When does Buddhism become idolatry?

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Idolatry is defined as “the worship of idols or excessive devotion to, or reverence for some person or thing.” Certainly there is idolatry in Buddhist circles … both subtle and gross.

An example of subtle idolatry in Buddhism might be over-reification and personification of Buddha-Nature (variously Buddha-dhātu, Tathāgatagarbha or Sugatagarbha) — the assumption that there is a discrete, substantial, independently existing, absolute, perfect, yet personable entity that can be identified as ‘Buddha‘ who can be moved to abrogate the lawful order of the cosmos through supplication and petition. Or that we intrinsically possess a Buddha-Nature—that it is somehow ours—as opposed to our being it’s.

An example of gross idolatry is the tendency of people to think that a certain teacher is absolutely perfect, or a certain formulation of the teaching is the absolute truth. Truth that is articulated and enunciated through concepts and words cannot be absolute (by definition), at best it can point to the absolute and do so skillfully.

It is very worthwhile to examine and re-examine any such notions as these that we may find ourselves defending. In this way we may recognize and prevent remaining elements of magical/wishful thinking from eroding our ability to see reality. Although, truth be told, ‘reality’ too is not something to reify.

This is the value of the ‘Three Jewels’: Buddha (‘Exemplar’ or ‘teacher’), Dharma (‘Example’ or ‘teaching’) and Sangha (or ‘Community of Practitioners manifesting the example’)—one can engage in a process of mutual clarification and refinement.

The special value of the Heart Sutra (Mahāprajñāpāramitā Hridaya Sūtra), Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedikāprajñāpāramitā-Sūtra) and Platform Sutra (Liu Zhu Tan Jing) as well as Madhyamika philosophy to help one clear away the cobwebs of idolatry and magical-thinking is inestimable – this includes cautions against the reification of emptiness (Sunyata), selfhood, even the Bodhisattva ideal of benefiting all beings.

Gate gate paragate parasangate bodhi svaha.

Namu Amida Butsu

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