This is a good question. Indeed, at Buddhist temples Buddhists sometimes appear to worship Buddha statues. However, this is not what the Buddha taught and therefore technically Buddhists are not praying to the statues.
One way to explain this is to say that their behavior is really just a form of respect (although it looks like praying). For example, when the national flag is raised we salute or perhaps sing the national anthem. Alternatively, when you worship an idol or statue you make sacrifices to it, pray to it and hope to receive good fortune in return. In such case you would be worshiping the statue.
A simple analogy can be drawn between Buddha statues and similar Christian statues such as the Virgin Mary or the saints. These statues are to be respected and used as a source of inspiration for the values they represent. However, some Christians obviously worship them as deities.
Should Devotees Worship Buddha Statues?
I think it is unlikely that Buddhists who worship Buddha statues have actually studied the Buddhists texts. However, if they had done so, they might retort by referencing the Dhammapada, which is directly attributed to Gautama Buddha. Indeed the Buddha did say in the Dhammapada that adherents should “worship” those with “perfected minds”. Perhaps it could be implied that Buddhists should worship images of those with perfected minds e.g. statues of Buddhas? The following excerpts can be found in the Dhammapada.
Dhammapada Verses 106 & 107
Though month after month for a hundred years
one should offer sacrifices by the thousands, yet
if only for a moment one should worship those of
perfected minds that honor is indeed better than a
century of sacrifice.
Though for a hundred years one should tend the
sacrificial fire in the forest, yet if only for a
moment one should worship those of perfected
minds, that worship is indeed better than a
century of sacrifice.
It is interesting that the Buddha did make reference to worship in an important Buddhist text. However, the verses in the text clearly refer to “perfected minds”. As a result, he is referring to those who have transcended the cycle of rebirth and entered Nirvana. Indeed a Buddha has become one with the Dharma. Gautama Buddha taught his disciples that “whoever sees the Dharma sees me”. Indeed, the perfected mind is a powerful source of inspiration but it is not an entity in itself.
Further Clarification of the Buddha’s teachings
According to the experts, the term that the Buddha used in the Dhammapada did clearly translate as “worship”. Fortunately, it is very easy to discredit the worship of Buddha statues because it would be considered a “false view”. Also known as “wrong view”, it is considered to be one of the three most insidious defilements and its origin is found in ignorance.
The false view that stands out here is “seeing selflessness as self”. If you worship Buddha statues you have created a person, self or a being out of a mere object. As a result, it can be conclusively determined that the Buddha did not mean for Buddhists to worship Buddha statues. In fact, practicing Buddhists should not be worshiping or praying to anything at all including the Buddha himself.
It is important to note that symbols are common in Buddhist practice. For example, the sweet smell of incense (proliferation of good), a bowl of water (purity) or flowers (impermanence). Likewise the Buddha statue is an important symbol that stands for faith and adherence to Buddhist virtues. However, without dedication and proper practice these symbols have no meaning because they are only selfless objects.