The Plastic Buddha

08 November 2018 by Roy Preece

The tall heavy doors swing inwards. Cautiously, you go into the temple. In classical times the doors were placed at the east end of the temple, so the rising sun could shine in, but there are no windows and the interior is dark and mysterious. As your eyes get used to the gloom, you see at the far end a tall imposing figure, surrounded by candle flames and wreathed in smoke. This is the god you have come to see.

In ancient times gods were often cruel. Perhaps the worst was the Carthaginian god, Baal, cast in bronze, who consumed live babies in the fiery furnace of his belly. You approach the god fearfully, gazing at his strong face. When you are very close you humbly look down at the god’s feet. The paint is scuffed and worn by the priests’ shoes and you see the clay underneath. Your magnificent ‘god’ is made of clay.

“All our gods have feet of clay” is a popular saying which comes from the Old Testament story of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, who lived about the same time as Buddha, in the 6th century BC: “Thou, O king, sawest, and beheld a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible. This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, his legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.” The saying has come to mean that everything in this life has a weakness and will disappoint.

Does it, then, matter what our gods are made of? We have been criticised for making a Buddha from a cheap children’s toy: a Plastic Buddha! 


All images of gods are metaphors: “not having real existence but representing some truth about a situation or other subject”. And strictly speaking, Buddha is not a god, though some people think he is. He was a real person, but he has become a sort of essence; an ideal, an inspiration to a better calmer life.  When we pray to a god, perhaps we are really praying to ourselves; in the same way as when we seek advice from a friend we already know what is the right way and are often only seeking confirmation and support, so when we pray to a god for help we are really seeking to find the potential goodness and strength that lie within ourselves.

We are told that images of Buddha should only be made by holy men. When Buddha left his privileged life and saw the suffering of the world outside, which he blamed on greed, he first thought that the answer was that he should deny himself everything.  But when this experiment nearly led to his death he realised there was a middle way of modest needs combined with right living, and that the key to a good life was compassion. These are important Buddhist principles. There are many statues of Buddha made of gold and precious jade by holy men.  We may wonder how well these extravagant images symbolize the modest life advocated by Buddha. But it is for each person to find their own way.

The metaphor of The Plastic Buddha is good. A cheap ordinary everyday doll has been transformed by loving skill and care and respect into a beautiful little symbol of the essence of Buddhism. Perhaps it symbolizes the beginning of a journey to enlightenment. It will be used to educate and inform and, we hope, inspire good living. It seems that is what Buddha sought for everyone. 

Come to join us for the One World Festival at the Ashmolean Museum on 17th and 18th November 2018 to see our Plastic Buddha yourself and to learn about the interesting co-existence of Buddhism and Taoism in Taiwan.