Religious statues confuse me. When you pray in front of a statue of your god, are you asking the statue, itself, to bless you, or the god that the statue represents? Some religions, of course, don’t even have artistic representations of their gods. And then there’s Buddhism, a “religion” based on the teachings of a prophet who, at no time, ever claimed he was a god. If anything, the historical Buddha suggested we could all attain our own enlightenment (or godhood) by simply following his path. As far as I know, he never preached that people should pray to Him.

And yet, as I walk around the astonishing Reclining Buddha in Bangkok, Thailand, housed in the resplendent Wat Pho temple, I’m surprised to see a good number of people burning incense and praying to the statue. Some of them are even pasting gold leaf on it! What’s going on here? Does the Buddha, dead all these 2,500 years, have the power to bestow blessings from the great beyond? Or are these people praying to the Buddha nature within them? Now that’s a lovely thought! These are the questions running through my mind as I wander along the 150-foot length of the great Reclining Buddha, admiring his luminous golden color, his elegant face and his absolutely remarkable feet! Decorated with 108 mother-of-pearl illustrations of auspicious laksanas (characteristics) of the Buddha, the feet are a sight to behold. Apparently the number 108 is particularly significant, referring to the 108 positive actions and symbols that helped lead Buddha to perfection.

Visiting the Reclining Buddha is a bit like seeing Michelangelo’s David in Florence (see Wow Place #111). Both statues are imposing; both statues are gorgeous. You can’t help goggling at the effort and expertise required for an artist to bring such beauty into the world. For me, it’s another “pinch me” moment. How can a place like this still exist in the world? How am I so lucky as to be able to come this far, to experience this remarkable loveliness? Although it’s not in my tradition to pray to statues, my exotic travel prayers have most certainly been answered.

(Great art gives me hope for the world. For all the muck we humans have made of our planet, for all the oppression and cruelty we’ve wreaked on each other, we still have this grandeur and ingenuity inside of us. If we can create a Reclining Buddha, perhaps one day we bring about a kind and just society. What does art do for you?)