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Why Do Buddhists Pray To Idols?


148129180_45294027a9I was rared in the Monotheistic traditions and my question is basic. It concerns iconography and the reason why Buddhist pray to idols.

Arguably, Buddha himself was suspicious of being venerated. And it would be nice to know how contemporary Buddhist rationalise the practice.

It is intriguing to see the Tibetans do their prostrations and in manner not unlike Orthodox Christians (whose influence on Islamic prayer worship has been remarked).


I’m going to quote Pema Ch√∂dr√∂n for the rest of this post:

Pema Chodron

Pema Chodron

‘Not at all! A piece of clay or bronze or jade is not the object of our respect and worship. When we bow before Buddha images, we are recalling the qualities of the enlightened beings. It is their impartial love and compassion, generosity, morality, patience, joyous effort, concentration and wisdom that we are showing respect to. The statue or painting serves to remind us of the qualities of the Buddha, and it is the qualities, not the clay, that we are bowing to. We need not have a statue in front of us in order to bow to or respect the Buddhas and their qualities.

For example, if we go to a place far away from our family, we think about them and feel much love. But we also like to have a photo of them with us to remember them better. When we look at the photo and feel love for our family, we are not loving the paper and ink of the photo! The photo merely strengthens our memory. It is similar with a statue or painting of the Buddha.

By showing respect to the Buddhas and their qualities, we are inspired to develop these extraordinary qualities on our own mind streams. We become like the people we respect. When we take the love-kindness and wisdom of the Buddhas as our example, we strive to become like them’.

So what do you think? Does this seem like a reasonable explanation to you, or do you think this is still justification for worshipping idols?

38 comments to Why Do Buddhists Pray To Idols?

  • steven oldner

    When christians kneel to the altar are they praying to a wooden or stone statue or are they praying to Christ? When they are praying a rosary are they praying to the beads? Whe they pray to Saint XX, who are they praying to? And are muslins praying to their country when they align the prayer rugs?

    What should be asked is what is buddhist prayer and how does it differ from christian/muslim prayer.

  • Angela

    Excellent answer.

  • Jami

    The response was clever. Christians and Sufi Muslims also justify icons/imagery on the same basis.

    But the counter point is that inherent in praying to idols is the danger of mistaking the very ‘idols’ for the those things which they respresent. I think this is the issue in the Old Testament and Qu’ran (and among those opposed to iconography in the Orthodox tradition).

    It goes further. It makes assumptions: that certain pieces of wood, certain liturgical words etc, can bestow cures of almost ‘magical quality’. The issues that motivatedthe early Puritans are perhaps relevant here.

    It can be stated that the iconography, imagery leads to all kinds of superstious views. This may lead to the construction of a spiritual tradition (Tibet is one example)which keeps certain and arguably unwholsome practices in place and furthers, rather than lessens, ‘exploitation’ and therefore increases ‘suffering’.

    Lastly, the answer is from a trained ‘Nun’. It is not entirely certain that a lay Buddhist in a rural habitat would view things in that way.

  • steve

    I think that the bowing or not bowing to symbols is best left to the individual.If you feel as though that this is idol worshipping than i think it best not to do it but maybe a slight bow of the head as to not offend others or you do not have to do this but just enter and sit on a cushion.If you feel as though that prostrating before a image is not idol worshipping than by all means do it.The issue should not be legalism or not but liberation and using any means for this goal is what we should be be focused on not worrying about the acts themselves.We should use our common sense.Even the Buddha said that the dharma is a raft to get to the other side of the river and once we get there we should disregard the raft.

  • Diane

    I agree with the answer posted. Great quote. We don’t worship in a superstitious way, we bow to Buddha figure as respect and to remind ourselves of the enlightened being that led way for us to bring out the goods in ourselves.

    Another reason that we bow to the ground w/ our head touching the ground is so we can let go of our ego. Buddha does not ever ASK us to pay him respect to the point our head touches the ground, but it is an act that teaches/trains us to let go of our ego and not always place us on top or in front of others.

