Traditionally someone who is following the Buddhist tradition will have a picture or a statue of a Buddha placed on their altar. You will notice this whenever you visit any large Buddhist temple. I feel it is important to be clear about what this image represents.
First of all, a Buddha is not a God. There is no concept of a creator God in Buddhism. When we see an image or statue of the Buddha, we must remember the story or history of the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. He was born a prince, a regular human being, who dedicated himself to practicing wholesome Ethical Conduct and the 2 types of Meditation: Calm/Concentration and Insight/Looking Deeply. When he achieved ‘Enlightenment’ under the Bodhi Tree, at that moment he did not become a God nor did he become an inanimate gold statue! However, a transformation did take place within his being. He saw clearly and understood deeply the cause of our mental difficulties as well as how to achieve happiness and peace. This is what the Buddha taught others before he passed away. These teachings are known as the ‘Dharma’ and those who are practicing them are called the ‘Sangha’.
So when we see an image of the Buddha on an altar or in fact anywhere it should serve as a reminder that we ourselves can become a ‘Buddha’ or someone who sees clearly. It should remind us that even though we presently have some sticky negative habits we do have the ability and potential to free ourselves from them. It should remind us of the importance of cultivating an attitude of non-harming…to ourselves and others. It should remind us of the importance of assisting others with joy, kindness, compassion and peace.
All of this can be achieved by following the clear instructions the Buddha left behind in the Hinayana and the Mahayana path. Through our own experience and practice we will discover that we can do it!
As a side note, if you are uncomfortable with placing an image of the Buddha on your altar or in your meditation space, I see no problem with using something that speaks to you more personally. Perhaps a flower can represent the growth of wisdom, compassion and kindness in your being or maybe a picture of a calm body of water may speak to you of the qualities of developing peace within. Find something that inspires you personally and don’t forget to use it as a reminder to develop yourself in that direction.