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In the last post I looked at the ritual of tea both in my daily life (kaijō) and in my Buddhist practice. This time I am considering another ritual; one that I have always associated with medit atom practice and not my daily life; though this may change up for awhile as Sensei An has suggested that, as long as I am looking at bowing (as ritual and practice) I should practice bowing in my everyday activities. So, as she often signs “bowing warmly,” allow me to proceed.

Almost all the meditation communities I have attended include some sort of bowing rItaly as part of their practice. Some bow fully to the floor, some do small bows from the waist, and others bring their hands together and simply nod. You may see someone bow upon entering the temple/zendo, bow to the Buddha, bow to the monks and nuns, bow to their cushion, and bow to their fellow practitioners. A regular bowing bonanza! So what is the meaning of all this bowing and how is it appropriate?

Chihiro and No-name bowing to a lantern in Spirited Away

from Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki

In its truest sense bowing is a fundamental expression of Buddhism through motion. As Shunryu Suzuki says in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “It is easy to have calmness in inactivity. It is hard to have calmness in activity, but calmness in activity is true calmness, so bowing is a practice of calmness.” Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are not separate; therefore, the communication between them is inexpressibly perfect.” True bowing is a humble gesture but should not be seen as humiliating, as Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni notes, “When we bow down before a Buddha image it means we are able to let go of the importance of the self. We bring our head below our heart. We bow with body, heart and mind and by so doing we gain merit.” So if bowing is a humble merit gaining, calming practice that is a source of perfect communication where is my hangup? Why are my bows self-conscious and often half-hearted?

The practice of bowing can be difficult for Westerners to appreciate. Some may see it as a violation of a personal injunction against idol worship, associate it with kow-towing, acceptance of undemocratic status differentials, submission to power, or self-abasement. These connotations may prevent one from experiencing the true meaning of bowing practice. I suggest that if you feel that bowing is inappropriate please note that in every Sangha I have attended bowing was strictly optional. That said, I believe it the proper courtesy  would be to speak to someone in charge and let them know your conviction that you prefer not to bow. As for myself, I am going to follow Sensei’s advice and take a long look at what is keeping me from crossing my 30° “tipping point.”

Bow and Ghassō

Bow and Ghassō

In the Zen tradition bowing down till one’s knees and forehead are on the floor is generally saved for formal ceremonies. More typically the “respect” bow (futsuu or saikei rei) with a gasshō (palms flat together, fingers straight, fingertips at nose level) is appropriate. Keeping your back straight, bend at the waist until your torso is bent to between a 30 and 40 degree angle.

Bows during meditation (or chanting) are often done in groups of three. Traditionally this has meant one bow for each of the aspects of the “Triple Gem” (triratna) – the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, To paraphrase an old Japanese verse, we bow with all beings to attain liberation, to manifest the unsurpassed mind and the return to the boundless truth. Even in or little Zen community here in Oregon we bow once as we enter the sitting space (Buddha), once to the cushion we will sit on (Dharma), and once to then rest of the community (Sangha).

Why Do I Bow

Several years ago I had a small insite into the nature dharma transmission as being very much like the act of bowing. This is what I wrote down at that time. I hope it is not too abstract.

As I begin my bow, that which I am passes its wisdom on to a newly created that which is now and in so doing becomes that which has passed. Rising from my bow the newly created receives the wisdom of the one that was and in so doing becomes the one that is reborn. Nothing is taken from or lost by the one that passes, nothing is acquired by the one that is, yet all is forever changed. This is the transmission of dharma, untroubled by the transience of existence, the essential reincarnation, I pause but a moment and begin another bow. First penned in September 2012 when at a temple whose practice it was to bow three times all the way to the floor.


Bowing for Peace

Called a three steps, one bow pilgrimage, Rev. Heng Sure and his companion Heng Chau (Dr. Martin Verhoeven), bowed from South Pasadena to Ukiah, California, a distance of 800 miles, seeking for world peace. (1977-1979)

Some additional quotations about bowing.

“We are individual waves on the water, but we are also the entirety of water. When we bow down we acknowledge our essential nature as water, surrendering to whatever form the water wants us to take. For me it is a way of touching that which is universal in me, and putting aside that which is individual.” – Shunryu Suzuki

“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 unsurpassed mind and return to boundless truth.” – Japanese verse translated by Dainin Katagiri Roshi

“When a student bows before a teacher, it is the student who gains merit because she/he is able to let go of the self; the teacher gains nothing at all.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a like.