  • mr lee

    Most Buddhists do not pray to idols… at least none that I know of and I’ve been practicing buddhism for over 18 years… we bow to the representation of the eternal (God) for some people … we bow in respect … we do not pray to idols any more than you pray to the cross behind the alter in your church… you pray to God/Jesus/Holy Ghost we bow in respect to what the symbol represents too…just like Christians.

  • I think we may be getting tripped up in semantics here. I don’t think anyone prays to idols, and we all, including the original poster, know that. Who would pray to a piece of plastic or wood?

    I think the original poster was more concerned with the reverence shown to the images of Buddha. In my answer to yesterday’s question, I mentioned how some visitors to the temple would go down in prostration before pictures or statues while others did not. Whether you are showing respect and reverence to the real Buddha or “worshiping a statue,” it is hard to tell from appearances. As Jami mentions above, one thing often leads to another, and too much adherence to ritual can become just another form of grasping.

    If you couldn’t guess, I am not a big fan of prostrations myself. I am highly in favor of showing respect to the Buddha and have great respect in my own mind and heart, but kneeling in front of a statue seems wrong to me. I absolutely understand all the arguments given above, but it’s just not something I am personally comfortable with. Therefore I don’t do it. Simple solution!

  • This is a very common question among people who are starting to study Buddhism. You failed to include the veneration of Amithaba and other Buddhas that is real worship, not of the qualities of the Buddha, but of the Buddhas themselves.

    Pablo Antuna
    Buddhism Beliefs

  • I can walk into any number of Christian (and other) churches, profess myself to be a Christian — or, in the case of infant baptism, become one even without my consent — and go on from there, learning what I will or won’t, and as long as I show up occasionally and don’t do anything too egregious, I’m still a member of the church. That is not true of all, but of many.

    When people walk into a zendo, dharma center or temple, it does not make them Buddhists. One hangs around, studies, takes the precepts, finds a teacher, and learns what Buddhism is about pretty much from the ground up. There is rarely any ambiguity involved, and practicing Buddhists learn quickly what the rituals mean and why they are carried out, along with what they don’t mean. Even those who attempt to learn from books find out quickly that Buddhists do not worship images, along with the reasons for prostrations and other rituals, for or the lack thereof.

    Those who have made sufficient effort to learn, know what’s happenin’. Those who have not, question. But, until they have made at least as much effort as those who practice, it is hardly appropriate to argue semantics when given accurate answers.

    Semantics are what delusion is all about.

  • […] Do Buddhists Pray To Idols? Posted on Thursday, January 29, 2009 by Bill Why Do Buddhists Pray To Idols? ¬´ Daily Buddhism I was rared in the Monotheistic traditions and my question is basic. It concerns iconography and […]

  • Firstly, a note that I am very much a beginner student of Buddhism and not a devout practitioner, nor do I claim to be a Buddhist.

    When I was first learning about the Zen practice of bowing during service, I was taught by a member of my sangha that the bow represents gratitude. And since everyone in the sangha bows, in a variety of manners, in thanks and communication to the teachers and each other in the tradition of Zen and the Japanese, that made sense to me.

    I do not consider bowing to be worship so much as acknowledgement. And since we are practicing the act of being present, it seems appropriate to acknowledge.

    The fact that there is imagery available to bow toward is, for me, a focus. It gives something for everyone to bow toward and not so much to bow to.

    That said, I think that questioning and discussion, such as what is occuring in the comments for this post, is exactly the quality of Buddhism that attracts me to it in the first place.

  • I once heard a quote from Swami Sivananda. I don’t remember it exactly, but the gist was: ‚ÄúI pity the fool who attaches to non-representational ideas of the infinite. Images, whether abstract or personified, are the door through which you will gain understanding.‚Äù It really helped my understanding of devotional worship.

  • This discussion is really interesting and thought provoking. Thank you.

