Simply put, Buddhists do not worship the Buddha, though they do revere him.
The Buddha was not a god or deity, and he cautioned his disciples against thinking of him as one. He also did not condone idolatry. He wanted his life to serve as an example of the fact that by training the mind, any ordinary person could achieve enlightenment and find the same kind of reliable, lasting happiness that he had discovered.
In the centuries following his death, practitioners began bowing to symbols of the Buddha’s enlightenment, and eventually, representations of the Buddha himself. But unlike the practice of idolatry, in which a figure is worshipped as if it were a god, Buddhists use images as reminders of the Buddha’s example and of their own capacity for enlightenment.
When Buddhists bow—a gesture that can look a lot like a form of worship—they are actually showing profound respect for what the Buddha and his enlightened disciples taught and demonstrated through their own lives. They are also honoring their own commitment to following the Buddha’s path.
Of course, it can be easy to veer into feelings about the Buddha and his image that can turn into worship or adoration, and there are Buddhists around the world who consider worshipping the Buddha an activity that will accumulate positive spiritual energy. But it’s important that practitioners be reminded, and remind themselves, that the work of becoming like the Buddha is up to us.
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