Why Do Buddhists Bow?

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshicha (1765-1827) used to say that everyone should keep a piece of paper with “for my sake the world was created” in one pocket, and a piece of paper with “I am but dust and ashes” in another.  The Rabbi was expressing an existential truth: each individual being is important, but not self-important.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim

Western psychology has had precious little to say about modesty and humility.  It sometimes seems these old-fashioned values have no place in today’s culture of self-promotion, entitlement, and exhibitionism.  Western personality theorists reached tentative agreement in the 1980s that the “Big Five” factors accounted for most of the variance in human personality: 1) anxiety proneness, 2) introversion-extraversion, 3) openness to experience, 4) conscientiousness, and 5) agreeableness.  Modesty and humility had no place of honor within that standard model.

Canadian psychologists Kibeom Lee and Michael Ashton recently challenged the Big Five model by proposing the existence of a sixth personality factor they’ve called “Honesty-Humility.”  People with high degrees of Honesty-Humility avoid manipulating others for personal gain, feel little temptation to break rules, are uninterested in attaining wealth, and feel no sense of entitlement to elevated status or privilege.  Persons with low degrees of Honesty-Humility, on the other hand, are self-important, motivated by material gain, tempted to bend rules to get ahead, and Machiavellian in their relationships with others. It’s very interesting that honesty and humility are linked together. Honesty-Humility almost sounds like the ideal Buddhist personality factor: ethics, modesty, and non-greed.  It also sounds maybe a little Canadian, eh?

The Honesty-Humility factor was in the news last month with the publication of a study by Baylor University psychologists showing that job supervisors rate health care  employees who score high on Honesty-Humility higher on job performance than those who score low.  In fact, Honesty-Humility predicted job performance ratings better than any of the so-called Big Five Factors. [1]

In Asian Buddhist cultures modesty and respect for others are conveyed through the simple gesture of bowing.  The hands-together bow is used throughout Asia: in Japan (gasshō), China (héshi or hézhǎng), Thailand (wai) Viet Nam, (hiệp chưởng) and India (the añjali mudrā or namaste).

The practice of bowing can sometimes be difficult for Westerners to fully appreciate. They often see it as a violation of the Biblical injunction against bowing down before graven images and idol worship [2] or associate it with “kow-towing:” acceptance of undemocratic status differentials, submission to power, and self-abasement.







These connotations may prevent Westerners from experiencing the beauty of bowing practice. Bowing is an expression of Buddhism through motion. In Zen, for example, one bows upon entering the Zendo, bows to the Buddha, bows to one’s cushion, bows to one’s teachers, and bows to one’s fellow practitioners.  Zen is a bona-fide bowing bonanza.  What’s the meaning of all these bows?

The word “gasshō” is Japanese for “to place the two palms together.”  It’s a sign of respect —  but respect for what?  Judeo-Christian bowing is a recognition of God’s sovereignty.  Does bowing before the Buddha acknowledge the Buddha’s sovereignty?  Is it an act of fealty?

Hardly. The Buddha isn’t a diety: he rules over nothing, is sovereign over nothing.   Buddha images are a four-fold representation.  They represent the totality of existence, our own capacity for awakening, the teachings, and the historical source of those teachings.  When we bow we express gratitude for the historical Buddha as a teacher, gratitude for the teachings themselves, respect for our own capacity for awakening, and acknowledgement of the oneness of Being.  The Buddha is neither separate from the totality of Being, nor from ourselves.  In bowing to the Buddha we bow to ourselves-as-part-of-everything.  We acknowledge the smallness of our egos, the vastness of Being, and the way of Enlightenment.

Zoketsu Norman Fisher once observed Dainin Katagiri Roshi mumbling a Japanese verse as he bowed.  Katagiri Roshi translated the verse:

“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.” [3]

Similarly, the Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni notes:

“It is important to understand the significance of this humble gesture. 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. 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.”

The practice is not a recognition of the teacher’s higher existential status or superiority.  It’s a letting go of our small self and a demonstration of the appreciation and respect due all beings. The teacher returns the bow.  According to Katagiri Roshi, “bowing is mutual, just one bow, bowing back and forth.”

Respect for all beings is a core principle in Zen.  It’s an expression of what Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life.”  But it goes beyond that: we even bow to our cushion.  We are grateful for, respect, and help maintain the inanimate world as well.  Since everything in the universe is connected, everything is necessary for our own small individual existence.  We show gratitude and respect for our cushion, the ground that supports us, the walls that protect us, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the earth, moon, and stars.

Bruce Blair, Yale’s Buddhist chaplain (and former abbot of the Kwan Um School of Zen’s New Haven Zen Center), once told me that Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn continued to bow one-hundred-and-eight times every morning even into his seventh decade. Bruce asked “Do you want to know why one-hundred-and-eight times?”  I knew “108” was an auspicious number in Buddhism, but was game and replied, “Okay, why?”  Bruce then told me to follow his lead.  We started doing prostrations in the middle of New Haven Square, Bruce counting aloud as we did them: one… two… three… four… five….  After ten I got the idea.  No logical reason. No “meaning.” The meaning was in the performance itself.  Just do it.  Bruce and I smiled at each other.  Direct transmission.

Bowing is good for the soul.  In India they say “namaste,” “I bow to the divinity in you,” in accordance with the Advaita Vedānta doctrine that ātman and Bráhman are one.  In Buddhism it’s not divinity we’re acknowledging, but our capacity for awakening and the non-duality of existence.  It’s a spiritual exchange in which we recognize the unique importance of each being in the universe as well as the smallness of the Self.  Would  Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshicha have understood?

