The Buddha Image: A Foundation for Attachment

Madeline Brisbane Buddhism Course Assignment 11/16/11 The Buddha Image: A Foundation for Attachment According to Freedburg, the author of The Power of Images, a figure resembling human form “enables the reconstitution of life” and makes “the absent present and the dead alive” (p. 11)1. An image preserves the aura of the person it resembles, and therefore allows for an eternal essence to remain after death. Within the realm of Buddhism, images of the Buddha serve a wide variety of spiritual and practical purposes. For some, keeping a Buddha image in their home is a sign of respect.
Others find it comforting and peaceful to look at a Buddha image. In some parts of the world, specifically Southeast Asia, the Buddha image is a symbol of supernatural power and protection, and is essential to the efficacy of rituals. If a ritual fails to succeed in the absence of a Buddha image, then there must be an interdependency between images and ritualistic success. And if an interdependency exists, then the entire concept contradicts the Buddha’s teaching of non-attachment because the ritual becomes attached to the presence of a Buddha image.
Through an analysis of he origins and evolution of the use of Buddha images and relics in Southeast Asia, it would appear that an obsession with the presence of a Buddha image has emerged, conflicting with Buddha’s teaching about non-attachment. As the second Noble Truth states, attachment is the origin of suffering. Therefore, to foster an interdependency between images and ritualistic success would go against the most fundamental values of Buddhism.

In order to maintain the most basic ideals of Buddhism, the Buddha image must only serve as a reminder of the Buddha’s presence rather than s a necessary component of practicing rituals effectively. To image the Buddha is not a modern concept; the Buddha must have always been imagined through stories, myths, and symbols. However, there are many legends surrounding the origins or the first Buddha image. The most relevant theory regarding the original Buddha image to Southeast Asia is the story of the sandalwood statue.
The story appears in many Buddhist texts that emerged over time throughout Asia. Most relevant to Southeast Asia is the Pali text from Sri Lanka recounted in the Kosala-Bimba-Vannana. In ummary, the story claims that after King Pasanedi of Kosala arrived to the Jetavana monastery to visit the Buddha only to find the Buddha away on a Journey, he leaves in disappointment. He returns later and tells the Buddha that to he would like to “have an image made in the likeness of the Tathagata… for the benefit of the whole world. 2 The Buddha then adds that those who build an image of the Buddha will “accrue a great, immeasurable, incalculable benefit. “3 Upon seeing the gilded, yellow- robed statue, with the Buddha’s teaching inscribed into the statue, the Buddha xpands on the praiseworthy benefits ot making Buddha images . These benefits include avoiding rebirth into Buddhist hells; being reborn into wealthy families; and eventually attaining enlightenment. Within the statue, the dharma and the Buddha image are “cohesively conjoined. 4From this ancient tale, it is clear that the first Buddha image was built based on the kings desire to feel the presence of the Buddha even when he was not physically present. The need to feel the Buddha’s presence has survived thousands of years, as many Buddhists still cherish the Buddha image as a reminder of his prevailing presence. Despite the non-theistic nature of early Buddhism, the dedication that followers of the path have to keeping Buddha images around illustrates that they worshipped and continue to worship the Buddha greatly.
They cherish the notion of feeling the Buddha’s presence at all times. The Theravada branch of Buddhism exemplifies the extent to which the Buddha’s presence is valued by followers of the path. As Theravada ascended into Southeast Asia from Sri Lanka after the eleventh century B. C. E. , vernacular traditions ecame increasingly popular. In nature, Theravada Buddhism worships the historical model of the Buddha as a superhuman capable of miraculous deeds.
Relics were therefore treasured as objects of magical power that allowed an “actual physical connection to the Buddha” because they were either part of the Buddha’s body or came into physical contact with it. 5 Because it became impossible to exist in the presence of the Buddha in his physical form after his death, inserting a relic into an image became a way to restore the physical presence of the Buddha. In doing so, he image would supposedly provide protection against evil forces. However, when the Buddha image is revered for its supernatural protective strength, the Buddha image becomes a controversial concept.
It seems that the more recent traditions of magical expectation and anticipation associated with Buddha images and relics has caused a shift away from the historical emphasis on the original monastic view of high moral responsibility and spiritual practice. Instead of following one’s own karmic duties of doing good in order to receive good or trusting one’s own ability to practice ituals successfully the old-fashioned way, the presence of the Buddha image during ritual has turned into a necessity for many Buddhists.
If the presence of a Buddha image is necessary for rituals to work properly, then there has to an interdependency between the Buddha image and ritualistic success. Western scholar Donald Swearer, author of Becoming the Buddha, argues that “the Buddha must be… present for the ritual to be efficacious for the dhamma to flourish, and for the sangha to prosper. ” Moreover, scholar David Eckel makes the point that “people experience mental nguish when they cannot see the Buddha. 6 Wouldn’t the creation of images therefore foster an attachment between humans and objects?
This correlation between the Buddha image and the effectiveness of rituals, the dharma, and the sangha makes the Buddha image a very powerful entity. There is even an association between kings and material symbols of the Buddha, particularly relics and images. There is a Thai custom of swearing allegiance to the king in front of the Emerald Buddha image; the Buddha image can therefore be seen as a symbol of power and not Just a representation of the Buddha. Furthermore, the Buddha image is presently interpreted as a sign of respect and a way for devotees to make merit; “the Buddha’s field of merit is operative… hrough his continued post-Nibbana presence in his relics and images. “7 It Buddha images currently tunction as a means to validate the effectiveness of rituals and to make merit, then there is an undeniable interdependency between the Buddha image and the success of rituals as an expression of religious devotion, and therefore an attachment between the two. Due to the fact that non-attachment is one of the most fundamental values established ithin Buddhism, to classify the Buddha image as a necessity would be to diverge from Buddhism altogether.
In simpler terms, to be dependent on the Buddha image is to form an attachment with it, and to form an attachment is to defy the basic ideals of Buddhism. Thus, the evolution of the Buddha image as a means of preserving the Buddha’s presence into an entity that is necessary for the proper execution of rituals and spiritual success, then we can no longer categorize this concept as an appropriate element of Buddhism. The Four Noble truths are the essence of the Buddhist path, and to defy them is to defy Buddhism altogether.

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