Tuesday, March 06, 2007


When we bow to open up the ego to the whole universe we are ordinary students practicing Zen. When the universe expresses itself through the body as a bow, that is the awakened perspective.

- Shunryu Suzuki

Most of us, most of the time, go around with our heads full of thoughts and intentions, desires and plans, which take us away from the reality of the present. Even when we're walking to the Zen dojo we might be thinking about bills we have to pay or about a conversation we might have when we get there. The forms of behaviour that we practice in the dojo are designed to bring our awareness to reality and the present moment and to abandon our egotistical 'picking and choosing'. When we step into the dojo we don't do it according to our personal preference, nor even according to the authority of someone else, but according to the prescribed form of our tradition and we do it with awareness. We step over the threshold with the left foot, then bring the right foot over to meet it. Then we put our hands together and bow to the Buddha and our dharma ancestors on the altar. When we've reached our place, we bow to the seat and the wall we will face, then we turn around and bow to the seat opposite.

To a Westerner unfamiliar with Zen or Zen arts, these actions can seem very strange. We no longer have a culture where we bow to one another in greeting or to show respect. Western missionaries travelling to Asia described Buddhists as statue worshippers or idolaters. Even a three year old child knows that a statue is not a sentient being, yet Buddhists bow to them. Many others think that Buddhists are worshipping a god or supernatural being called 'Buddha' who is represented by the statue. Most Western cultures place a lot of value on the primacy of the individual - we do not like to bow to anyone or anything. This might be part of the reason that so many westerners are drawn to the iconoclastic or apparently nihilistic stories which come from Zen. Yet Zen is not nihilistic and only rarely iconoclastic. Philip Kapleau tells the story of two Americans who travel to a Japanese Zen monastery in the 1950s and are dismayed to see monks bowing to the altar and ask, "The old Chinese Zen masters burned or spit on Buddha statues, why do you bow down before them?" The roshi replies. "If you want to spit you spit, I prefer to bow."

Who are we bowing to when we enter the dojo? We are showing respect to our teacher - just as we show respect to our living teachers and to representations of our dharma ancestors, we express respect to the teacher of teachers - the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha. It is unimportant that Gauthama Siddhartha is dead and and that it is only a statue made of metal or wood that we are bowing to - what is important is our expression of appreciation. Really we are expressing appreciation to the principle that the statue represents - awakening to reality just as it is. We are bowing to our own inner nature - which is not our ego or our thoughts but the reality that gives rise to those phenomena. We are bowing to Buddha nature, our own innermost heart and mind. We are bowing before reality just as it is.

When we bow to the zafu and the wall we are bowing inwards to our own heart, our own Buddha Nature, the true reality of our being rather than our narrow sense of personal identity. When we bow to the person opposite us, we are expressing appreciation for the Buddhist community we are practicing with and for the world beyond it - we are bowing to one another's Buddha Nature.

The deepest bow that we do in Zen involves prostrating ourselves repeatedly with our foreheads on the floor. Bowing is an expression of humility, but not humiliation - a wounded, or threatened ego can be even stronger than an ego which feels strong. We are abandoning the identification with the narrow sense of self, the duality of self and other in order to open up to the rest of the universe. Ideally the act of bowing should be an act conducted without effort of will and without conscious purpose - so that it is not our personal self that bows, rather it is an act without an actor.

By bowing we are giving up ourselves. To give up ourselves means to give up our dualistic ideas...But when you bow to Buddha you should have no idea of Buddha, you just become one with Buddha, you are already Buddha himself. When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship.

- Shunryu Suzuki
If we perform an action with our whole consciousness and we do it peacefully without recoiling from it or clinging to it or longing for something else, even if only for a brief moment, then we can experience an inner silence in which there is no judgement, or desire or abstraction to divide reality into 'self' and 'other'. At that time we lose the illusion that we are distinct and separate from the universe. Life becomes whole.

As long as there is true bowing, the Buddha Way will not deteriorate.

- Dogen

ordinary extraordinary: Bowing

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At March 06, 2007, Blogger Jordan & The Tortoise said...


That was refreshing, thanks for posting it.

With a Bow

At March 06, 2007, Blogger me said...

Great post & well written. The few times I've bowed after sitting (to no one or thing in particular) my dogs wonder what's up and come over, push their noses under my arms and the whole thing dissolves, happily. But I don't bow much. Seems this aspect of zazen isn't as often explained as the sitting part.

At March 06, 2007, Blogger Anatman said...

I often find myself bowing after sitting. It is a very natural physical reaction for me, in an attempt to stretch out and limber up my spine and back. While I am doing it, I realize that it is actually a bow, and it becomes that.

At March 06, 2007, Blogger Anatman said...

And my cats also sniff at my head, asking, "What the heck are you doing?!"

At March 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find bowing and the obligation to bow to be useful to always be mindful both of the moment and of other things.

Within the Judo dojo that I practice the standard protocol is that you bow when entering or leaving the dojo mat area (through a very narrow doorway).

That bow is expected of you regardless of your state of mind or your desire to go to the toilet or whatever.

That mark of respect is a very useful thing.

Obviously, since it is Judo it is a japanese bow. Out in the world I may sometimes pay my respects to various things by using a bow but this time it will be a buddhist bow.

The bow for me means nothing beyond an expression of respect in a way that I associate with such an expression.

Incidentally, in the dojo where I practice it is also not unusual for an expression of respect between players to be shown by a handshake in addition to a bow.
This is a culture clash. The japanese bow is given to satisfy etiquette. The handshake is given as a mark of respect if it is felt to be warranted.

At March 07, 2007, Blogger rchinn72 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At March 08, 2007, Blogger TedinAnacortes said...

I would like to thank Jordan (and the tortoise) for making me aware of this blog. Thanks!

Also thanks to Justin for this explication on bowing. Great post! It reminded me of a favorite story from the Record of Huang-Po:

Our Master once attended an assembly at the Bureau of the Imperial Salt Commissioners at which the Emperor T’ai Chung was also present as a sramanera. The sramanera noticed our Master enter the hall of worship and make a triple prostration to the Buddha, whereupon he asked: ‘If we are to seek nothing from the Buddha, Dharma or Sangha, what Your Reverence seek by such prostrations?’

‘Though I seek not from the Buddha,’ replied our Master, ‘or from the Dharma, or from the Sangha, it is my custom to show respect in this way.’

‘But what purpose does it serve?’ insisted the sramanera, whereupon he suddenly received a slap.

‘Oh,’ he exclaimed. ‘How uncouth you are!’

‘What is this?’ cried the Master. ‘Imagine making a distinction between refined and uncouth!’ So saying, he administered another slap, causing the sramanera to betake himself elsewhere!

The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, (Translated by John Blofeld, p.95-96)

Ha! What a great master old Huang-Po is!

Thanks again,
Gassho, Ted

At March 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ted, it's great to see you here.

[even though that sentence is factually inaccurate]


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