Ronald McDonald "wais" in Bangkok

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  1. [1] Please note, however, that these employees worked in the health care field.  Would Honesty-Humility also correlate with car salesmen’s job performance ratings?  Maybe not.
  2. [2]Exodus 20:3; Leviticus 26:1; Deuteronomy 5:7
  3. [3] This story appears in Rev. Heng Sure’s chapter “Cleansing the Heart: Buddhist Bowing as Contemplation,” in Barnhart, B. and Wong, J. (2001). Purity of Heart and Contemplation: A Monastic Dialogue Between Christian and Asian Traditions. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

The Five Practices

Buddhism has a thing for numbered lists:  Two Truths.  Three Marks of Existence.   Four Foundations of Mindfulness.  Five Precepts.  Six Paramitas.  Seven Factors of Enlightenment.   The Eightfold Noble Path. Twelve links of Dependent Origination. Thirty-two Marks of the Buddha. Fifty-one Mental Factors.  Fifty-two Stages of the Bodhisattva Path.  There’s a lot of stuff to remember and the lists are mnemonic devices that help keep everything straight.

Buddhist practice can be endlessly complicated.  Some people like things with more details, more rules, more rituals, more practices, complex visualizations.  If you are one of them, there is a Buddhism that is just right for you.  There are 84,000 different Dharma doors.

Not me.  I like things simple.  My favorite ice cream is plain vanilla.

My practice is very simple.  My numbered list contains only Five Practices:

  1. Be Present
  2. Be Open-Hearted
  3. Show Respect
  4. Have Courage
  5. Let Go

Five is as much as I can wrap my head around.  If I stick with these five there is more than enough to keep me busy.

1) Being Present — The practice of Being Present involves mindfulness, both in dedicated sitting practice and in daily life.  It also involves a commitment to whole-heartedness — if you are going to do something, do it all the way with your whole being.  It also means showing up — be there to do what is needed — don’t evade responsibility for doing what has to be decided or done.

2) Be Open-Hearted — Open-Heartedness is the practice of commitment to the way of compassion, lovingkindness, empathy, tolerance and forgiveness.  It is the practice of accepting people the way they are, no matter how different or deficient they may be.  That doesn’t mean that you accept or approve of everything others do, and it doesn’t mean you don’t protect yourself from the harmful action of others.  It just means that you keep them in the category of “one of us.”  All beings are “one of us,”  no matter how much they might seem otherwise.  We say, in the metta chant, sabe satta, “whatever beings there are.”  We wish them happiness and freedom from suffering.  Compassion and kindness are not just emotions to be cultivated as mental states.  They involve our compassionate and loving activity in the world.

3) Show Respect — All things are interconnected.  Who we are, our very life and existence, is dependent on the interdependent cooperation of all things.  Can we show appreciation, gratitude, and respect for all things?  This means not only bowing to and respecting all beings, including animals and plants.  It means appreciating and caring for all things that come into our little circle of life. It means keeping air and water clear and unpolluted.  It means appreciating and respecting the earth, and being a good steward.  It means raising animals humanely and growing crops without toxins.  It means keeping our living space orderly and clean.  It means taking care of the things we own.  It means respecting and caring for other people’s belongings.  We bow deeply to all.

4) Have Courage —  Don’t live your life out of fear, but live your life out of your convictions.  Don’t be afraid to take a stand, to express a conviction.  Don’t be afraid to love.  Don’t be afraid to do what wisdom tells you needs to be done.  This doesn’t mean that you should be in other people’s faces or take foolhardy risks.  It just means that your existence should be life-affirming, not fear-based and avoidant.

5) Let Go — No one died and left you in charge of things.  The world is not yours to control.  Our practice is one of mindfulness, open-heartedness, respectfulness and courage.  That doesn’t mean that everything we do turns out right, the way we had hoped and expected.  It doesn’t mean that others always reward us or appreciate us for what we do.  It doesn’t mean we get what we want.  We still get old, and sick, and die.  All relationships, even the one’s we care about most, even the good ones, all end eventually.  If all goes well they end with our death or theirs, if all doesn’t go well, they end in acrimony.  Nothing we like and want to hold onto remains constant.  Change, entropy, habituation, and cycles of decline, transformation, and rebirth govern the multiverse.  Our practice is a continual one of letting go, non-clinging, and acceptance, over and over.  Just like when we do our sitting practice, the practice is one of continual letting go moment by moment.  Letting go of our demands on the moment — how this moment ought to be — and accepting it just the way it is.

Do I personally embody these practices in my own life?  No.  They are horizons to be aimed at, not accomplishments to be attained.  The practice-life never ends.  We have to recommit to it moment by moment.  We continually fall short of our practice goals, notice when we have fallen short, and recommit again, until we forget again.  This is our human life.

Will these practices make you Enlightened?  They haven’t made me Enlightened.  But engaging in these practices is enlightened activity.  When we engage in these practices all things express Buddha nature through us.

“Grass, trees, and lands are all embraced by this activity and together are radiant and endlessly express the inconceivable, profound Dharma. Grass, trees, fences, and walls bring forth the Teachings for all beings, usual people as well as sages. And they in accord extend this Dharma for the sake of grass, trees, fences, and walls. Thus, the realm of self-Awakening and Awakening others is fundamentally endowed with realization lacking nothing, and realization itself is actualized ceaselessly.”  — from Dogen’s Bendowa [1]

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  1. [1] translated by Anzan Hoshin Roshi and Yasuda Joshu Dainen Roshi