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While I find some buddhist ideas intriguing - mainly using meditation to find insights in oneself - I'm also quite irritated, why so many traditions are so full of dogma, i.e. things you just have to believe or do.

It's exactly this way of thinking which always bugged me with religions. Buddhism (at least in it's "westernized" form) seemed to be different: Don't believe in anything except the insights you got from your own meditation practice. At least I thought, that this was one of the core teachings of Buddha.

So why is it, that most established traditions treat Buddha almost like a god, which you have to worship or errect statues for?

Or put another way: Would he be happy if he would see what became of his teachings today, especially in regard to the personality cult?

The only answer I could come up with is: People can't let go of gods.

But isn't this foiling the main idea that the historical Gautama was teaching?

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    Is the question something like "why are there devotional forms of Buddhism?" I think it's because monks were responding to the competition-- Buddhism was surrounded by devotional religions. I'm not sure what the factual content of the answers can be here. – MatthewMartin Aug 8 '14 at 2:22
  • @MatthewMartin I actually like this explanation most of all. – Michael Härtl Aug 8 '14 at 6:44
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    Related question: Why should we worship statues of Lord Buddha? – THelper Aug 8 '14 at 13:48
  • I dont know an answer to this question, but: statues and such were things developed much later. There is an artistic aspect to it, as much as other religious art, and also could have served as advertisement through centuries -- provoking curiosity of people, etc. I dont know how explicitly devotional inclinations come to be in buddhism, or devotional schools developed. On a side not, in the canon the Buddha frequently emphasizes the usefulness of means that help one remembers the teachings, become inspired and rise energy ("ardent, mindful, resolute") to practice. If a statue helps ... – Thiago Aug 11 '14 at 5:03
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    See, worshiping Buddha statue doesn't mean we pray we begging to Buddha for something. Wherever you'll go to see how does people practicing or as you mentioned treated like a god you'll not find superstition. In other religions it's only superstition in Buddhism it reverence and they do just because of they believe in Buddha and their faith. Here in India we do not worship Buddha just ignite candles. Thank you. – Swapnil Sep 12 '17 at 14:21

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Simply I can tell you this. When Buddhism was invented in certain countries, it mixed with their culture and believes. So if you want to filter what Buddha really said, you have to refer The Pali canon. Actually in "Mahaparinibbana Sutta (Maha vagga - Digha Nikaya)" before The Blessed one passed away, when gods and humans are worshiping him and paying their last respect, the Blessed One stated that:

"This is not the real way (by offering flowers etc) that you can pay respect for me. I appreciate the disciple who pay his respect by following my teachings (Prathipaththi Pooja)."

However most people have forgotten these words of the Blessed One.

  • Welcome to Buddhism SE! I think you are referring to this sutta, but I can't find the quoted text. Where exactly does the Buddha say this? – THelper Aug 8 '14 at 8:38
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    Yes you'll find it here. I just gave the summary of this quote: 24. Then the Venerable Ananda said: "How should we act, Lord, respecting the body of the Tathagata?" "Do not hinder yourselves, Ananda, to honor the body of the Tathagata. Rather you should strive, Ananda, and be zealous on your own behalf,[46] for your own good. Unflinchingly, ardently, and resolutely you should apply yourselves to your own good. For there are, Ananda, wise nobles, wise brahmans, and wise householders who are devoted to the Tathagata, and it is they who will render the honor to the body of the Tathagata." – Buddhi Kavindra Aug 8 '14 at 8:51
  • So this basically confirms from "first hand" material, that there's no reason for all this personality cult. Which makes me wonder even more, why so many traditions cling to it and misinterpret the messenger with the message. – Michael Härtl Aug 8 '14 at 10:55
  • By worshiping Buddha a devotee gains merit. But merely gaining merits won't lead you to the Nibbana. The practice of Dhamma is the only way to attain Nibbana. But people satisfy only by worshiping. But it's not the way to become a perfect disciple of the Blessed One. – Buddhi Kavindra Aug 8 '14 at 11:09
  • Buddhism should be followed through practicing, not merely by following rituals. – Buddhi Kavindra Aug 8 '14 at 11:14
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I think what you are seeing here is cultural differences. My Vietnamese friends have alters in their homes of their grandparents. This does not mean they are worshiping them as much as they are paying their respects to them. Showing respect is very different in Eastern culture than it is in Western culture. Do not be caught in your own perspective when viewing the traditions of others. Perhaps it is the dogma of "worship" and "Eastern vs Western" than needs to be let go of? May you be happy.