    It seems to me that the devotional prayer comes from a longing for something that we lack within. Prayer may serve this human predicament of exisiting in a world in which we know that we lack something coupled with a hope/search and wish that we might be fulfilled.

    One could look at the practice of paying homage to the Buddha or Tathagatha as a Bhakti (devotional) practice. The practice is non-conceptual, and therefore one that is difficult to understand with our minds and yet at the same time something that satisfies our physical and emotional aspects. This is something that we can do with our body, speech and mind without understanding it and yet gaining much merit.

    Personally, I have no trouble with the act of bowing or making prostrations to a Buddha statue while saying Namo Tassa bhagavato arahato samyak sambuddhasa and keeping the fully accomplished Buddha in mind being seen as idol worship. I think I’m more interested in understanding where the person is coming from and why they feel uneasy about praying to a statue of the Buddha.

  • Anonymous

    thank you so much.
    i have recently converted to buddhism.

  • ahhhhhhh buddhist pray to statues and fake gods?
    and why does buddhist actually pray to fake gods?
    do they actually belive a statue is going to give them air to breath and actually make a human being?
    im not tryanna be rude but im wondering because im a christian and an seventh day adventist…so its realy bothering me because i dont understand why and who told them this stuff?
    and another question…do they follow after folktale and fairy tale and belive its real?

  • Monalisa, the answer to your question is right at the top of this page. I do, however, smell troll.

  • seggster

    I am still a little confused about praying versus meditating. Praying is usually a term related to a god or in some cases saints asking for intercession for a problem. Are Buddists praying or meditating on their conditions and areas they are weak in and they want to improve themselves in.
    I am not playing semantics, I truely seek clarity on the issus.
    I thank you all inadvance for any comments you make make.

  • Seggster:

    It depends on the sect or denomination of Buddhism. Some groups DO have gods and deities, and what they do can best be translated as “praying.” Others tend to lean toward there not being any kind of supernatural beings, and so meditation might be the better term. It just depends on the group as to which term is more accurate.

  • Katie

    There’s a difference between bowing to Buddha and kneeling at the altar in church. The Cross is a symbol of what Christ has done on the cross (dying). Christians know that the factory making of a cross holds no power but the representation and the meaning behind it holds great power. Whether the cross was hand made or not really doesn’t matter. It’s simply a symbol that shows Christians what Christ has done. They are not kneeling to the object because wood is simply wood no matter what.
    Saying this from a Christian point of view, i am not intending to sound like i know exactly what it means for a Buddhist because I don’t but this is for those of you wondering what it means from a Christian point of view.
    Also, prayer does not need to be done just in church. Prayer is able to be done anywhere and any time. The Bible even says to “Pray without ceasing.”—1 Thessalonians 5:17. This doesn’t mean that one has to be on their knees constantly with their hands folded. No this means that one is to be constantly aware that no matter where they go they are in the presence of God. God does not just exist inside the walls of the Church but he is very much indeed in the world and is everywhere. He knows the constant thoughts of your heart which is why just thinking about him and talking to him in your mind is to be constantly praying.

  • anonymous

    Hi, may i ask as well, do buddhist worship ancestors or elders who have passed on? Should we be “praying” to them? It is my family’s practice to pray to ancestors and death anniversaries and also festivals like “hungry ghost festivals”. Do buddhists consider praying to “altars” as a rightful thing to do? Also about burning of incense paper. Thanks

  • crusade

    If you pray to anyone other than the Almighty God, then you are commiting idolatry. Idolatry is absolutely not tolerated by God and it’s clearly written in the Bible. Plus, Buddhist don’t believe there’s only ONE God. They are either agnostic or polytheistic. Either way are going against the Bible. That’s why the Buddhists are going to hell!

  • Anonymous

    Wow Crusade. Your ignorance certainly killed this discussion. You might as well have yelled “Heil Hitler” and commit mass genocide of all the Buddhist. I hope you learn how to become more tolerant and respectful of other people. Just a quick reminder, God (whether it’s my God or yours) wants us to be kind to our neighbors.

