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The Buddha
Dr. Sunthorn Plamintr

The Buddha's life

The Buddha is believed to have been born around the year 623 BC (although some traditions put the date at 563 BC) on the Nepalese side of what is now the border of India and Nepal. His father was King Suddhodhana, his mother Queen Maya, and the capital city from where they reigned was Kapilavatthu, a Himalayan Kingdom in the north of India.

In his early years the Buddha was known by the name Siddhattha Gotama (Sanskrit: Siddhartha Gautama) and it was predicted that he would either become a universal monarch or a great religious teacher. Many wondrous miracles are said to have accompanied the prince's birth. However, his mother died seven days after he was born and he was thereafter brought up by Pajapati, his aunt and foster mother. Siddhattha showed signs of greatness from his early childhood. He was kind, compassionate, and extremely intelligent. His love was known to extend to all living creatures and his wisdom was extraordinary. He was, indeed, destined to become a great personality whose life would affect humanity as a whole.

The King, of course, wanted the young prince to succeed him to the throne. He saw to it that his promising son was married to a beautiful princess from a neighboring state. But Siddhattha would not be tied down forever to the family life and worldly concerns. Eventually, at the age of twenty-nine, he bade farewell to his family, the throne, and the kingdom to become an ascetic in search of Truth and enlightenment. He practiced with many renowned teachers and experimented with various severe austerities, but none of them impressed him as the right way to ultimate realization of the Truth. He started to practice meditation on his own, using his own methods, determined, unguided and unsupported by others.

Six years after the Great Renunciation, alone in the deep jungles of northern India, Siddhattha became enlightened. The Dhamma had been realized and the end of the search had been reached. From now on he became known as the Buddha, the Enlightened One or the Awakened One. He started to teach the Dhamma to the world. The first discourse was delivered to a group of five ascetics, who became his followers. Soon more and more people came to join him and they helped to spread the teaching.

The Buddha worked hard for forty-five years bringing his noble message to the world. His fame spread far and wide, attracting more and more followers to him. A monastic Order came into existence and rapidly expanded; the Sangha members further helped him in his mission to bring the Dhamma to an even wider audience. Support and following came from people in all walks of life: kings and queens, princes and princesses, ministers, army chiefs, soldiers, bureaucrats, physicians, entertainers, traders, workers, farmers, peasants, prostitutes, and beggars -- practically from all classes and segments in society. The spread of the Dhamma during the Buddha's time was a spiritual revolution, a large scale social reform, and a unique phenomenon in the history of religions. By the time he passed away in the year 543 BC, at the age of eighty, the religion had already been firmly established.

After the death of the Buddha, his noble disciples continued the task of spreading the Dhamma. In course of time, some two centuries later, the Buddhist influence began to extend far beyond the boundaries of its land. During the reign of Emperor Ashoka, the religion was even introduced to the lands of the Greeks in the west, Sri Lanka in the south, and Suvannabhumi (Thailand) in the east. Emperors Kanishka and Harshawardhana were two other monarchs in ancient India who were instrumental in promoting Buddhism in the empire and its further spread in foreign lands.

The Buddha and miracles

Eastern traditions often associate extraordinary events with the birth of a great personality. The birth of some kings in ancient times, for instance, is reported to have been attended by such wondrous phenomena as unseasonal rainstorms, lightning and thunder, and sudden outbursts of brilliant light from no apparent source. These events were seen as prophetic signs, indicating the greatness of the person whose birth was taking place at the time. It is possible that as time passed certain legends might have evolved around those wonders. Literary records have a marked tendency to add liberal servings of imagination and decoration. This kind of practice was, in fact, more or less universal in earlier days.

The birth of the Buddha was undoubtedly a unique event in the history of mankind. It is not improbable that certain unusual phenomena might have taken place, which were construed to indicate his greatness and the mission that lay ahead. The Buddha himself paid little attention to such things. Unlike some religions that depend heavily on miracles to substantiate their teachings, Buddhism needed no miracles to glorify its founder's position. In fact, the Buddha discouraged his disciples from being attached to miracles or miraculous powers. For him, the miracle of the Dhamma is the greatest miracle of all, one that we can all achieve and see for ourselves, and in fact is the only miracle that can be of any real benefit to our lives.

