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July 19, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Bowing is a very serious practice.  You should be prepared to bow, even in your last moment.  Even though it is impossible to get rid of our self-centered ideas, we have to do it.  Our true nature wants us to.—Suzuki Roshi.

Over the years I have noticed how difficult, if not impossible, it is for a beginner to bow to the altar in a zendo.  I have accepted this resistance to bowing as a feature of our western psyches that have not been raised to bow to anything, certainly not a statue depicting a man who lived and died twenty-five hundred years ago.  As God told Moses, “I see this people—and here, it is a stiff-necked people.”

In Zen, we do a lot of bowing—sometimes just a short movement at the waist and sometimes a full prostration.  When we enter a zendo, we bow to the altar, we bow to the assembly and finally we bow to our own seats.  I have noticed that it is not nearly as hard for a beginner to bow to others who are sitting with them as it is to bow to an altar.   I have come to realize that it is not so important to whom or what I am bowing to as it is that I am bowing.  Bowing itself , as Suzuki Roshi put it, is not different from sitting meditation.  They are both expressing the truth that we need to let go of all of our dualistic ideas.  We need to become one with Buddha, and with everything else that exists.

Our first tentative bows to an altar may be out of respect for a teacher and his teaching and the long lineage of buddhas and ancestors, but if we persist in this practice we see that something else is going on.  We see that bowing is a physical giving up of our usual sense of self and others.  No one is bowing and there is no one to bow to!  There is just a bow.  When we bow, the entire universe bows with us.  It is a natural expression of everything that is.

Katagiri suggested that we repeat the following chant when we bow:

Bower and what is bowed to are empty by nature.

The bodies of one’s self and others are not two.

I bow with all beings to attain liberation.

To manifest the unsurpassable mind and return to boundless truth.

So, bowing, which at first may seem to be the ultimate dualistic practice of paying respect to something else, is a practice to help us get beyond the fixed notion of self and other.  Let’s take a careful look at the inner dynamics of bowing and see if we can figure out what is going on.

In Meditating Selflessly, James Austin, the neuroscientist and Zen student, writes: Authentic bowing means that you are now—quite literally—lowering the flag of the sovereign I.  When you bow you are giving up your sense of who and what you have thought you were your whole life. It is a physical deconstruction of the ego.  Over the years I have noticed that when I bow I am returning to something unknown.  I feel that I am falling through time and space to return to that which I was “before my parents were born.”  When my forehead touches the floor I feel that I am returning to the ground of being. When I put out my arms on the floor I am physically re-enacting the truth that I am no different from anything.

I’d like to close with a wonderful passage from Opening the Hand of Thought, by Kosho Uchiyama:

Just Bow

Putting my right and left hands together as one,  Image             

     I just bow,

Just bow to become one

     with Buddha and God,

Just bow to become one

     with everything I encounter,

Just bow to become one with all

      the myriad things,

Just bow as life becomes life.




From → Zen Buddhism

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