Student’s Question: I can’t relate to images of the Buddha

How important is relating to imagery, ceremonies and ritual in Buddhism? Does it matter if we can’t?

A student writes:

“I have an aversion to sitting down in front of any kind of image whether it is the Buddha or an image of Jesus on the cross or any other image. I feel that ceremonies involving images can detract from what is really important, i.e., what is going on in a person’s mind.

The ceremony or the image can become too significant. I’m not quite sure why it is necessary. I also feel that ceremonies can make a newcomer feel excluded. I would really appreciate your views.”

 Lama Shenpen replies:

I don’t find your problem with the Buddha image at all difficult to understand. As a Christian I never liked the image of Jesus on the cross and when I came into Buddhism I positively disliked the image of the Buddha. He looked self-satisfied and complacent to me.

I couldn’t understand how he could just sit there so peacefully when there was so much help needed everywhere. It took years for the image to start to mean something to me. Perhaps over the years I have come to realise that meditation is about love and compassion and more importantly in this context, power, the power to destroy suffering for oneself and others.

But why an image at all? Well, originally the Buddha’s followers deliberately did not use any image to represent the Buddha. The early Buddhist sculptures are of scenes around the Buddha’s throne but there is no actual image of the Buddha on the throne. It was thought that he was too sublime to be represented by an image of any kind.

I have read that the image came in with the Greeks when they made their way across to Northern India. Originally the followers of the Buddha used the Stupa containing the Buddha’s relics or some other Enlightened being’s relics as the focus for the adhistana (blessing power) of the lineage.

We could do the same. Or we could just have an empty throne. Or we could have a symbol such as a crystal or a source of light or a Dharma Wheel. It could be a text of Buddha’s teaching.

It doesn’t matter really. It’s just become the tradition to use a Buddha image. The image of the Buddha as a person in meditation carries all sorts of messages and that is difficult to capture in an impersonal symbol, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

It is true that often the meaning of a ceremony can easily get lost or neglected and then it can become a poor substitute for the real thing. But it can actually become a kind of language that we can use to express our deepest aspirations.

There can be a lot of power in a ceremony because of the way it can act as a focus for the adhistana or blessing power of the lineage. Just as words can become meaningless if they are used carelessly, the same is true for images and ritual.

I know what you mean about having the image up front when newcomers come to our events, that it can be off-putting – it could make them feel alienated even before they start. It is a dilemma really, what to do.

I have found that everyone so far, once they have understood how to relate to the image, has liked it and would miss it if we did not have one there. So in the end I decided to have a simple Buddha image present right from the beginning at our events, even though it might be a little off-putting for some people at first.

I think that these days everyone who is interested in Buddhism is used to the fact that Buddha images are used and so it’s not as strange as it might have been say thirty-five years ago when I first started out!

Tibetan temples and shrines are usually festooned with numerous images of different figures with all sorts of elaborate adornments, fabrics, symbols and all the rest of it. I think that can be even more off-putting than the simple Buddha image, especially when it involves strange looking gods in many colours with many hands and faces and so on.

Often people tell me that they never wanted to get involved with Tibetan Buddhism because they found all that kind of thing way over the top and they didn’t think they would ever be able to relate to it.

Luckily they don’t have to! Tibetan Buddhism, like all forms of Buddhism, is about learning to rest in the Awakened Heart. In essence, it is simple and relates to our direct experience. So you don’t have to worry about all that ‘stuff’.