Buddhist commentaries describe at great length the many miracles reported to have attended the birth of the Buddha. He was born at Lumbini Park on the full moon of the sixth lunar month. Deities from all heavenly realms came to welcome him and pay reverence. Even eminent gods like Brahma and Indra were there to express their joy at his birth. Heavenly music filled the air and two showers, one hot and one cold, came down from the sky to bathe the child. The earth trembled and the heavenly beings gave out loud acclaims of joy.

It is also said that, immediately after his birth, the infant stood firmly on the ground and took seven strides to the north, surrounded by gods and men. A white canopy was held over his head. Having walked the seven steps, he stopped to look around and gave out a fearless utterance known as the 'lion's roar' (sihanada). His proclamation may be translated as follows:

"Supreme am I in the world;
"Greatest am I in the world;
"Noblest am I in the world.
"This is my last birth,
"Never shall I be reborn."

It is possible that the miracles accompanying the Buddha's birth described in the early commentaries may point to something deeper and more meaningful. Early writers were prone to use such symbolic descriptions to explain certain Dhamma principles, but in later times their true intentions and meanings have become so obscured that an interpretative inquiry is required in order to reveal the real spirit of those cryptic expressions. Thus the baby's standing on the ground is interpreted as his being well established in the four Virtues of Accomplishment (iddhipada -- aspiration, effort, mental application and reasoning); turning northward means the spiritual conquest of the multitudes; the seven steps signify the seven Factors of Enlightenment (bojjhanga -- mindfulness, investigation of Dhamma, effort, rapture, calmness, concentration, equanimity); the white canopy suggests the spread of Dhamma that brings peace to the world; looking around indicates the seeing and unveiling of supreme knowledge; the fearlessness of the lion's roar denotes the utter success in proclaiming the Dhamma; and the last birth means the attainment of Arahantship. This is another way of looking at unusual events described in some Buddhist literature, an interpretative approach, aimed at discovering a deeper meaning in the narration of what may seem extraordinary events beyond our normal range of comprehension.

It is said that the birth of all Buddhas, past, present, and future, is accompanied by miracles. A question is often asked if, in fact, such miracles do occur. Answering "Yes" or "No" would mean the same for skeptics. Believers, of course, find no need to ask such questions: if extraordinary things, like escaping unscathed from dangerous accidents, can happen to an ordinary worldling, they argue, why could something very extraordinary not happen to so great a personality as the Buddha? For Buddhists, however, there is no controversy, as there is complete freedom to accept or deny such matters. Since the Buddha said that miracles are capable of misleading one from the path of Dhamma, we should take a realistic view of the matter and not be attached to them. If they were essential for the attainment of Nibbana, or if they were conducive to real benefit, the Buddha would have encouraged us to pay greater attention to them. On the contrary, the Buddha on more than one occasion warned his disciples not to be attached to miracles. He even forbade his monks from performing them to attract attention. There is a grave penalty imposed on monks who boast of having higher powers (to perform miracles, for example) that they do not possess. From the Buddhist perspective, miracles are therefore not an important factor in the practice of Dhamma.

Moral implications of the Buddha's renunciation

There are men who walk out on their families for selfish reasons, but such actions are irresponsible and cannot be condoned. Prince Siddhattha was known for his compassion and kindness. Certainly, he did not leave his family and everything behind for selfish reasons. He renounced the life of abundance and pleasure for a life of poverty and austerity. He gave up the prospective throne with all the attending ministers and state dignitaries to live in jungles among wild birds and beasts. He sacrificed wealth and power to lead the life of an ascetic, penniless and alone. No one could accuse Siddhattha of having left his family and country for the sake of pleasure and sensual gratification. His decision was based on compassionate altruism; it was an act of sacrifice and farsightedness.

It is said that Siddhattha's life in the palaces was one of abundant luxury and constant pleasure. His father, apprehensive that the young prince would one day leave home to become an ascetic, had made certain that he was well provided for and would thereby be attached to the worldly life. But Siddhattha saw through the illusion of worldly pleasures, transitory and unsatisfactory as they were; he knew no sorrow, but he felt profoundly touched by the sorrow of humanity. Still in the prime of his youth, enjoying physical strength and good health, he perceived the inexorable nature of life and the universal sickness of humanity. Amidst luxury and comfort, he contemplated the universality of suffering to which all beings are subjected. His innate compassion would not allow him to selfishly enjoy the pleasures and privileges of royalty. The world was full of conflict and confusion, plagued by violence and oppression, and Siddhattha wanted to find a way to overcome these sufferings. His act of going forth from home to homelessness is known as the Great Renunciation; it was a great sacrifice for the benefit of the whole of humanity.

