Question: "Bowing to Buddha feels strange to me."

This is a peculiarly American problem. Throughout the Old World, in both Europe and Asia, people have traditionally bowed to each other when they meet. Even in America, back in the pre-Kennedy era when men wore hats, a gentleman might "tip" his hat to a woman when they met in public; watch Bogey in some of the old movies and you'll see him do this. Dorothy curtseys to the Wizard of Oz in the 1939 film. These "bows" were the last remnants of an elaborate code of gestures of honoring and civility tied up with the class systems of the Old World. There was nothing "religious" about bowing; it was simply a gesture of respect.

Our "protestant" queasiness about religious statuary is also part of the problem. Nineteenth century missionaries never failed to report that Asian Buddhists worshipped idols. It is human nature to assume the worst about strangers and their customs. Since even a three-year-old knows that her dolly is not a real baby, we may safely assume that no sane person at any time, in any culture, has ever confused a statue with the deity or power that it represented. So the question becomes, "what does the statue of Buddha represent?"

Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, so, by definition, idolatry can't be an issue here. In Zen, we usually say that we are bowing to our own Buddha Nature, that higher aspect of ourselves which we have in common with all other beings. When we bow, we are reminding ourselves of our inborn enlightenment, which our greed, hate, and delusion keep us from realizing, and making a renewed commitment to become what we truly are.

All the images in Buddhist art represent some aspect, or way of looking at, our own higher selves. Sometimes the image emphasizes compassion, and the bodhisattva ("enlightenment being") Avalokitesvara (in male or female form) is pictured. Other images remind us of Perfect Wisdom and show the bodhisattva Manjusri. Images in Zen meditation halls frequently portray Manjusri because Zen emphasizes seeking and attaining insight.

The Buddha actually asked his followers not to create images of him when he died because he understood our tendency to "deify" our heroes. The prohibition was respected for several centuries but it disappeared when the Mahayana school emerged. His statue is on the altar because he understood our human nature so well; it represents our hope that we will come to understand ourselves.

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