"As a Meditator in Burma, Should I Bow before Buddha Statues?"
A: “Lighten up!” laughs Bhikkhu Cintita. “It is true that in bowing to a statue there is no one to receive the bow. But we bow for ourselves, not for another. Bowing to a statue, or offering a statue food, water or flowers, is an enactment, it is theater. Learn to think of it as play, and do it anyway. Like bowing to monks, bowing to the Buddha is a wholesome practice of selflessness.”
As the American monk implies, some yogis may be perfectly comfortable paying respects to real people, but are not when a statue another inanimate object is placed before them. Some mistake this act as a sign of idolatry. J. George Scott noted this false assumption than a century ago:
There are few things which more irritate an educated Burman than to assert, or as most English do, calmly assume, that the Burmese are idolaters. The national idea is that idol-worship is especially the characteristic of the lowest savage tribes, and even fetichism is considered a superior faith. Therefore the accusation of bowing down to stocks and stones is intolerable, and the implication is combated with feverish energy. Where there are no prayers, in the technical sense of the word, there can be no idolatry. No one, not even Shin Gautama himself, can help a man in his strivings to lead a holy life. None but the individual in his own person can work out his special salvation, and he tries to do so by setting a splendid ideal before his mind. The words uttered before the impassive features of the Budh are not a supplication for mercy or aid, but the praises of the great Lord himself, through the contemplation of whose triumphant victory over passions and ignorance the most sinful may be led to a better state.
There is no Supreme Being; the Buddha himself, who even while he was on earth was no more than a perfect, sinless man, no longer exists to make intercession, were there any such power to which one might appeal. The only thing to be done is to praise, and in praising to strive to imitate, and through imitation to attain to the perfect knowledge, and so to the final deliverance, the exemption from the four burdens of heaviness, age, sickness, and death, which is the restful absorption of Ne'ban.
This explanation of the Burmese perspective still resonates today. A serene face, an inspiring posture, and a place to make offerings are seen as wonderful opportunities to develop one’s respect, humility, and devotion towards those aspects of Buddha’s qualities that one wishes to develop oneself.
U Sarana further advises that “giving up” and “non-clinging” are practiced in different ways, and that even when one brings such an attitude to an inanimate object, such as a Buddha statue, it can beneficially affect one’s spiritual practice. Thus, he notes, if one gives food to the Buddha statue, while the food will of course not be eaten, one has still relinquished one’s own possession and given it to a symbol of the Buddha. However, U Sarana adds there is a belief that while celestial beings do not ingest food, they do smell it (as they do incense, candles, flowers, etc.) This is why when food is offered to statues, it is often fragrant, such as ripe fruit. And even if one offers nothing materially, but simply prostrates oneself, this is also seen as a kind of “offering” or “renouncing,” for the yogi is letting go of some part of the ego in honoring the Enlightened One.
As Dr. Asabha reminds us, “When we pay respects to a statue, actually we are not paying respects to the statue, but our mind aims for the Buddha’s glory. This statue helps us to understand [the Buddha and his achievements]. When we see this statue, our mind aims to the Buddha’s glory, and we pay respects to the glory of the Buddha. Not this actual statue, this is only form. And when we pay respects to the pagoda, it is the same thing.” Venerable Rekkhita offers some specific advice for the Western yogi challenged with this act when he writes, “Perhaps one way is to practice chanting chants that involve visualising the Buddha and some of his foremost disciples. Such as the Buddha Mangala Gātha, where the Buddha is visualized seated in the centre and eight disciples are visualised at all the eight points of the compass. As these type of chants are a kind of mental imagery they can help understand the intention of the statue designers and builders or craftsmen.”
U Sunanda advises that when bowing to a statue of the Buddha, one should keep four qualities in mind: sīla, samadhi, vipassana, and vimutti. He also says it can be helpful to bring to mind that many paramis that the Buddha had to achieved in order to reach the end of suffering, and then the compassion he had in teaching this way to the greater community. Masoyein Sayadaw recommended to his many disciples that it was best pay respects to a statue of Buddha at least once daily.
