intrigued because he was so special. They asked him, what are you? Are you a king? Are you a god? And he said to them: I am awake.
So the idea of a Buddha is similar to the concept of Christ-consciousness. It is an enlightened being. As St Irenaeus put it, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive”. That’s a good description of a Buddha.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the beautiful Zen teacher in France, not long ago wrote a very helpful article explaining that though people, as is perhaps only human, do often externalize and pray to the Buddha, in fact the Buddha is not a god but what he calls a ‘root teacher’. That would be like the still small voice Elijah experienced, or the spark of the divine George Fox spoke of, or the Spirit welling up to eternal life like a fountain at the core of one’s being, that Jesus described.
The statues of Buddha – at least, this is my understanding – are not there to worship. They are not the representation of a divine entity to which I might bow down.
The statues of Buddha around my house and garden say to me ~ Remember who you are … You are called to be holy … your being is fulfilled in peace … stay focused … wake up … keep watch … pray without ceasing … be what you profess to believe …
That’s what they’re there for ~ my ‘note to self’.
I have three quite large buddhas ~ one in the front garden, where we grow ferns and moss and a greengage tree; one in the downstairs passage through the house, one in the corresponding corridor upstairs (between the doors of my room and Fiona’s).
A very famous teaching of the Buddha was what is known as the Metta Sutta (the Buddha’s words on loving-kindness). From it comes the traditional Buddhist affirmation (or blessing, or prayer): “May all beings be at ease”
This is often developed into a longer, sometimes responsorial blessing ~ May all beings be peaceful; may all beings be happy; may all beings be well; may all beings be free … etc..
So it greatly pleases me, and seems entirely right and natural, that our house buddhas have developed an unexpected ministry, without having to do anything, just by being there (which is very Zen of itself; and quite Taoist withal). They provide shelter for frightened mice pursued by cats.
Our cats often bring in mice alive, and let them go indoors to play with ~ the outcome being terror and eventual death for the mouse unless we come upon the scene and intervene.
But sitting as the Buddhas do, between two door frames and in front of the skirting boards, the mice are able to take refuge with the Buddha, and there they are safe. The result of this is that from time to time we come upon one of our cats possessing himself in patience, sitting in solemn meditation before the Buddha.
A while ago, it had been my intention to part with one of the large Buddhas, just because problems arise where things accumulate, recollection of the divine is an interior thing, not exterior, and I try to keep to a discipline of simplicity not acquisition. But the day I had begun to put forth the intention of parting with the statue, our Alice told me of a little grey mouse that only the night before had saved its life by taking refuge with the Buddha ~ she had rescued it and carried it away to safe release (may all beings be happy … may all beings be at ease … may all beings be free …)
So it would seem that though they are not idols, only reminders of peacefulness and prayer, even so they are manifesting the kindness of holy hospitality, just by sitting there. Reminders of root teaching. In their stillness and silence the peace of refuge is made real.
And may it be so with me.