Relying on all forms excellent, for making Buddha images, the meritorious virtues are broad and great,
immeasurable and boundless, and cannot to be calculated.
— Sakyamuni Buddha
(Mahayana Sutra On Meritorious Virtues Of Creating Images)
Recently, I posted photos of some candles shaped as the Buddha on Facebook with this caption – ‘A facepalm product, that is somewhat “amusing yet distressing”. Er… We make offerings TO the Buddha; we don’t offer THE Buddha (or his representations). 供佛供佛，别把佛给供了! This is what can happen when a spiritual image meant for devotional inspiration becomes merely a novel use-and-throwaway piece of decoration. And er… What ‘mudra’ (sacred hand gesture) is that? Also, the Buddha is supposed to sit in the full-lotus posture. A case of ‘banking’ upon his popularity. We know it is supposed to mimic him due to his unique head crown (ushnisha).’
Below are some interesting rephrased comments… Friend 1: What karma will one create by using these candles? Reply: It would depend on the intention, e.g. whether there is gleefulness or respectfulness. Often, the burning of images expresses condemnation or hatred of that represented. Friend 2: Does using such candles count as ‘causing a Buddha to bleed’ (which is sacrilegious and can lead to rebirth in the deepest hell)? Reply: If the designer and user have no intention to harm, it would not count as so. However, the design is clearly unskilful. Even if a user is not disrespectful, others might see it as so. Unfortunately, there are bizarre products made for profiteering by non-Buddhists lacking basic understanding of Buddhism.
Friend 3: It’s only wax. Surely you decide what it is in your head. Isn’t what your thoughts are more important? Reply: Even non-Buddhists would not create any image of anyone’s loved one for burning. It’s truly just an issue of ‘basic respect’ missing. Once wax takes form, its implied conventional meaning cannot be denied. If a candle-shaped image of a departed loved one is made for burning, will most be upset, or just laugh it off as it is only wax? As most if not all of us are unenlightened beings attached to some forms which represent subjects of refuge, and for use as educational aids, we should respect forms shaped to represent the cherished. To pretend we are beyond all forms is bad faith to ourselves, others and the Buddha.
Friend 4: Respect comes from understanding and following the Buddha’s teachings. A figurine is just an object like a cabbage or any other material object. You could have the same thoughts about any object. I thought ‘anything goes’ for Buddhists. Your choice, your karma. Reply: If this happens in some other religions, it might lead to riots and even war, but this doesn’t mean ‘anything goes’ for Buddhists. Basic respect is needed as Buddha images are focal points of reverence for many. Seeing a cabbage to represent the Buddha personally is harmless though no one really does that. Just as there are great merits for creating Buddha images respectfully, there are great demerits for creating or destroying them disrespectfully.
Friend 5: If ‘respect comes from understanding’, does this mean there will be no respect due to no understanding, which makes it okay to burn Buddha images? Basic respect should be there exactly due to knowing one lacks understanding. It can be demonstrated, e.g. by not creating images that millions consider sacred for desecration. If a figurine is just an object, is it okay to go temples to burn their Buddha images? Which Buddhist does this today? If ‘anything goes’, the above should be okay? If so, why are no renown Buddhists doing it? If the Buddha thought ‘anything goes’, he would not give a single teaching. But because he cares, he teaches about moral precepts, and such, urging all to uphold them best they can.
Friend 6: One might burn something that potentially causes offence to others, but it is others’ choice to be offended by being attached to the image, while the burner might not be burning to cause offence. So who’s wrong? The offended or the potential offender unintentionally offending? Reply: Mere sight of the distasteful candle’s design can offend, what more sight of its actual burning? Yes, we choose to be offended or not, but at the same time, the designer can choose not to be offensive with common sense, by thinking along this line – ‘If I’m going to design a candle, I probably should not design it in the image of anyone that millions revere, especially since it’s going to be burnt.’ Thus, both the insensitive designer and the attached offended are at fault. Those against it should have good intention to prevent others from creating negative karma too.
