Last time, I left off with being called a “Dharma protector.” Let’s dig a bit deeper into what this means and how we can do it in our own contexts.
In Chinese, the term 護持三寶 is used to describe the act of “protecting and upholding the Triple Gem.” As Buddhists, we all share the responsibility to maintain the Triple Gem’s presence in the world so that sentient beings have the potential to encounter it for as long as possible. This being said, there’s a stark difference between preserving the Dharma and proselytizing. Historically, Buddhism isn’t nearly as passionate about missionary activities as other religions, partly because there’s an understanding that all beings will eventually find Buddhism one way or another and we’ll all attain awakening at the end. As a result, we don’t worry about pressuring people to join Buddhism, but rather just keeping the doors open and providing the conditions for create a karmic connection with the Buddha.
While the Buddha is no longer in this realm, we can “protect” the Buddha gem by continuing to positively represent his image and legacy. When I was living in Japan, there were hundreds of small altars throughout the city of Kyoto, and I’d take the time to venerate the enshrined buddhas and bodhisattvas whenever I passed one. If I had time, I’d recite the Heart Sutra or offer a stick of incense. (I kept a box of incense and a lighter in my backpack specifically for this.) Buddhist images are meant to be venerated. While they are remarkable pieces of art, it always pains me to see an image decontextualized, placed in the sterile environment of an art gallery (or worse, as a garden gnome) for merely artistic purposes.
When images of the Buddha are contextualized with a shrine, offerings, and people frequenting it to practice, they take on a much deeper function. They are no longer elaborately-carved chunks of wood, or metal, or stone, but they become a manifestation of our teacher, the Buddha, himself. Simultaneously, the image becomes a physical representation of our own awakened nature. To those making offerings to these images, the stone statue is the Buddha—the essence of awakening itself, and the virtues of venerating the Buddha are limitless. Thus, preserving the Buddha in these times is especially important. In a world strewn with discord and enmity, a reminder of our dormant potential for compassion and wisdom becomes crucial, and arousing that potential becomes increasingly urgent.
And so, I encourage you to preserve the sanctity of Buddhist images by venerating them. To all who have shrines or altars at home, please replace the offerings regularly and venerate it daily. For those who do not have an altar at home, please visit your local temple and venerate the images there. In a future post, I’ll talk more about the other two gems.