There is a tradition that when the Buddha went to Heaven to preach to his late mother, the king so missed his presence that he had artisans create a replica in sandalwood.
The statue was put in the place where he had sat and, when the Buddha returned, it stood and saluted him. "Sit back down, take your place," the Buddha was said to have told the statue. "After my departure from this world, you will serve as a guide to my followers."
Max Moerman, an expert on Buddhist images who teaches at Barnard College in New York, told this ancient story when asked about the Islamic Taliban's destruction of Buddha images and other statues in Afghanistan that resumed last week after being suspended during Eid ul-Adha, the Muslim Festival of Sacrifice.
There is an outcry around the world, including among many Muslims, against an order by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, to destroy such cultural treasures because "these idols have been gods of the infidels."
On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil tried to clarify the government's position, saying the images are being destroyed because there are no followers of Buddhism in Afghanistan to worship them, Reuters reported.
Muttawakil announced that Hindu and Sikh statues would be spared because there are some followers of those religions who live in Afghanistan. "Their statues will not be smashed as they are worshiping them as part of their religious rituals," he said. "Hindus and Sikhs can fulfill their religious worshiping without any concern."
Buddhist teachers point out that despite the images' importance, Buddhists do not worship them. "There is a misunderstanding that Buddhists try to worship idols," said Guoyuan Fashi, abbot at the Chan Meditation Center in New York City. "The main thing is that we respect the Buddha because we understand his teachings."
But there's a special hurt because Buddhists use such images to help put the Buddha's teachings at the center of their lives.
"The Buddhist tradition, in its canonical texts, greatly reveres and sees it as an important religious practice to create and respect and venerate and make offerings to images of the Buddha," Moerman said. "They would see this [destruction] as more than an act of sacrilege. According to the Buddhist scriptures themselves, this is one of the things that sends you into the deepest hell."
The Taliban's shelling of the two colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan, which may date to the 5th century and are hewn from a rocky mountainside along a route used in the silk trade, is especially disturbing to Buddhists. The taller one, about 175 feet, is thought to have been the world's tallest standing Buddha. The smaller is 120 feet tall.
The size makes a spiritual statement, reflecting "the absolute gigantic importance of the figure of the Buddha in the religious imagination and feelings of Buddhists," said John Hawley, a professor of religion at Barnard.
The huge sculptures at Bamiyan reflect the deep respect for the Buddha and the zeal of the people who built them, he said.
"I try not to be angry or hurt," Fashi said. "This is our practice of seeing things as not correct -- we should say it, but try not to be angry in ourselves. . . . Sometimes we have to be determined, but there's no need for anger. You add more oil to the fire."
Thulani Davis, of the 96th Street Sangha in New York, said images of the Buddha were often used to tell his story to illiterate people. "There's a very complex language of the postures of the Buddha and the mudras, the different gestures of the hands," she said.
"The right hand might be up, with the palm facing toward you; that's a sign of protection. In another one, the Buddha's right hand might be touching the earth, which signifies the boon of enlightenment being made available to every living being."
Some Buddhist statues tell the Buddha's life story, much as sculptures and stained-glass windows do in Christian cathedrals. Most often, Davis said, the Buddha is shown in meditation because "that is the tool; that is how he became enlightened."
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York offered to buy some of the more portable images in Afghanistan and to display them as works of art rather than as religious objects. "They are major monuments in the history of Buddhist art; they are major monuments in the history of civilization," said Philippe de Montebello, the museum's director. "They are . . . totally irreplaceable."
But there was no response from the Taliban. "One feels very helpless," he said.