Early in the Buddhist tradition, we don't find statues or images of the Buddha, but Shrines. Holy places that are connected with the presence of the Buddha. These Shrines were associated with events or objects that were connected with the Buddha's life. These Shrines made possible the early Buddhist tradition of pilgrimage.
How are you going to worship at a Buddhist Shrine? Buddhist worship is very similar to the worship you would find in the Hindu tradition. You make offerings to the image: fruit, flowers, incense, sometimes a candle. Another important thing to do is simply to see the image. In classical Indian worship, one of the things that you do is to go to the image, look at it, and get the sensation that it is looking at you.
When lay people go to an image and worship it, the principal goal would be to make merit. That is to perform good karma so it would be possible for them to have a better rebirth in a future life.
Worship is associated with prosperity and good luck, not just with the pursuit of Nirvana.
A monk or a nun would not use the Shrines in this way. They would use the Shrines as a focus of meditation, to be reminded of the Buddha's teaching. The monk or nun meditates on the image or on the Shrine in order to understand the Buddhist Dharma and appropriate it in their own experience.
What is the meaning of these images? In what sense do these images represent the Buddha? In Hindu worship, the deity is called to become present in the image. In the Buddhist case, the Buddha has achieved Nirvana and is no longer available. How is the Buddha related to the image?
It is believed that when the Buddha died, he left behind, in his relics and in the objects that he used, a certain power, a sustaining power. So, to pay homage to something like the Buddha's begging ball allows you to plug into the lingering power of the Buddha's presence. The Buddha himself may be gone, but there is a power that he has left behind which you can access by engaging in an act of worship.
What kind of power these images give you? On one level, it is physical power that changes reality. On another important level, for Buddhists specially, it is a power that grows out of your own response to that object. You make a meditative connection, that reminds you of the Buddha's presense.
You don't just worship the Buddha in a particular Shrine, you get access to his power in a way that reminds you of the Dharma and helps you to embody it in your own experience.
To learn more about Buddhism, go to my blog "Buddhism Through Buddhist Eyes". Here I explain in more detail Buddhist beliefs and practice. You will also find its history and the different schools.
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