  • perri

    I’ve been studying Buddhism and meditating. A Christian friend (7th-Day Adventist), told me to quote Buddha on facebook is evil because he has a hole in his back that they put evil spirits into. Has anyone else ever heard this ridiculous belief? I just don’t know how to respond to her because I’m new to all of this, and I don’t want to offend her. I didn’t answer her at all. Maybe that’s best anyway.

  • Www only know what we’ve been taught growing up as kids. You can’t tell someone where they’re going if you never been yourself. Just find something to keep you humble in whatever belief.

  • charles

    Wow Crusade, your comment was very harsh! we Buddhist don’t judge other peoples religion so please dont judge us. Oh also, you’re comment just proves you’re ignorance of what Buddhism really is!

  • Jiddir

    In Zen Buddhism we believe that all beings have Buddha nature. Bowing to a Buddha, lotus, or any other type of statue is just a way to bow to oneself and all other beings. I have never experienced as a way to respect or praise “The Buddha” but as a way to respect and revere my complete connection to all beings.

  • Ire Maiden

    Those who accuse others of idol worship, for all you know you maybe the longest idol worshipper of all time. God is the longest serving idol and history has all the proof on this.

  • Ire Maiden

    I do not worship GOD becos he is an IDOL to me.

  • Ire Maiden

    Some people find rebirth ridiculous yet they believe the very reason they are born is because they are the only successful sperm who made it to the egg against the millions competing with them. If so, who are those millions that they are competing against?

  • Ire Maiden

    Buddhist are not afraid of hell. We have the means to get ourselves out of it. If ever there is a real need, hell is the place bodhisattvas are most needed. All sentient beings are our past lives parents. We will.never quit on any sentient beings. This is the difference between one who truly wants to save and one who only save those who are members only.

  • Ire Maiden

    I cannot never accept thr fact that an almighty god would commit a simple sin such as JEALOUSY. It really make him look small.

  • Ire Maiden

    Buddhism is the only or few religion that look at the issue of suffering and the end of suffering more thorough and detailed than anybody else. The Buddha gave his life and time to it. Suffering is the cause he pursued like a doctorate. The end of suffering…Nirvana is what he graduated from.

  • Omegatron

    Creationism makes me puke. For god so loved the world, he also perverse his creation in ways unimaginable as they suffer from illness even a life as innocent as a baby.

  • Omegatron

    If wood is just wood. Clay is just clay. Lets tear down all the temple and churches for the real kingdom lies inside of us not outside.

  • Simon B

    It’s a perfectly rational answer, which suggests that the image is used as a focus for the mind to guide it to, and is not the target of, the respect and veneration accorded to the Buddahs.

  • Matt

    I’m still confused about how even ritual respect for a Buddha fits with Buddhism. Doesn’t this form of respect institutionalize an incorrect concept of self and being. Where the end goal is to the transcend a narrow view of self and being. I’m not trying to be contrary, but I’m genuinely confused.

    I’m also a little confused about the nature of some of the Buddha images. In Japan nearly every respectable temple has many images that were carefully crafted by some craftsman and then carefully preserved through hundreds of years. The people’s disposition to these artifacts does not speak to the lessons of impermanence and casting away of materialism that seem to be important to Buddhist teaching.

    A friend of my wife’s family is a monk and I tried to ask him about these things through her, but the translation of Buddhist wisdom is pretty ineffective through languages especially when you have an interpreter. The jist of what I got through that exchange is that none of it matters to Buddhism but that they are tools to spread teachings to a largely non-Buddhist world.

    Any thoughts?

  • LifeJourney

    Some of the comments are like ethnocentric or racist, Speaking from a fixed position.
    Please be aware that Buddhism originated 2500 years ago and it is not from the West.
    So do not commend from your own limited believe system. Buddhism does not preach and do not condemn others. You are welcome to compare side by side and see the differences.
    Even Einstein understood and have endorsed Buddhism.