If one has a chance to encounter great meditation masters, we will find them free from a need for a god figure in their life. That is Buddhist freedom and happiness.
However, not everyone can be like that. Some of us still cherish a god like entity in our mind. We want to belive and want to rely on such a being in our mind. We want to pray to something out there in times of needs or in moments of darkness in life.
Such mental needs are not terribly bad if it motivates us to be good and kind.
In the course of spreading enlightenment to people, Buddhist masters would have encounter people who wants to believe in God or Gods. If you tell them, “there is no God to help you”, they cannot handle it. If you tell them that you can only rely on yourselves for happiness, they cannot accept it.
These masters had to deploy skillful methods to teach the art of enlightenment. Sometimes the intent of these masters can be lost over time as the common folk share their spiritual practices with each other.
For example. In China. The Goddess Guan Yin is a Bodhisattva Ideal realated to the practice of compassion. Until today, one can still hear the ancient admonishment
“How can one pray to Kuan Yin and show no mercy at all?” when a Buddhist is being chided for being harsh or non compassionate.
That message had been passed down since olden days till now. We can see the dynamics here.
Therefore even an illiterate person who does not know Buddhist doctrine but pray to Guan Yin, knows that she prefers her devotees to be compassionate and vegetarian and if they cannot be vegetarian, then they shouldn’t slaugther a domesticated farming animal (such as the bull) for food.
I think in the spirit of spreading Enlightenment, such an education is better than non.
If we examine Buddhist from different countries and different cultures, across various sects and practices. We are bound to find 2 categories of Buddhist. One is strict adherent to the doctrine of not praying to any Gods / Buddha or Bodhisattva whatsoever.
Another group will be trained to do prayers and it will not be difficult to catch a glimpse of Buddha’s doctrine embeded in their practices, passed down though generations of folklore, stories mythologies etc
Even today, enlightened masters continue to deploy creativity in educating the people and training them towards enlightenment.
Their main concern is not to increase the Buddhist headcounts and make people conform to a group but to spread the message of Enlightenment.
As the saying goes, when there is a demand, there is a supply.
If we examine how the Buddha approach the youth, Sigala to expound the Sigalovada sutta, we can also see this dynamic approach.
The youth Sigala was praying to different directions. Instead of going up to the youth and discrediting his practice as superstition, Sakyamuni Buddha made use of that opportunity to teach about leading a proper laity life.
When it comes to enlightenment, it doesn’t mean the educated will be more previledged.
As can be seen in my story links above, almost half a village of superstitious, illiterate people living in remote forested area can attain high level of meditation progress through a “magical” practice.
If a statue can help the faithful gain enlightenment, then it is a useful education tools. Otherwise it is useful as firewood. That’s another story for another time 🙂