I was born into a family of devout Buddhists and was taught from very young that our ‘religion’ was Buddhism and our ‘god’ was Buddha. I had no problem with that: it was really nice and comforting to know that I was watched over by a benign (‘compassionate’ being the more correct Buddhist adjective of course, but I was young then), and supremely powerful being who would make sure that I would be alright. I was also careful to do the right thing so as not to incur Buddha’s disapproval in case I get punished by Him for misconduct.
The Buddha statue on the family ‘altar’ was regarded as ‘sacred’, and must be venerated with the deepest reverence. After all, it is the earthly representation of an omniscient and omnipotent god, or so I had believed. For many years, it was a matter of routine that I would bow deeply with my palms clasped to the Buddha statue every morning before I go to school and every night before I sleep. Often to try and impress the Buddha with my earnest sincerity and faith, I would light a joss stick (three if I felt that the occasion particularly warrant it) and with my eyes closed, murmured my wishes for the day which I liked Buddha to fulfil for me. This went on quite merrily for years.
It was not until I was well into adulthood, when the stress of life was getting to me that I began to question the efficacy of what I was doing. There I was, still prostrating and waving joss sticks earnestly before the ever-so-silent Buddha statue and yet my mind seemed as restless and as disturbed as ever. I remained no more fulfilled than the rest of the world. I had no sense of solace even as I bowed and prayed pleadingly. Eventually, I stopped my ritualistic practice in deep disappointment. I concluded at that difficult time that it must be that I did not understand what the Buddha’s teaching was. (For surely my sincerity was obvious and yet there was no relief.) I decided then and there that I would go in search of His teaching and hopefully learn what it means to be a Buddhist. (It was possibly also a last ditched effort to salvage my faith in Him.)
I signed up for Buddhism classes in 1993 and started reading extensively on Buddha and His teaching. Before long, I learnt to my initial astonishment that Buddha was not a god but a man, who was born in Lumbini (Northeast India, not China!) to a chieftain (not a king!) of a small warrior tribe called the Sakyans. At 29, He left home and family to search for a way out of life’s suffering (I was impressed and liked the sound of that already). He took six long excruciating years of struggling and puzzling before He figured out the answer and realized nibbana (ultimate and unconditioned bliss). According to tradition, the momentous event took place on Vesak full moon night.
Out of the deepest of compassion for sentient beings, Buddha decided that He would share his sublime realisation with the world. He picked five ascetics to impart that knowledge to: their first lesson was at a deer park called Isipatana at Benares. Over the next 45 years, Buddha (which incidentally means ‘one who knows’) roamed Northeast India to spread His teaching (also known as Dhamma). He died at 80 after suffering a severe bout of dysentery and possibly food poisoning (another proof that Buddha was human) in a small obscure village called Kusinara.
All these information about Buddha and His life would have been academic if not for the Dhamma that He had left behind: which is essentially the nature of dukkha and the way out of dukkha. (Dukkha has often been translated as suffering but I prefer to use a more generic word ‘dissatisfaction’.) Buddha explained that a very fundamental characteristic of existence is our sense of being constantly dissatisfied and stressed. This is the first truth. We are dissatisfied because we perpetually want something or other, be it some physical or mental gratification. This is truth number two. Truth number three is that we can completely and absolutely stop this constant wanting more and experience unconditioned bliss. Buddha laid down the practice to achieving that bliss and labelled it the fourth noble truth. The practice comprises eight parts: having the correct understanding (i.e., seeing the world in the context of the 4 truths), possessing the right thoughts (of cutting back on craving, of having friendliness and kindliness to the world), engaging in the right actions, speech and livelihood, making the right efforts, maintaining the right mindfulness and attaining the right concentration.
When we say that Buddha had ‘saved’ millions from suffering, it is not that He physically yanked beings out of their anguish and erased their pain. Rather it is that He had left behind a Teaching that shows us how we can on our own end suffering and pain in life. He taught us how to recognise our habitual instincts to have expectations of the world and of ourselves and how that habit causes unhappiness. He showed us how to develop the necessary skills to guard our minds so that we don’t get caught up with material pursuits and we learn to live life to the fullest. In what little ways we understand the Buddha’s Teaching, that much we would be more contented and happier. Accordingly, the dissatisfaction in life would diminish.
So I think the right attitude to bear in mind when bowing before the Buddha statue is to reflect on Buddha’s qualities so that we may draw inspiration from His life and aspire to follow in His path. We should reflect that Buddha was a morally upright, deeply compassionate and noble practitioner, who had walked the talk. He was a wise and enlightened sage who had taught a practical doctrine that helped to resolve all mental distresses. He was also an extremely skillful teacher who could guide anyone to spiritual success so long as they were sincere about the practice. Reflecting so would reinforce our faith in Him and in Dhamma, and perhaps inspire us to practise.
Today, to me, the Buddha statue is worthy of the deepest of veneration not because He is divinity, but because He was a truly great man, who had led a most meaningful life and had left behind a teaching which had brought me and millions of others relief from life’s unhappiness. Had it not been for Dhamma, I would not have been able to resolve all those mental angsts and stresses then and experience the many moments of spiritual joy and bliss since. For that, I am deeply and ever so grateful to Him.