Siddhattha's position may be better understood through an analogy: when a country's sovereignty is threatened by an enemy, it is the duty of the soldiers of that country to respond. There may be some able-bodied young men who would rather remain home and let others fight for the country, but a brave and duty-conscious soldier would willingly choose to leave home, his wife, family, and everything else in order to be on the battlefield. No one could accuse him of being irresponsible to his wife and family; his leaving home is considered a great sacrifice for the sake of the country and his fellow countrymen.

In the same way, Siddhattha could have elected to remain in the royal household and enjoy the wealth, privileges, and power befitting a prince, but he decided to leave home to do what all the authority and wealth that were at his command could not do. In the process he had to undergo great hardship and personal discomfort. But the Dhamma he discovered and taught to the world has brought peace and happiness to countless people over the centuries, and is still of great benefit to humanity today. Had he chosen to lead a household life and ascend the throne following his father, his services to mankind would have been much more limited.

Siddhattha's decision to leave home could not have been an easy one. He had a young son, a loving wife, a concerned father and foster mother, and a promising future of power and glory. He also knew all too well that the austere life of an ascetic was one of great hardship, loneliness, and discomfort-so completely different from the one he was enjoying. It must have taken great courage, determination, and selfless sacrifice to arrive at this crucial decision and not to waver in his resolve.

Six years later, after undergoing untold suffering and hardship, Siddhattha accomplished what he had set out to do. Like a victorious soldier, he returned to the world and began to expound the Dhamma he had realized through his own determination and effort. He even visited his father and family and taught them to realize the Dhamma. Many in the royal household joined the Order, including his former wife, his son, and foster mother, who all attained the highest bliss of Nibbana.

Many Buddhas

The question concerning the status of Buddhahood is yet another positive indication of how accommodating and straightforward Buddhism is. The Buddha never claimed a monopoly or prerogative over Buddhahood, nor did he ever make an attempt to discourage others from attaining to it. Inspired by his personality and his achievement, many were even tempted to aspire for the exalted position of Buddhahood and made such declarations before him.

The word Buddha is a generic term, meaning the Enlightened One. It refers to a person who has realized the Dhamma and attained enlightenment. This enlightenment, as we have seen, is open to all, and so is Buddhahood. In line with the Theravada teachings, Mahayana tradition goes a step further to strongly assert the universal presence of Buddha-nature in all beings, without exception; this Buddha-nature is the inherent potential for enlightenment, which can be cultivated and actualized by each and every individual. This spirit of openness and tolerance is characteristic of Buddhism.

As far as attaining enlightenment is concerned, Theravada literature describes three kinds of Buddhas. One who has attained supreme and complete enlightenment through his own efforts, unaided and unguided, and is capable of teaching the truth he has realized to others, is known as Sammasambuddha, the Perfectly Self-Enlightened One. The second kind of Buddha is the one who has, likewise, attained enlightenment (through his own effort and without any external assistance) but is incapable of imparting his knowledge to others in such a way that they also could realize the Dhamma. He is known as Paccekabuddha or Silent Buddha. The third category, added by the commentaries, consists of those who attain enlightenment not solely through their own effort, but through the guidance and assistance of a Sammasambuddha. These are known as Anubuddhas or Savakabuddhas. Some Mahayana authors prefer to call Anubuddhas, or those people with exceptional knowledge and spiritual experience, simply buddhas (small 'b'). Theravada tradition popularly refers to those noble disciples, who have realized the Truth after the Sammasambuddha and have achieved the highest stage of spiritual attainment, as Arahants.

In the Theravada tradition, when we use the term Buddha (always with a capital B), we specifically refer to a Sammasambuddha, especially to Gotama, the historical Buddha who was born in 623 BC and who founded the Buddhist religion in its present dispensation. During the period when the world is void of a Buddha or a Buddhist dispensation, there may be many individuals who realize the Dhamma and become Paccekabuddhas. Once a Sammasambuddha attains enlightenment and begins his religious dispensation, all those who realize Nibbana through his teachings are known as Anubuddhas. This applies throughout the whole length of that particular dispensation.