There was once a famous Chinese master named Zhao Zhou. He was so famous that he had visitors all the time who would come seeking the meaning of enlightenment. One day two young seekers knocked on his door begging for words of wisdom. Zhao Zhou welcomed them into his small hut and told them to sit down at a table where an old monk was already sitting. “Please tell me the meaning of Buddha,” the first student asked. Zhao Zhou replied, “Drink some tea!” The second student then asked, “What is truth?” and Zhao Zhou excitedly replied, “Drink some tea!” The old monk sitting there was quite perplexed about this interaction and wondered to himself, “Why does he tell them to both drink tea instead of answering their questions?” Zhao Zhou, being a great Zen master, read the monk’s mind and said to him, “You drink tea too!”

Kaijō: those things we do habitually in our daily life.

Japanese Tea Garden by Dong Kingman painted in 1967Everything I know about and expect from a proper tea service was imprinted on me as a child going to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Neat little round bowls were filled with slightly bitter, overly brewed jasmine green tea and presented on small wooden trays with a few rice crackers to be ceremoniously consumed with great solemnity while enjoying a quiet moment with family. Of course if you have been to the Tea Garden recently you know this kind of quiet interlude can only happen weekdays on a foggy afternoon in the middle of winter.

Years later my Tai Chi teacher always served Red Zinger® tea after the weekly class. Tea in her living room with my fellow students was an event I always looked forward to. Later when I was attending college I sat for a time at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center. At SMZC there were regularly scheduled work practice days (samu) and in exchange for our labors the center served breakfast in traditional three bowl oryoki style. I believe, for I was never sure, the large bowl contained a porridge of corn meal and a few raisins, the middle size bowl contained green tea, and the small bowl held a salty pickle slice that, along with a splash of tea, was used to clean the bowls prior to being consumed with the tea and bits of porridge that remained after eating. It was all very formal, filled with tradition, practiced in silence, and satisfied my love of ritual perhaps born of a childhood informed by Catholicism.

So my early tea service experiences were generally formal affairs with lots of value as centering rituals in my life. But how does this tie into my experience of partaking of tea in the 21st century? For that answer, please, join me for tea.

Chaios (CHī•äs): Tea taken with a dollop of chaos

Over the last several years I have visited a number of meditation groups and these Sangha’s all handled their tea service in the same way as the group I attended regularly in Ventura California. There the custom was to set up the tea and cookies in a sort of buffet style and people would pick the kind of tea they wanted and a treat to go with it, then sit and listen to the dharma talk, and or take part in the open discussion.

Tea drinking at the Salem Zen Center seems to be inclusive of both styles. Here the tea ceremony has a formal side in that it is taken in silence at our individual seats and it also has an informal side. As Sensei writes in her teacher’s blog (fourth post down), “Each week we have tea. Each week different folks jump up to serve. At SZC we have no one formally assigned to serve the tea. It’s just dependent on someone standing up. I totally love this. It’s rather lively. Serving tea can be rather humbling. There’s no instruction on how to do it. We each learn by taking a risk and working cooperatively.”

Working cooperatively, in silence, with a rotating group of folks makes for a new experience every week. Typically, four people will serve tea to 25ish people as quickly as possible and the result is not just humbling but is often a tad chaotic. For those being served it is an opportunity to immerse themselves in an activity as mundane as eating a cookie with a cup of tea. For those serving it is an opportunity to maintain a non-abiding mind in the midst of all the weirdness that arises when you are trying to silently work with a group, leave no teacup unfilled, drop of tea spilled, or person completely missed (including the servers themselves). After tea the same people clear things up and we have our dharma talk and sharing time. It doesn’t always go smoothly but it strengthens the Sangha each time an individual stands up and avows their own sense of community by offering to serve tea. (More about tea at SZC found here.)

chinese-almond-biscuits-15286_lThich Nhat Hanh writes, “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.” Serving or drinking tea,or coffee for that matter, alone or with friends are things we do every day. They are simple acts that can be performed without our slightest attention. But when I look back on a lifetime of ritual around the serving and drinking tea I see that the more I am observant of these ordinary activities the more it helps me to be mindful of what is going on both within and without. The simple act of having tea can help me regain that still point that might otherwise be lost in the background noise of daily life. A quiet cup of tea is not about finding a place of great stillness outside of one’s daily life, it is about finding the stillness already in one’s life. As Shunryu Suzuki once noted,”The practice of rituals is the practice of stillness.”

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a like.

Now, “volunteers for tea?”