Prekhemma Sayadaw also speaks to this. He notes that there are four types of cetiya, or Relics, related to the Buddha. The third of these is odehta zedi, which includes stupas and representations of the Buddha. He advises that “[W]hen one pays respect to a statue or stupa, don’t think about it being a pile of bricks, but rather as the remains or as a representation of the Buddha. And who is the Buddha? He is the teacher of anyone who seeks to meditate. So in any structure, don’t think about the architecture or style, but its essence. Don’t think about the statue, but what it represents.” In fact, he feels this advice is as pertinent to Burmese Buddhists and monks as it is to foreign yogis; he laments that today, he sees many Burmese mechanically bowing down out of custom or tradition. The revered Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw used to counsel his students, pone daw go gone daw hlan deh, or, “When you see the statue, ‘cover’ [that is, give importance to] the qualities.”
Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw’s student, U Tejaniya, advises his Western students, “If you have resistance, then don’t bow. But if wholeheartedly the mind is calm, then do it. This is also a form of gratitude, gratitude for these teachings that are so valuable. I don’t want to push anyone to have to bow.” In this vein, U Tejaniya recalled an incident where a Muslim questioner came to meet with Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw, and did not bow to him. Although others were upset, his teacher was not disturbed in the slightest, saying that he did not become a monk simply so that others would bow to him. Recalls U Tejaniya, “This is [each person’s] own business.”
Like his teacher, U Tejaniya has noticed that some Burmese monks may have too much of an attachment on the outer forms, and Maha Gandayone Sayadwa U Janaka spoke similarly half a century earlier when he suggested that an overly-fastidious attention towards the shrine area has distracted lay supporters from the more important part of the teachings. He wrote in Autobiography, “[T]he images of various styles and types so confused our visage that we lost the true Buddha.” It is important to add, however, that he was quick to note that benefit can indeed come to one who properly honors a Buddha statue, elsewhere saying that he did “not mean to say that prayer and offer of food, flower, and light at the pagodas are of no merit.” What bothered him was when he saw people praying at the Buddha images and pagodas for personal gratification.
Essentially, the decision of bowing before a statue is the yogi’s to make, and so long as one does not show overt disrespect (such as touching the image’s head, sitting higher than the statue, pointing one’s feet towards it, etc.) it is generally acceptable. For those that see it as another layer of the practice, it is fine to do, while for those that see it as veering into the category of “organized religion,” it can be avoided. Of course, one should also check with the Sayadaw of the monastery where one is staying, as some may feel that bowing is a central part of the Buddhist practice they are teaching. This is the stance that Sayagyi U Ba Khin took when a Muslim merchant friend of his student U Goenka wished to take a course to relieve his insomnia. Despite the fact that the “calmness of the place and the kindly presence of the Teacher made a strong impact on him,” he suddenly decided to decline attending the course based on a Buddha shrine he saw at IMC, for his religion prohibited the glorification of images. U Ba Khin heard about the man’s hesitation, and promised him that not only would he not be required to bow before it, but he could even curtain the image off during this course if he felt threatened by it. The man later felt comfortable paying formal respects to Sayagyi as he had great gratitude for his teachings, but did not ultimately bow to the statue.
“A great deal of nonsense has been written from time to time on the subject of the Burmese custom of Shiko. A Burman coming into the presence of a superior, a monk, a member of the royal house, an official, an elder of his family, adopts an attitude akin to kneeling, and places the palms of his hands together. Placing the palms of the hands together and slightly raising them is the essence of the attitude of respect. It is a charming and graceful salutation. ..[W]hat objection there can be to the hands slightly lifted in reverence, a natural and beautiful action, why it should be thought more dignified to pretend to cast dust on the head in salaaming, I cannot understand.” Sir Herbert White, A Civil Servant in Burma, 1913
Sayadaw U Janaka Speaks
Maha Gandayone Sayadaw U Janaka was famous for getting to the heart of the Buddha’s teachings, even when it exposed traditional Burmese beliefs and practices that had veered away from this core message. He often spoke of this relationship between the Buddha and the Dhamma on the one hand, and a statue that represents them on the other. Following are some of his more memorable quotes:
· Images and idols of the Buddha are just imitations of the physique of the Buddha.
· Myanmar sculptures make the Buddha’s image in Myanmar style, so do the Chinese and Indian sculptures in their own styles. The real intention is to make people think of the Buddha and adore Him all the more.
· Images and idols lay a cover over the real Buddha; preachers’ preachings cover up the real Dhamma; bogus monks cover up the real Saṅgha.