YOUTH IN FOCUS: I have a strange question.  A friend bought me a wooden Buddha statue from Thailand. It hasn’t been consecrated, and so I kept it on my dining table as a kind of decoration. When my mother-in-law saw it she became angry and said that religious images should be placed in a high place that is clean. She told my husband to move it. I was not happy at her interference, but that is a different matter. My question relates to images and symbols.  Ultimately, aren’t they just drawings or pieces of metal or wood? Why are they so important?  

Pema, Thimphu

Well, of course everything is just composed of atoms and molecules. However, because of our needs and beliefs, certain things are given greater value than others. For example, I’m sure that if someone offered you the choice of a diamond or a stone, you would take the diamond, right? But, if we analyze them, we will discover that they are both just rocks. Given the same choice, an animal will not have any special preference for the diamond. It is us humans that confer the higher value on diamonds and, in so doing, invest them with a certain influence and power.

It is the same with images or sounds. Imagine, for example, that when you were teenager you had a favourite song that you and your friends would listen to when you are having fun. Even now, when you play that piece of music, it reminds you of your carefree days, lifting your spirit and changing your mood. So, even though it is just a number of musical notes, the song has the power to positively affect your mind. In this way, it is sacred to you.

Now, further imagine that a toilet company adopts this song to advertise their toilet bowls, and so every time you switch on the TV you hear your ‘sacred’ music as the background acoustic to images of toilets. Slowly, the melody will lose its magic, and instead of evoking thoughts of freedom and joy it will bring to mind images of toilets. OK, this is an extreme case, but you get my point, right?

Basically, because your music was used in a common place, it lost its power to raise your spirit. When people place religious items in mundane locations, they likewise lose their sacredness and, like the music, no longer have power to transform our minds.

By the way, I am not specifically discussing objects that have been consecrated by high lamas here, but any object that is designed to evoke a sacred person, event or place.

On the other side, however, we should not be fanatical about such things and condemn those who do not share our beliefs or who fail to adopt our ways of showing respect to religious items. Basically, we should both bear in mind that everything is just made of atoms, while at the same time recognizing that sacred objects and sounds do have the power to develop our cultural and spiritual lives.

Perhaps you can think of sacred items like boats that can take us from a dangerous side of a river to a safe side.  Ultimately, they are just pieces of wood, but relatively they have great value. Therefore, while we should not force others to respect our boat, we should ourselves recognize that it is of great benefit and so treat it with respect and care.

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.

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