One of our editors tells this story: “I was at a group meditation retreat that involved doing a lot of full prostrations. At the front of the room was a large (and not very attractive) statue of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. It looked exactly like we were all bowing down to him. The person beside me—who had given up medical school to study Buddhism—came up from a prostration and said with a laugh, ‘If my parents could see me now!’”
In spite of how it looked, they weren’t bowing to or worshipping the statue. They were offering respect and humility to the principle of compassion, which Avalokiteshvara represents. Statues of the buddhas and other enlightened beings connect us to wisdom, compassion, and sacredness, and it is to those principles and the beings who embody them that Buddhists show respect, not the “graven images” themselves. On the other hand, is there really a difference between the images and the qualities they evoke in us?