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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.

Innate within each of us is the the ability to contribute something that is unique in the universe; we can resolve to take control of our inner self and our relationship to everything we experience. In so doing we contribute something that is so basic to the universe that it is its very raison d’être, its most basic no, original, ground of being.

This blog is about that inner world, a changing personal world that we seek to maintain some discipline over. This blog is about our increasingly urban world, this ever changing blue marble and our intimate relationship to it. This blog is about Buddhism, a twenty-five hundred year old philosophical system and the answers it provides in these modern times. And finally this blog is about rediscovering the innate (inner) skills (siddhi) that each of us can utilize to help us on the path to awakening.

How will we recognize the true path when we are on it? I propose we start by applying a simple test – does the path that presents itself make sense? Which is to say does it promote our development of wisdom (prajñā), ethical conduct (śīla), and increase our concentration (samādhi) thereby allowing us to nurture increased inner calm and collectedness.

Even in this modern world with its distractions and temptations at every moment we are offered an opportunity to, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “be the change we want to see in the world.” So where does one begin? What are the first few steps on the path?

It starts with a few realizations and perhaps you have had some of these or all of them and that is why you are on this path. The most primal of these realizations is the knowledge that there is suffering. This realization is strongest when you see beyond your personal suffering and see the truth that there is the presence of suffering and it goes hand in hand with existence. Suffering, in this sense extends far beyond our personal problems even if our suffering includes fear of loosing our most basic securities like shelter, income, health, excreta.

The Four Reminders

  1. This life you are experiencing is a precious opportunity.
  2. Impermanence is perpetual (it endures).
  3. Karma (just) happens.
  4. Samsara is futile.

So let’s start right here with this precious human life.