Monday 14 May 2012

Worshiping Stones, Trees and Concrete…!!

Worshiping Stones, Trees and Concrete…!!

Chandima Gomes

Few days ago, I accidentally came across in the net, an interview conducted by popular TV personnel Narada with Venerable Professor Dambara Amila Thero. This discussion, one of the best religious presentations that I have listened for years, took my memories few years back.

In 2002, while I was attending a conference in Pakistan, one of my close friends with Islamic faith, asked a very sensitive, yet very sensible question.

“Being devotees of a seemingly logical religion, why do Buddhists still worship stones, trees and concrete?”

I promised him an explanation in the evening of that day and went back into the auditorium to attend the following event of the conference.

In the evening, having the dinner in mild breeze at the garden of our hotel, located at the foothills of the magnificent Himalayas at an elevation of over 2000 m, I started giving my explanation which lasted for nearly three hours.  

A major  part of the many thousand page Bible of Buddhism, Thripitaka, analyses the mind, mostly of human beings but in some cases of non-humans as well.

“What is there to be discussed in thousands of pages about mind?” my friend was genuinely curious.

Buddhism analyses the mind, in many ways. With the tiny knowledge of Physics that I have, what I can understand is that, in the present day terminology, the analysis goes from quantum physics to relativity and space physics to cosmology.

Instead of the concept of god-decides-your-destiny as per many other religions, Buddhist philosophy states that mind-decides-your-destiny. Hence, a prime objective of a Buddhist is to realize his/her mind, control it and let it be directed in “good” paths. Realizing and taming the mind is not that easy. It may take thousands of years; many births, many lives.

Mind is like the CPU and hard disc of a computer. We have five senses or input ports; eye (vision), mouth (taste), ear (hearing), nose (smell), skin (feeling of touch). There are two output ports; mouth (talk) and most parts of the body (mechanical work). Thus, mouth acts as both input and output ports.

The input information acquired from the five senses are processed in the mind. This processing is based on our present status as well as past experience. The past experience, stored in the memory may be thousands of years old. From birth to birth they are transferred, hidden deep inside the memory layers. Our outer-mind cannot read them as a modern computer cannot read a punch card system. But the inner-mind may read them and do the processing of information accordingly. There are many life-experience and examples that can be given to prove this theory.

When you are watching an incident of violence, your heart beat increases, pulse rate accelerates, mind works in a haphazard manner and sometimes even your body gestures will show that you are in an unstable state. 

Such situation arises when you get extreme information from other senses as well (eg. having extremely tasty food, smelling extremely bad odour, getting sensual touch of opposite sex, hearing sound of an animal screaming before death etc.). 

Under such extreme situations, most often mind works based on past experience as the available time for information analysis is short before sending information to the output ports. If your past experience is “bad”, you may take “bad” decisions. Once you do something “bad”, the act itself becomes a part of your past experience. This may turn into a negative feedback loop that makes you take more and more decisions that can be categorized as “bad”.

That is why the taming and training of mind for better control and smooth processing is highly important for a human being. Buddhist teaching states that one should regularly practice taming of mind which yields controlling of input information from the five senses. Buddhism advises that the “middle path” is the best way for such (avoid extreme inputs).

When a Buddhist is in front of a Buddha statue, Bo tree or stupa, the input he/she gets from the eye, reminds him/her the noble qualities of Lord Buddha which will help the mind to be calmed down. The need of such psychological boosters are felt even stronger in modern metropolitan life to concentrate thinking streams for better control of mind so that the output can  be applied always for worthy causes. 

A true Buddhist, worshiping in the temple, knows very well that what is in front of him/her is stone, tree or concrete and his/her respect is not for those physical materials at all. The action of worshiping is a gesture of respect to those noble qualities of Lord Buddha. For Buddhists these monuments have only archaeological, architectural and cultural value. They know that similar to any other physical matter in this world, these monuments are also not permanent and will be decimated to their elemental components one day. This is why, when Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed the thousand year old Bahamian statues, no Buddhist in the world resorted to any kind of violence, although they were sad as invaluable archaeological wealth is lost with that act.  

