On a Vesak celebration four years ago, a monk presented me with a Buddha statue to thank me for my service in the community. It was a typical statue of Lord Buddha sitting with legs folded, made of white plaster and set in a mold that the monk himself had crafted with his own hands. It was relatively large — bigger than a basketball — and heavy. A year later, when I unpacked the statue from a cross-country move, I found it broken in two.
I was faced with a personally unfamiliar dilemma (related to a previous post): What do you do with a broken Buddhist statue?
According to one gardener: “When a household statue of Buddha is broken, it cannot be thrown away. Instead, it is left at the base of a Bodhi tree.”
What if you don’t have a Bodhi tree?
Why can’t you throw it away?
From one perspective, a thing is just a thing. A statue is only holy so long as you venerate it. Throwing it away won’t kill anyone. On the other hand, if I were to throw away a broken Buddhist statue, my neighbor might find it in the trash and be offended by it. Maybe that’s his problem. But this “not my problem” reaction comes out of a mindset that I try not to cultivate.
I tried searching online for other approaches to dealing with the situation of a broken statue, but I couldn’t find any.
I remember talking to a distant cousin who once eyed the jade pendant of Lord Buddha that I wear around my neck. She told me that it had protective powers so long as the jade was “alive.” She told me a story of her childhood, that she once fell from the third story of a building and suffered no injuries, but her jade pendant had cracked. According to her, the pendant swallowed the force of the fall, thus saving her life. After that, she tossed the jade away. It was dead.
I have only one other applicable experience. During my most recent trip to visit my ancestral village, I decided to exercise by climbing one of the nearby mountains. Apparently, many local workers enjoy climbing the mountain after work, and I found myself hiking up alongside a number of middle aged laborers, many of them barefooted. Halfway up the mountain, there was a Buddhist temple. As I made my way up past the temple, I noticed some small hand-sized statues placed on the earth behind one of the buildings.
Moving closer, I saw they were broken.
My companions told me that the broken statues were occasionally dropped off by people who didn’t want to toss the statues in with the rubbish, but who were also unwilling to keep them on the altar. I felt strangely touched by this act, a mixture of veneration and shame.
Several months later in the States, I told my mother about what I’d seen. I had made a plan to take my broken statue over to one of the downtown Thai temples in the middle of the night after the monks had gone to sleep, and place the pieces together in the alley behind the meditation hall. I was moving back across the country to Los Angeles, and I wasn’t going to bring the broken pieces along.
I looked to my mother for approval, but she twisted her face angrily. Bring the statue home, she told me. She would have my father fix it, put it out of the way and in a proper place.
“You don’t throw away your Buddha.”