The attainment of the status of Sammasambuddha or Paccekabuddha is said to be in accordance with a resolution made in the past and the fulfillment of ten Perfections. These are generosity (dana), morality (sila), renunciation (nekkhamma), wisdom (pañña), forbearance (khanti), truthfulness (sacca), resolution (adhitthana), loving-kindness (metta), and equanimity (upekkha). However, the experience of Nibbana is the same, differences among individuals lying chiefly in their abilities to expound the Dhamma and the extent to which they can help free others from Samsara and lead them to the other shore of Nibbana.

The Bodhisattva

Bodhisattva is a Sanskrit term, the equivalent Pali term being Bodhisatta. Originally, the term may have been used in reference to all beings who aspire to attain enlightenment. Thus, one who practices in order to realize Nibbana is called a Bodhisattva.

Technically, however, the term Bodhisattva is used in the Theravada tradition exclusively in connection with an aspirant who strives to be a Sammasambuddha. The most important factor to qualify one as a Bodhisattva is the prophetic pronouncement, made in person by a Buddha, confirming the future fulfillment of the aspirant's resolve to strive for Buddhahood. So long as the aspirant has not received such a prophesy, it is possible that he may lapse from his original resolution and give up his efforts, which is the case with most individuals. The Buddha's prophesy is the surest guarantee that a person will one day achieve Buddhahood, no matter how long or how many lifetimes it will take. From the moment he receives the Buddha's assurance until the moment he attains the supreme enlightenment in his last existence, he is known throughout as a Bodhisattva, and nothing can discourage or divert him from his goal. It is not uncommon that a Bodhisattva receives confirmation from other Buddhas from time to time, in different dispensations, during the unimaginably long course of wandering through Samsara before he attains Nibbana. Our Buddha is said to have received such confirmation from no less than twenty-four Buddhas.

To be entitled to the first confirmation, an individual must be spiritually advanced to the extent that, if he so wishes, he could attain Arahantship in that very life. He must also be endowed with special attainments, such as jhana (higher stages of concentration), and must make a declaration of his resolve before a Buddha. It is said that, having heard the aspirant's declaration, that Buddha will look into the future with the infinite power of his omniscience, and make a proper pronouncement. Gotama the Buddha received his first prophesy from the Buddha Dipankara. He was then known as Sumedha and was leading the life of an ascetic, highly advanced in spiritual maturity and psychic powers. Although he possessed the capacity to attain Arahantship in that very life, yet he postponed his final attainment of Nibbana and, out of his concern for the happiness and liberation of all creatures, made a determined aspiration for Buddhahood.

The point to be noted here is the willful postponement of Arahantship. Clearly, this involves great sacrifice and altruism. Instead of gaining the final liberation and attaining the ultimate bliss of Nibbana, a Bodhisattva willfully volunteers to prolong his sojourn in Samsara so that he may further cultivate and expand his capacity to help other beings; he puts others' interests before his own and is willing to suffer for their sake. This is the essential spirit of all Bodhisattvas.

There are certain qualities that must be fully cultivated by a Bodhisattva before he can realize Buddhahood. These are the ten Perfections mentioned above. During the long sojourn in Samsara, a Bodhisattva may take birth in different planes of existence, according to his kamma, but he will not be born in eighteen inauspicious states, for instance being born blind, deaf, insane, an idiot, crippled, in the womb of a slave, or as a heretic. He will not be born in the lowest hell or among the hungry ghosts, neither will he be born in the Formless Realms. Although he is still liable to commit wrong deeds, there are five evil actions that he would never do. These are called the five Immediacy-Crimes, namely, matricide, patricide, the killing of an Arahant, causing a Buddha to suffer a wound, and creating a schism in the Sangha.