  • I'm not sure, if what I meant can be explained through cultural differences. Because if a good idea or philosophy is deformed by cultural influences (and in my view, sometimes up to a point that you can't recognize that basic idea anymore), there's a danger that people are blinded by these ceremonies, whorshipping and so on and take this for "Buddhism", where in fact all this has really nothing to do with what that wise man called Siddhārtha Gautama tried to say. That being said, there's probably not a really meaningful answer to my question. – Michael Härtl Aug 8 '14 at 10:46
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"Like a God" is a very broad notion. God is usually treated with respect, so we could strip out the specific mention of "God" from your question, and rephrase it instead as 'why is Buddha treated with respect'?

Buddha is treated with respect because treating a sage in that way is regarded as a good deed (karma).

In addition to good karma, an image of the Buddha may be placed on show because such images can serve as reminders of the great sage and his teaching. Mindfulness of Buddha is a good mental action too. It inspires, and brings to mind other related good objects and habits, as a result leading the mind in a good direction.

Or put another way: Would he be happy if he would see what became of his teachings today, especially in regard to the personality cult?

Worshipping something worthless would of course be bad, or at very least simply useless. But respecting a wholesome object is not the same thing. You would probably not treat with the same level of respect the words of an enemy or foolish person as you would the words of a good friend.

So there is nothing inherently wrong in respecting something or someone. It all depends on whether the object of worship is worthy of that respect.

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    What about Tibetans prostrating in front of Buddha sculptures and offering them money? I'd say that 'worship as a god' is a much better description for that than respect. – THelper Aug 7 '14 at 14:35
  • What is woship as not high(est) degree of paying respect? – catpnosis Aug 7 '14 at 15:34
  • I can't agree that you can replace "God" with "respect". If I respect someone I'm still far off from building statues, turning prayer wheels or performing other ceremonies for him, that are typical for sacred figures or gods. – Michael Härtl Aug 8 '14 at 10:50
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    Michael, it's certainly reasonable to view respect and worship as at very least lying quite far apart on a spectrum, if not being entirely different. But I think catpnosis's primary point was his first one: that "Like a God" is very broad. Like you, I was "bugged" by the apparent contradiction between Buddhist concepts versus practice. But I think catpnosis is saying that not everything that looks like God-worship actually is worship, any more than the behaviour of soccer or cricket fans is (although sometimes I do wonder about that :-) ) – tkp Aug 8 '14 at 14:45
  • the 1st statue of Buddha made during Buddha's time, when he dwelt in one of the celestial realms teaching his mother... it's either recorded in the Vinaya or Sutra i yet have to find. – Mishu 米殊 Sep 12 '17 at 17:05
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"Almost" like a god? But it's the other way around. You should ask people who worship gods: "Why do you praise your gods, almost as if they were enlightened Buddhas?" - That would make more sense, because the Buddha is portrayed in the suttas / sutras as a teacher of the gods, and superior to them.

And this isn't the statement of some late Mahayana Sutras. It's right in the earliest strata of the Pali Canon: "many thousands of deities have gone for refuge for life to the recluse Gotama" (MN 95.9)

I think your question comes more from the idea that the Buddha "was just a wise teacher". This idea has nothing to do with Buddhism, but with Western preconceptions and prejudices, which are rooted in the European Enlightenment.

When Buddha was asked if he was a human, he replied "No."

The Buddha is not a god, not a human. The buddha is a buddha - sui generis.

You say:

The only answer I could come up with is: People can't let go of gods.

What if it's not the Asian, but the Westerner, who can't let go? Let go of preconceived ideas that function exactly the same as idols that prevent the Westerner from understanding Buddha?