The offering of flowers in front of the statue is also very meaningful. One can easily understand the concept if he knows the meaning of what the Buddhist chant after offering the flowers.

“These beautiful flowers that I offer to Lord Buddha, will be withered, become ugly and then decompose back to its elementary state. My life and the body that I refer as 'mine', will also be ended up in the same way. Thinking of that let me realize the ground reality of what I call I am”. The same philosophy goes with offering of incense sticks, oil lamps etc. 

Inducement of divinity, powers of miracles etc. to the statues, Bo trees and other monuments have been done for thousands of years, probably for political and financial gains or due to sheer misunderstanding of Buddhist teaching. By nature human beings are highly attracted towards stories of miracles and super-human powers. 

Both kings and monks that are going after human luxuries have taken advantage out of those psychological tendencies of common people. Otherwise, I don’t think that anyone can justify the facts such as seeking the blessings of triple gem to go for a war; the belief that the one who possesses the sacred tooth relic is entitled to the kingship or the rumours of emission of sacred light (Buddhu ras) from concrete statues, once in every few years.   

Next time when you are at the foot of a statue of Lord Buddha, such as Avukana Statue, look up and have an eye contact with the face of the statue. You will get the feeling that your body is getting filled with some energy and for a moment you will find that you are in a different world. This feeling most often will tempt you to think that the statue has some divine power. Actually it is something that comes within you as a result of your mind getting focused (at least partially) to something in the middle path (no extreme information). And also you get the feeling that how small and insignificant the person "I am" in this vast universe. This is Buddhism; Purifying yourself, by yourself. 

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  1. Well said sir. Most importantly you have used the best topic to make the content strengthened and sharpened. We miss the presence of people like you.

  2. Great post. Only if more Buddhists were conciously aware of this when they pray. On another interesting note: Was praying for statues influenced by greeks? See this interesting talk

  3. Great post. Only if more Buddhists were conciously aware of this when they pray. On another interesting note: Was praying for statues influenced by greeks? See this interesting talk

  4. the best simplest explanation on "what is Buddhism". this is enough to even one to be a budhhist!

  5. Very good and most important information to those who question about idol worship.

  6. We expect this type of information from our Buddhist Priests rather than challenging each other, uttering nonsense and spreading political hatred.

    May Triple Gem bless you Sir

  7. Dear sir, this is one of the best articles I have read in terms of explaining why Buddhists worship statues & monuments. Please add a Sinhalese translation of the same post, if time permits.
    On a separate note, I really appreciate your blog and have become follower now :) Keep writing. You've already inspired me into writing my own blog as well, am yet to start though.

    1. Thanks a lot for your kind comment. I will try my best to write it in SInhala. Time is a huge challenge

  8. Good article. Good analogy of I/O ports. You can make it better by a correction; where it says 2 output ports since mind works as an input and output port (both ways). So we have 3 output ports more accurately. That is the same reason why if every other port disabled (mutated), mind will continue. Since it can generate within it. See some of the Abidhamma talks to understand the analogy of mind and sutra deshana for more information.

    Talks can be downloaded in:

    Also a correction to where it says about the "outer mind and inner mind" would improve the article. This inner/outer concept is from mostly from Sigmund Freud In Buddhism there is only one mind. No outer/inner separation. Reading more on these can be found in Buddhist Thripitaka.

  9. Wow... Nice writing.....
    pls write them in sinhala as well if you have time.


  10. Dear Dr.Chandima,
    Great article.! Really appreciate it. Not only the non - Buddhists, but most importantly the Buddhist those who can THINK little further will certainly appreciate these kind of valuable article. Good Luck with your works.!

  11. Very well written. Very good that you picked up the topic of worshipping rocks and trees. Also the idea of offering flowers (this is something which Buddhist monks should teach the average Buddhists). Thank you.

    1. Thanks Wijitha. Perhaps you may be a relation of mine. My name starts with Gorakanage and yours end with that.

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