Bowing to the Buddha Within

More than a gesture, a bow is an act of veneration -- for ourselves and the universe.

Q. Why do Buddhists bow? What purpose does it serve?

Bowing is a common practice in Asia, both within and outside religious circles, a way of expressing respect and reverence, as well as a form of greeting. In India, for example, people bow and say namaste, which means "I bow to honor the divine within you." It is a salutation that recognizes the spirit, like the Hebrew word "shalom," and is used for both coming together and parting.In Tibet, we bow and say tashi delek, meaning "excellent luck and auspicious good fortune to you." Disciples and devotees bow to their teachers, gods, and holy icons (called murtis--images in Tibetan). In India, Hindus kneel or prostrate themselves on the floor, often at their guru's feet, in a gesture known as pranam.

Buddhists commonly offer bows when entering or leaving a temple, shrine, pilgrimage place, or spiritual circle of any kind. Zen Buddhists use a short form of the bow, simply placing their palms together at the heart chakra and inclining the torso; this is called gassho in Japanese. My Zen master in Kyoto explained that bringing the two hands together at the heart represents the reunion of all polarities and duality in our spiritual center, the heart of enlightenment.

A heartfelt bow is not an empty gesture. Bowing is a yoga-like practice with many different levels of meaning. Bowing is a way of being, a way of giving, of offering up and opening oneself. My teachers taught me to drop whatever I was holding on to, put my hands together at my heart, and bow to all beings seen and unseen, thus cherishing and respecting all forms of life. This is a practice of what Mahatma Gandhi called ahimsa, which means "truth in nonviolence." Bowing helps us to be centered in the present moment and become more uncomplicated, vulnerable, and humble.

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I didn't always enjoy bowing as much as I do now. When I first lived in the Himalayas in the early 1970s, the idea of prostrating before someone or before a graven image was anathema to me. "I won't lower myself to anyone!" I thought. Eventually, I learned to enjoy bowing, and discovered how profound and beautiful a practice it is.

Now I see bowing as an elegant traffic signal of the body, voice, and mind. Every bow says: Slow down. Drop the ego. Meditation zone ahead. Proceed with cushion. Bowing is a mindfulness practice. It is a way of removing our mental and emotional armor, along with other ego baggage we may be burdened with. It is like leaving our shoes and luggage at the door of a shrine.

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