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Respect conventional truth, but don’t be bound by it

Lam, a friend gave me a wooden statue of the Buddha from Laos. I kept it on a shelf in my living room. It is not been consecrated and so I see it as an ornament, not a religious item. However, my parents were horrified when they saw it and were very critical. Now, I am quite confused about how to deal with images of the Buddha. Help.    

T Z, Thimphu 

Well, let’s look at your question in the general context of sacredness in Buddhism. Take a statue of the Buddha or a thangkha painting of Guru Rinpoche as an example. To a non-Buddhist, the statue is just a piece of carved wood and the thangka is nothing more than an image of a guy with a hat. However, to people who revere the enlightened beings that the objects represent or who grew up in communities where these beings are considered worthy of respect, the images evoke a sense of sacredness. In this way, we can say that the statues and paintings have a certain mind-transforming power, a kind of magic. Actually, it is the high lamas’ prayers and our personal beliefs and acts of reverence that imbue the objects with this power, and it is maintained only through this continued respect and reverence. If people no longer believe in the sanctity of statues and paintings of enlightened beings and they are rendered nothing more than household decorations or tourist trinkets, they will lose their capacity to transform our minds.

OK, this might sound complicated, and so let’s think of it in a more relatable context. Imagine that when you met your first boy/girlfriend a particular song was popular. When you went on dates, you heard that song. Your partner even had it as his/her cell phone ringtone. Although your friend later moved overseas and you lost contact, the time you spent together remains special to you and just recalling that period of your life fills you with joy. As the song was very much part of this experience, just hearing the melody raises your spirit and dispels even the gloomiest of mood. In this respect, we can say that the song has a mind-transforming power.

Now imagine that a toilet company adopts this song as the background music to their advertisements, and so whenever you switch on the TV you hear your special song being played as an accompaniment to scenes of toilet pots and toilet seats. Slowly, the song will no longer evoke memories of your happy times, but will instead bring to mind images of toilets. As a result, your song will lose its transformative power. Its magic will have been destroyed.

Obviously, we cannot prevent others from playing music just because it is special to us, but, as a society, it is reasonable to expect people to respect our common beliefs. Consequently, it is important that we preserve the sanctity of objects and symbols that have been respected for centuries and, in so doing, we safeguard their power to transform our minds.

At the same time, we should recognize that statues and paintings are only an expedient means to discover the truth and are not the truth itself. To put it in another way, we can consider the entire Buddhist path (which includes both practice and sacred objects) as similar to boats that can transport us from one side of a river to the other. In order to cross the water, the boats are necessary, and so we should treasure and care for them. At the same time, we should recognize that ultimately they are just boats.

In short, we need to recognize that sacred symbols do serve an important function and so should be protected. At the same time, we need to understand that from a wider perspective, like boats, they are only a convenient means to reach a destination and are not the destination itself. If we can maintain this kind of micro and macro view, we will treasure sacred objects, while, at the same time, will not become fanatics who are outraged by people who do not act according to our belief systems.

As another example, think of symbols like actors and props in an epic movie. The movie can cause us to laugh, cry, or make us angry, but for the scenes to have this power we need to maintain the right atmosphere. If the lights in the movie theatre are switched on and off, for example, or if members of the audience shout throughout the screening, then the magic is broken and the movie loses its power to stir our emotions. Therefore, it is important to maintain the right atmosphere, but, at the same time, we need to remind ourselves that ultimately it is just a movie. If we can think in this way, the movie will act as an effective means to transform our mind, but, at the same time, we will not become fanatical about the scenes.

In this respect, Guru Rinpoche offered us this advice: “Although my view is higher than the sky, my respect for the cause and effect of actions is as fine as grains of flour.” In the context of your question, this could be interpreted to mean that we should preserve the sanctity of sacred objects and act according to conventional wisdom, but we should also understand that this wisdom is merely an expedient means to uncover the truth. It is not the truth itself.

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organising drug outreach programmes. Email to jjwangchuk@gmail.com for any queries

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