Beyond just having a Laughing Buddha statue in my living room, may I pray to Him? Does he really exist like Chenrezig, Amitabha, and so on, or is it a mere statue?
Answer from Thay Phap Chung:
First of all, we have to understand that the Buddha statue is not something to pray to. The Buddha statue reminds us to practice mindfulness. Looking at Buddha statues or Bodhisattva statues we can see their compassion and loving kindness through their virtues and actions. We want to learn from them and receive peaceful energy from them. So, when we have a Buddha statue at home, we may like to put it in a very solemn place; whenever we see it, we remember to practice. You can find their virtues and actions in the text Invoking the Bodhisattvas’ Names. The Bodhisattvas did not really exist. They are just symbols of characters, of virtues and actions, like the Statue of Liberty. So, through these statues we can see some of the Buddhas around us…
When we bow to the Buddha, we can see the Buddha nature in us. This practice can bring a lot of joy and cultivate love and compassion. Otherwise, it is just nothing, because it is just a stone or a cement statue. We have a gatha:
The one who bows and the one who is bowed to
Are both by nature empty
Therefore the communication between them
Is inexpressibly perfect
What you shared in your question I believe refers to the Maitreya Buddha with an always laughing face—a happy person, sometimes with some children around him. This Buddha will be born in the future. Maitreya is “Từ Thị” in Vietnamese, it means looking at everyone with the eyes of compassion. So, we have a phrase to praise him:
Seed of awakening and loving kindness in children and all beings, Maitreya the Buddha to be born, to whom we bow in gratitude
A Buddha statue is the product of the human mind. No one knows exactly how the Buddha’s face looked; depending on the culture of the countries where they are made, statues will have different faces. Through custom, though, we can tell who he is.
So, the significance of the Buddha statue is to help us remember to practice, to be peaceful, kind, compassionate.