The length of Bodhisattvas' wanderings in Samsara differs according to the three qualities of wisdom (pañña), faith (saddha), and perseverance (viriya), in which each wishes to attain eminence. While still a Bodhisattva, Gotama the Buddha excelled in the quality of wisdom, which helps shorten the time required to fulfill the ten Perfections. Those Bodhisattvas who wish to excel in the other two qualities take a much longer time, but travel a relatively smoother course, to achieve the same goal. In their penultimate life all Bodhisattvas are born in Tusita heaven before taking the last birth in the human world. Once enlightened, all Buddhas are equally endowed with regard to their omniscience, psychic powers, knowledge of the Dhamma, and experience of Nibbana. All Buddhas teach exactly the same Dhamma to the world.

The Buddha's daily routine

Canonical literature uses the term lokatthacariya to describe the Buddha's duties throughout his years of mission as the Buddha. Literally, it means conduct for the welfare of the world. It is a rather general description, but it is really what the Buddha did until his very last breath. The later commentaries added ñatatthacariya, conduct for the welfare of his relatives, and buddhatthacariya, beneficial conduct constituting the duty of a Buddha.

The Buddha's day was well organized and carefully structured. He divided the third watch of the night (2 a.m.-6 a.m. -- according to ancient Indian usage, a night had three equal parts, each with a duration of four hours) into three parts: the first part he spent in ambulatory meditation, the second in sleep, and the third in another session of meditation, during which he surveyed the world with his divine eye in order to see if there were beings who would benefit from a visit that day.

Each day, early in the morning, the Buddha would put on his robes and go for almsround (pindapata), giving others an opportunity to accrue merits by offering food to him. If there were people who would benefit from his presence, he would make it a point to pay them a visit, even if it meant traveling long distances, and give them some appropriate discourse. Sometimes, he walked alone or with a few other monks; sometimes he was accompanied by a large following. After the meal, which was the only one for the day, he returned to his residence.

The next function he performed was giving advice to monks. Those who wished to receive instruction in meditation could do so at this time. The Buddha also answered questions brought up by his monks and delivered discourses appropriate to the occasion. Having done that, he retired to his cell and, if he wished, spent some time in restful solitude. Then he would again survey the world with his clairvoyance to see if anyone needed his presence and instruction. Those who were spiritually mature enough to benefit from his instruction would appear before his divine vision and he would take appropriate steps to fulfill their spiritual needs.

The Buddha bathed in the evening. After his bath, he began his first watch session of the night, attending to monks who came to seek advice for their practice and giving them discourses. The middle watch was an opportunity for deities and other beings to seek his audience and advice. Often, kings, princes, or ministers, who had no time during the day, would avail themselves of this opportunity. The last watch of the night was spent as mentioned above; in this same watch the Buddha meditated, slept, got up, attended to his physical needs, and "cast the net of his divine vision" to find out those whom he would teach.

Except during Vassa (Rains Retreat), the Blessed One was always on the move, delivering discourses and giving advice to the masses. But even when he was traveling, he kept up the usual routines, working hard to fulfill his duties as 'the teacher of gods and men.'

Buddha and divine intervention

Buddhism is a human-centered religion. The Buddha claimed to be no more than a human being and he taught that a human being, and only a human being, is capable of the highest spiritual attainment. His supreme enlightenment, his achievement in spiritual perfection, was the result of his own efforts and had nothing to do with divine intervention. Neither was it inspired by divine authority. The Buddha never claimed to be God's prophet or messenger.

During the Buddha's time, belief in God was quite prevalent. In fact, many gods and goddesses were worshipped. At the head of all these deities was Brahma the Creator, the Supreme Godhead who created the universe and everything in it. The Buddha considered all deities merely as sentient beings in different planes of existence, subject, like man, to the laws of change and impermanence. The Buddha was quite unequivocal in his rejection of the concept of a creator God. All things are, according to Buddhism, interrelated and interdependent; everything arises and disappears according to the law of conditionality. A creator God is, therefore, an impossible and illogical proposition.

The Buddha was a man, universally respected by men and gods because of his unsurpassed spiritual perfection. In that respect he was more divine than any divinity, and superior to all beings. He taught that all beings are capable of attaining the same high state of spiritual development that he himself had reached by following the path of Dhamma he had shown. The Buddha is like a seasoned traveler who, after a long and arduous journey, has reached the destination and has come to show the way to others.