You say:

Don't believe in anything except the insights you got from your own meditation practice.

But what does that mean? It's from the popular Kalama Sutta ... that sutta is the most misunderstood of all! Bhikku Bodhi warns us:

On the basis of a single passage, quoted out of context, the Buddha has been made out to be a pragmatic empiricist who dismisses all doctrine and faith, and whose Dhamma is simply a freethinker's kit to truth which invites each one to accept and reject whatever he likes.

And that is a Western fantasy that has nothing to do with the Buddha-Dharma.

The idea that Buddha is Eternal is not a "cultural" distortion as some have mistakenly suggested. It is in the Mahayana Sutras. It is in the Lotus Sutra, the Nirvana Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra, etc.

But if some say this "supernatural" Buddha is a "later" addition or invention by Mahayanists ... in the "early" (Nikaya) Buddhism, it is just the same: if Buddha was just a guy who taught some interesting stuff, how are we to explain that he was able to recollect his past lives, recollect even the beginnings of the universe(s)?

The Tathagata recollects his manifold past lives, that is, one birth, two births, three births, four births, five births, ten births, twenty births, thirty births, forty births, fifty births, a hundred births, a thousand births, a hundred thousand births, many aeons of world-contraction, many aeons of world-expansion, many aeons of world-contraction and expansion: 'There I was so named, of such a clan, with such an appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my life-term; and passing away from there, I reappeared elsewhere; and there too I was so named, of such a clan, with such an appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my life-term; and passing away from there, I reappeared here.' Thus with their aspects and particulars he recollects his manifold past lives.

(from Majjhima Nikaya 12, Samyutta Nikaya 12)

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I practise Vajrayana, I have Buddha statues in my flat and I did plenty of prostrations in my life.

We take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. And Buddha is not a person, it is the enlightened state of mind. It is the Buddha Nature which we all have inside us. So when I see a Buddha statue, I don't see a god, I see perfect qualities which I want to discover within me.

So imagine, you have a Buddha Nature, you are already enlightened but you haven't realised that yet. The simplest way to make you realise that is to put a mirror in front of you so you can see it yourself. But of course, if you look at the mirror now, you see your physical, not quite perfect, body. In fact, you don't see yourself at all, you just focus on some impermanent body through your habitual thinking fuelled by your disturbing emotions like jealousy ('I wish I looked like Brad Pitt') or pride ('Oh, I'm so sexy'). So the trick is to put various Buddha forms in front of you which will shout at you - hey you, look at me, I am your mirror, I am perfect, joyful and strong. Hey, melt with me, there is absolutely no difference between you and me!

If you ask me, I would rather expose in my room a depiction of my perfect qualities (Buddha statue) than a picture from my sister's wedding or some souvenir from Peru. I also happily donate money to my local Buddhist Centre because this is where I might get closer to my goal and, admittedly, I use their facilities there - hot water, electricity and toilet paper!

Tibetans prostrate in front of the statues and their teachers, I prostrated as a part of Ngondro. It is a fantastic practice to purify your body and to work with pride. Plus, it strengthens your back muscles so later you can seat in meditation for hours. In principle, if you perceive Buddha as your perfect qualities, what's wrong with bowing in front of your perfect self? Through prostrating you also pay respect to those who gave you methods to realise your Buddha Nature. If somebody gave you the best gift you can ever imagine how do you show your gratitude? Is 'Cheers, mate' all you can do?

In general, our Buddha Nature is represented in a human form because we are humans and it is easier for us to relate to other humans rather than to some abstract ideas. It is a method which apparently works. If you like the method, you follow it, if you don't like the method, you go somewhere else.

This is the theory. In practice it may seem that some individuals or cultures got carried away and think that paying respect to Buddha alone will solve their problems. But it is a mistake to judge them as we don't know what exactly is their motivation and capabilities. Also, you judge them according to your definition of 'god' and most Asians probably wouldn't agree with your definition.

