A common misconception that people have about Buddhists is that we worship the Buddha because we bow before his statue. Buddha wasn't a god but a human being just like the rest of us who found a way to transcend the suffering of this world. Initially he resisted sharing his path to others because he didn't think anyone would want to face their inner suffering as he had. However, having developed into an infinitely compassionate being he shared it with those who came to him and 2,500 years later we people are still coming to him. We are his heirs.
To be an heir of the Buddha simply means that we have seen the futility of the greed, hatred and delusion of the world and seek to awaken ourselves from the cycle of suffering as he has. So, in this regard when we bow to a Buddha statue or one another we are acknowledging the Buddha nature of ourselves and others. Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen teacher Lama Surya Das explains it this way:
As a longtime meditator and student of Buddhism, when I myself see a Buddha statue, I intuitively sense that I'm looking in a mirror at my highest, deepest, truest, and most authentic best self. It is not merely something to imitate -- in dress, shape, or hairstyle -- but something to emulate in terms of seeking what the Buddha himself sought and found, in order to find it in myself along with recognizing that in others, and then acting accordingly. The Buddha is actually an archetype representing enlightenment, an icon symbolizing inner wisdom, a pointer towards the possibility of a level of spiritual awakening embodying the fullest actualized potential of human beings.So, we are bowing to the Buddha within us, which emphasizes that yes, we too can awaken to the same freedom that Buddha experienced. It is an act of hope that strengthens intention--intention to free ourselves once and for all from the thrashings of the mind. It reminds us of who we really are and after some time, just gazing upon his image has helped me remember that this identity I cling to isn't my true nature. So, when I'm feeling depressed and self-hatred arises I gaze upon him and contemplate that, "If I have the same potential of Buddha then I must be a good person." It doesn't always help but sometimes it's a nice swift kick to the head that jars loose the grip of my mind.
We also bow to show respect for the path he laid out for us to follow. Buddha's path is like bread crumbs left in a deep, dark, frightening forest to help find our way out and into an open field of awareness that shows us where the stumbling blocks lie. In the dark fog of delusion our mind makes up all sorts of things and we can't see where we are going and before we know it we're deep down in a hole of immense and crippling suffering. Haven't you suffered enough? Wake up and embrace your Buddha nature.
PHOTO CREDIT: From the Public Broad Casting documentary, "The Buddha."