The unique qualities of a Buddha

Rather than worshipping the Buddha as a God or deity, Buddhists worship him as one would pay respect to a great teacher. This helps to inculcate in our minds the qualities of peace, joy, and humility, qualities that are equally valued in all religious traditions. While in the act of worship, reflecting on the Buddha's virtues of universal compassion, perfect purity, and boundless wisdom inspires our hearts to make an effort to lead a life according to those spiritual qualities. When we look at the Buddha statue in a shrine, with its benevolent smile and eyes cast down in a gesture of inner tranquillity, we feel peaceful and happy, and are spontaneously reminded of higher spiritual attainments to aspire to.

What are sometimes referred to as Buddhist prayers, recited in ceremony or worship, are not prayers at all; Buddhists do not pray. What they recite, individually or in groups, are Pali passages that contain the Buddha's teachings. Each time we recite those passages, we reflect on the noble message of the Buddha so that we may be inspired to put it into practice in our daily life. Even the flowers on the altar can be a teaching: they demonstrate to us the ephemeral nature of life and the inherent unsatisfactoriness of all things. Such a reflection helps to reveal an aspect of reality that may otherwise elude our perception.

Thus, when we bow down before the Buddha image, we are simply expressing our deep sense of gratitude to a great teacher who has given so much to the world. But for his enduring contribution, the world would not have seen such a spiritual treasure.

The Buddha after death

The Buddha often declared that without realization of the Dhamma, one cannot be said to have seen the Buddha. The statement implies that in essence the real Buddha is none other than the Dhamma. This real Buddha is therefore eternal, not subject to old age and death. In his physical form the Buddha was only human and was subject to the normal conditions of existence just as anybody else. The physical form was necessary for the expression of the Dhamma, which is the real Buddha, but, like anything else that exists, it must finally come to an end. In other words, we may say that the physical form was only the temporary manifestation of the real Buddha, which is eternal and not subject to old age and death.

If we understand the meaning of the Buddha's statement, then we will clearly see that the real Buddha did not, and will not, die at all. What passed away more than 2,500 years ago was merely the physical form of someone called Prince Siddhattha, who became enlightened and was thereafter known as the Buddha, and who, like anyone else, was subject to the laws of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-substantiality. That physical structure, together with its bodily and mental functions, was part of nature; it existed and operated according to the laws of nature.

The real Buddha still lives among us, in our hearts. If we practice the Dhamma, we will see the real Buddha in all his glory and splendor. We only derive real benefit from the Buddha when we earnestly practice according to his teaching. That is how the real Buddha benefits us, or, to use a theistic expression, how he answers our prayers. It is the most significant and meaningful way to answer prayers, for the benefit of the Dhamma can be experienced immediately in an objective way. All that is required is an open mind and the intellectual maturity to understand it.

Those who claim that God answers their prayers do so out of sheer faith, although they have difficulty understanding God's nature or proving his existence. Ultimately, they have to resort to blind faith, claiming God's omnipotence and unpredictable nature. But blind faith is something that the Buddha openly discouraged. Buddhists are relatively free from that kind of difficulty because the Dhamma, which is the real Buddha, is something that can be directly experienced, understood, and practiced.

When the Buddha declared on his deathbed that he wished his disciples to look to the Dhamma-Vinaya as their teacher, he was in fact referring to the real Buddha in the most objective form, and appointing that as his 'successor.' Buddhists are therefore never without the protection and guidance of the real Buddha, which is, in essence, the eternal Dhamma.

Different kinds of Buddha

Just as a single object can be viewed differently from different angles, the Buddha can be understood differently by different people, depending on the intellectual or spiritual capacities of each individual. A small child, for instance, when asked to identify the Buddha, may point to a Buddha image and say, "That's the Buddha." Older people may laugh at such naivete and say that the Buddha was a man who lived and taught in India more than 2,500 years ago. This is the Buddha that most people know and refer to. There is nothing wrong with such a perception -- the Buddha is a historical personality, someone who actually lived and worked and brought about a spiritual upheaval in the history of religions -- but those who are spiritually more mature would perceive that the real Buddha, on a metaphysical level, is the Dhamma itself. They understand that the realization of the Dhamma amounts to the seeing of the real Buddha.

