When we were visiting Japan, our young women tour guide—a slip of a girl to me—led us into the back of a small, country Buddhist chapel. At first it was dark with only strings of sunlight shining through the cracks, but she turned on the bright front lights that revealed an elaborate, garish alter filled with gilded Buddha statues decorated in vibrant red. We all stopped talking, stood quietly, and respectfully removed our hats. We were in church.
But our guide jumped up on the alter. “Look, look,” she said. “This one’s mouth moves!” She reached behind the statue, and mimicked the nasal voice of a ventriloquist, saying, “Hello, Americans. Welcome to Japan!” as she bobbed the mouth up and down.
“Come up and try it yourself,” she continued cheerfully, now in her own voice. But we were too stunned to reply.
To the Buddhists, holiness lies within each of us, not in any object, not even flowing through from a mysterious source. The alter and everything in it was man-made, inspired by anticipated profit, and had no more holiness than an empty Broadway stage set. They understood that. We did not.
Most Buddhist statues we see are meditation Buddhas meant to help worshipers find inner calm, not to depict the actual, historic Siddhartha Gautama. The statue is purposely vague so anyone can identify with it. The clothing, usually a robe, is understated and could be from anywhere or anytime. What is the age of the depicted Buddha? Is it even a man or a woman? You can imagine it to be whatever you want, whatever helps you to achieve a similar inner bliss. The insight to be found lies within you, not magically radiated from a statue.
(Many Christians would say the reverence shown to a holy statue is what makes it holy. It is your reverence that focuses your attention and produces changes in you, not any magical properties of the statue. Many other Christians believe the power of holy statues is literally true. It doesn’t matter. We all comprehend the Eternal at our own level and all interpretations are true, all are untrue.)