Buddha gave different teachings to various people with different capabilities and problems. There is no universal method that would fit all. Having that in mind, it is a bit childish to be irritated by someone else's practice. Maybe they are doing the right thing, maybe they are making some mistakes. So what? Let's wish them happiness and let's focus on our own practice and let's pay attention so that we don't make any mistakes on our own spiritual path.

  • Thanks. You're right, that I should not be irritated by someone elses practice. My problem here is, that it affects me in some way: I'm still searching for a community where I could become part of - but I'm always discouraged for the above reasons. I can't embrace something that I don't believe in. That's why I wished, there were more followers of Secular Buddhism in the west. But all I can find in my area are people, who just replaced one divinity (Jesus Christ) with another one (Buddha). So my judgement is just an expression of my frustration. – Michael Härtl Aug 9 '14 at 9:12
  • Well, in my answer I tried to explain that paying respect to Buddha has nothing to do with blind worshipping of gods. I think I had similar dilemma at the beginning of my Buddhist adventure, though. I am very critical and I work in academia so blind believing was out of question for me. Luckily I met a Western teacher who totally inspired me and now I apply the methods he gave me so I can become as joyful and fearless as him. Good luck with your search! If you know what you want to get out of Buddhism, I am sure that sooner or later you will find a community you will fit in:) – Rabbit Aug 11 '14 at 9:08
  • although i'm not totally agreeing with all doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism the Great Prostration is one i held high, i do that too, wonderful for dealing pride – Mishu 米殊 Sep 12 '17 at 17:13
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I think this is a fair question. There are people that pray for Buddha, Medicine Buddha, Dharma protectors and other entities in some Buddhist traditions. We should keep in mind that Buddhism mixed with local traditions when spreading through Asia many years ago.

As Buddha is now in parinibbana, he cannot hear us praying and as Buddha said: The Dhamma is our teacher now, so we must walk the path. Only we can help ourselves.

I know a Theravada monk in Malaysia who is building a monastery without any Buddha image, just like it was back in the days Buddha walked on this earth. He has great respect for the enlightened one, but he chose not to show it by using statues or images.

Of course it doesn't mean we should not have a statue or pay respect to the Buddha. It is a good practice, I personally do that, but there is a clear line between respect and "please help me, I need to be cured". All these requests for help go against the concept of Kamma-vipaka.

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buddhism became defied due to Mahayana Buddhism here in my own country Sri Lanka. during historical times kings such as dutugemunu,devanampiyatissa aand mahasen started incorporating the local deities and traditions with Buddhas teaching.The popular trend to Buddha turning into a deity was during emperor Ashoka's time were he gave royal prestige to Buddhism and he needed a religious base for it to face Hinduism.He was more concerned with his royal status than the status of Buddhism. in a sense he spun Buddhism like a roulette wheel to suit his purpose. The kings of Sri Lanka did the same thing to uplift their popularity.Dutugemunu incorporated the Brahmanism and the chakravathi concept into buddhism while sri lankan kings like Walagamba and Mahasen absorbed the deities such as Asuras[ minor gods] and various other Veddah gods and household gods.Thus this became immensley popular and spread throught asia and the east.today's Buddhism is due to our kings influence with the Buddhists priest as our country was the capital of buddhism after it died out in india by the 13th century.

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I'm reading 'The Religion of Israel' by Yehezkel Kaufmann, and whilst it's all a bit arbitrary and Essentialist, there is an interesting delineation, if seen from a Buddhist perspective.

In all pagan religions there was the divine and the meta-divine, the gods and the primordial realm. This primordial realm was the seed for all creation, and whilst having effect on both the gods and humans, was itself independent from it all. The Hebrew spin was to claim YHWH as the primordial being, therefore assigning him all the classical anthropomorphic God features, with the Essence of perfection and other divine qualities.

Brahman on the other hand, received the vague but more logically accurate - 'neti neti', 'not this, not that'.

The Buddha simplified all this by instead removing the meta-divine, the 'meta' being deemed unverifiable and entirely without purpose given the effectiveness of the principle of dependent origination. The Buddha was also similar to the mathematical limit of the Noble Eightfold Path, which describes both a morality not so different from what the more refined versions of 'God' bring, and an equanimity suitable to a physical manifestation of the Dhamma.