Friend 7: Once, two Americans were visiting a Zen temple. They had heard tales of ancient masters who tore up sutras and burnt Buddha images to express non-attachment to formal words and forms. Thus, they were shocked and disturbed to be led by the Japanese Abbot to a hall where they were invited to prostrate to a statue of the temple’s founder. Seeing the Abbot himself bow, one asked, ‘if the old masters spat on statues or burnt them, why do you bow before them?’ The Abbot replied, ‘If you want to spit, you spit. I prefer to bow.’ Spitting and burning masters are rare after all, and rather enlightened, out to educate with special qualified actions. To mimic them is hypocritical pretension, while creating negative karma!
Desiring to attain unsurpassable Bodhi (enlightenment), [for] those who create Buddha images, it should be known that this thus is cause for [their] thirty-two forms [of all Buddhas’ excellent physical features], able to enable these people to swiftly have the cause to accomplish Buddhahood.
— Sakyamuni Buddha
(Mahayana Sutra On Meritorious Virtues Of Creating Images)
Should Buddhists Wear Buddha Images?
Question: Some say that wearing Buddha jade pendants creates negative karma as this disrespects the Buddha. I do wear one but respect the Buddha. Can I continue wearing it?
Answer: Jade by itself as an ordinary material is no cause for concern. Let us first look at a letter by Great Master Yinguang, the 13th Patriarch of the Pure Land tradition (净宗十三祖印光大師) for advice –
The summary of the main points is that to wear a badge with the image of a Buddha on it while bowing is unsuitable, and can reduce one’s blessings (positive karma). (This is so as images of the Buddha are meant for reverence in higher places; not for placing at low places, which denotes disrespect.) He also taught this in another letter –
‘余常谓欲得佛法实益，须向恭敬中求。有一分恭敬，则消一分罪业，增一分福慧。有十分恭敬，则消十分罪业，增十分福慧。若无恭敬而致亵慢，则罪业愈增，而福慧愈减矣。’ – 复高邵麟居士书四
‘I often say that if desiring to attain the Buddha’s teachings’ true benefits, there is need to, with reverence seek them. With one part of reverence, this eradicates one part of karmic transgressions, and increases one part of blessings and wisdom. With ten parts of reverence, this thus eradicates ten parts of karmic transgressions, and increases ten parts of blessings and wisdom. If without reverence and causing slighting, thus will karmic transgressions increase, and blessings and wisdom decrease.’
Although the above does not clearly say that is is not right to wear Buddha pendants, the gise of it is that there should be great reverence to images of any kind that represent the Buddha (or any other enlightened being). If not, the use of Buddha images could end up as abuse with backfiring instead of blessing effects. There is also no clear teaching by the Buddha encouraging the wearing of Buddha images.
If one who is carrying or wearing a Buddha image, it should not be lowered towards the ground or brought into filthy places. For example, when visiting a restroom or bathroom, it should be removed. There is also the problem of bodily sweat and grime tainting the image. Buddha images should not be displayed on oneself while doing anything against the Buddha’s teachings, as this taints the image of Buddhism. While there might be no sense of active disrespect in many situations, the fact that there is carelessness means there is lack of reverence. Especially after knowing the above, to not have proper reverence is already a form of wilful passive disrespect. As Buddha images represent the presence of the enlightened, the best kind of reverence is to treat each image as if is the Buddha there in person, regardless of size (big or small) and form (pendant, statue, card, painting…) This is so for cultivating deeper reverence, even though we do know the image is not the Buddha per se.
This is why Buddhists are mindful not to misportray or misplace Buddha images in careless forms or places. It is not the case of the Buddha being displeased when his images are not properly handled, but that disrespect (irreverence) naturally and karmically harms one. To prevent forgetting to be mindful of Buddha images worn or carried, it is better to place them externally in higher places where they can be readily and regularly seen. This makes them more efficient for inspiring reverence and remembrance of the Buddha and his teachings. If one wishes to continue wearing a Buddha image respectfully, all the above should be remembered and followed. Buddhists mantras and names of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas if worn or carried, should be with similar reverence.