It is interesting to note that the Buddha is also known by a number of other names, among which is 'Dhammakaya,' the Dhamma-body or the Embodiment of Dhamma. Clearly, this indicates the true essence of the Buddha and how the Dhamma finds its manifest form in the Buddha. This Dhammakaya, it must be pointed out, is inherent in all of us. Some have been able to realize it and become enlightened; others may not be aware of its existence and pay no attention to it. This is the Buddha-nature that is within us all the time, and it is up to each and every individual to realize. Consider this statement made to the Buddha by the nun Pajapati, who had been his foster mother, and later his Arahant disciple: "Lord, I am your mother and you are my father. Your physical form did I develop and bring to growth, whereas my blissful Dhamma-body you cultivated to perfection." The distinction and relationship between the historical Buddha as an objective manifestation of Dhamma on the one hand, and the real Buddha as the very essence of the Dhamma on the other, can be clearly seen in this declaration.

Prostrating and idolatry

The first Buddha image came into existence long after the Buddha passed away. It is one of the many objects that Buddhists use for concentration practice or as a point of focus to reflect on the Buddha and his virtues. It reminds them of the greatest man who ever lived and inspires them to follow his example in their efforts on the spiritual path.

Popular Buddhism treats Buddha images as sacred objects because they symbolize higher values and ideals. Buddhists show respect to the Buddha by bowing down or making a gesture of obeisance before a Buddha image. Sometimes they even believe that there are special powers associated with certain images. This is just another example of different levels of understanding with regard to Buddha images.

With right understanding and proper attitude, a Buddha image becomes a vehicle for the increase of virtues and an instrument for spiritual growth. It is never an act of idolatry, which is defined as "the worship of a physical object as a god." This definition is quite antithetic to the nature and spirit of worship in Buddhism. Those who properly understand Buddhism and Buddhist practice will realize that there is no place for idolatry in the religion. Bowing down before a Buddha image is an act of piety, an expression of humble respect and gratitude for the Buddha; it is a simple gesture that helps to purify the mind and transform character in accordance with Buddhist ideals. Such an act may be regarded as a Dhamma practice.

It is interesting to note that the Buddha himself said: "Driven by fear, the multitudes go for refuge to mountains, forests, trees, and shrines. Such are not safe or supreme refuges. Having gone to such refuges, one is not free from suffering (dukkha)."

The same can be said of the greed and ignorance that drive people to make wishes to supposedly sacred or supernaturally endowed objects. Such objects can be anything, animate as well as inanimate, and may even include animals. Cows are sacred animals in India, and so are monkeys and snakes. But we may take it from the Buddha that such objects are not safe or supreme refuges. We cannot be free from problems by worshipping such objects.

Although some Buddhists may be seen offering prayers and making wishes, that kind of superstitious indulgence does not have any basis in the Buddhist teaching. Such practices have their origin more in popular superstition and misunderstanding. At best they may have resulted from the Buddhist interaction with other religions or cultures. In any case, such practices cannot be cited as a standard for judging or evaluating the religion because they lack doctrinal support.

To be fair, praying and wish-making are superstitions that have been practiced since time immemorial, and will continue to be practiced as long as people have not grasped the real meaning and essence of the Dhamma. To be free from this kind of superstition, man needs to cultivate self-confidence and moral strength, based on a clear understanding of the law of kamma. Meanwhile, the practice may have some short-term psychological benefit and may provide temporary relief for those who cherish blind faith and false hope.

Wishes based on wisdom and made without selfish motives are by no means superstitious acts. Such wishes may be made before a Buddha image or any other object which represents noble ideals and virtues, such as a Bodhi tree (a symbol of enlightenment), a shrine, a pagoda, etc. Such wishes are not mere wishful thinking or idle prayers, but positive resolutions for wholesome actions. They are necessary for the accomplishment of certain desired goals and are referred to in Pali as adhitthana. Adhitthana, in fact, constitutes one of the ten Perfections that are a prerequisite for the realization of Nibbana. Thus, a person may make a wish before a Buddha image saying, "May I have the strength to help others in need. May I have the opportunity to do more good every day." Or an aspirant to enlightenment may make determined wishes before a Buddha to attain Buddhahood in some future life. Certainly, there is a great difference between such wishes and someone saying before a Buddha image, "O Lord, may I obtain a beautiful, young wife" or "May I become a millionaire tomorrow!"


[Originally published in Sunthorn Plamintr's Getting to Know Buddhism (Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation, 1994), pp. 41-60.]


Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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