The Buddha showed a perfected morality, a perfected concentration, and a perfected wisdom. Aside from the actual metaphysical properties of God, the Buddha does comparatively better than many a good variation, so it's not unreasonable that people would see a 'divine' element in the Buddha when coming from life long world views that have a divine.

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In your question, you say "almost" and that is the correct term which should be used! The Buddha isn't a God, in fact He even claimed to be only human, and that people shouldn't attach to him, just as people shouldn't attach or cling to anything.

It is the Core teaching of the Buddha that any attachment or clinging will bring suffering, but.....as to why people worship the Buddha "almost" like a God is simple!! The Buddha didn't have to teach His realizations to anyone, even in teaching others it clearly was hard work, hard work which the Buddha didn't have to do.

So....not only did the Buddha pass His wisdom on, the Dhamma itself is freedom from suffering, there is no other path where one can gain insight, wisdom and mindfulness to understand the full workings of the universe (experientially) and free ourselves from suffering. That statement within itself should be enough to show the complete and ultimate respect and gratitude to the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha.

If you feel otherwise then i would suggest you meditate even more. Anyone who has realized even one of the Buddhas core teachings will agree with my response to your question.

Metta.

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    Downvoting because not only don't you answer the question, but in addition what you did write is straying a bit too close to being polemical. Your final advice on meditating more is particularly out of place. The original question was not asking for personal spiritual guidance. It was asking, quite reasonably, for an explanation for what is a clearly observable conundrum: the apparent theism-like worship within an ostensibly non-theistic religion. – tkp Aug 8 '14 at 0:21
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There is another reason other than "competition" from other religions. If you've observed people, they really like conclusions. They hate stuff when it is open-ended and exploratory and just don't have the patience for it.

When they do meditation, they want to sit tight, and still get consumed by the mind. The mind wants to conclude upon something, otherwise it is always confused and you will never know calmness/peace. It will keep cropping up stuff you don't want to hear. It is a bad master.

So most of the time they just go the traditional way and install an idol. And be done with it to hell. Pray to something and feel good.

  • you've exposed the bad of statue worship, i.e., idol worship, there are ignorant followers, like withered twigs and dry leaves of a great tree. but we should cultivate and focus on the green leaves and healthy branches - those that make the tree thrive. – Mishu 米殊 Sep 12 '17 at 17:19
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Some worship or some statues are not for a god, who is a fictional character, not real, but they maybe for the wholesome-consciousnesses or for an enlightenment.

Those worship or statues are arisen by trust and respect (saddhā).

They are an inspiration of the meditation because they help the practitioner to recall/be aware to meditate themselves like the statue of a person that the practitioner respect to worship to. So in this case, some worship or some statues are not wrong view.

Be careful! tipitaka is the way to safe at all by all useful method, that compatibility with the enlightenment path. So buddha, in tipitaka, use every method that can help us to meditate. If there are something that are "too much" to enlighten, tipitaka denied them already in vinaya or sutta.

Tipitaka is flexible enough in itself to make the practitioner enlighten, no need modification. But the practitioner must learn by the right method, such as sequenced reciting to memorizing and meditation. Just by this ancient study method, the practitioner can see through all of the reasons in tipitaka.

But that sequence is very hard to choose by the practitioner self, so buddha always force order to the listener to have the ariya teacher to teach them. Buddha deny to learn tipitaka or meditate by self without ariya teacher.

So in commentary, every bhikkhu must do these strict courses, through 2500 years.

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I'm not very impressed with your argument. I think the mistake you make is that the Buddha simply taught and realised "insights in oneself".

The Buddha was meant to be a Bodhisattva, on the path to Buddhahood, for millions if not billions of years, and prior to this had been wandering the rounds of rebirth for a vast and incalculable length of time.

  • i'll add a note on how long he was a bodhisattva for, as soon as i find the book – sorta_buddhist Sep 13 '17 at 5:23

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