The Buddhist Child Bows to the Buddha and to the Sangha

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, April 18, 2013

A handicap in being a Westerner or a child of the European Enlightenment is that it makes bowing problematic. I learned this first as a personal exemplar of this profile and second as a Buddhist teacher who has felt compelled to teach bowing to other exemplars. Even children beyond a certain age find bowing problematic. And yet anjali, the mudra of joined palms, often embellished with prostrations, was a ubiquitous expression of respect or greeting in Buddha’s India, and was accordingly used to venerate the living Buddha as well as the Sangha, and this practice of veneration, including veneration of images of the Buddha, has continued in all Buddhist lands in which Buddhism has taken root. No culture that I am aware of has chosen either to abandon it nor to substitute for it an indigenous expression, such a wave, a salute, a nod or a hearty hand clasp. Its adoption in Christian prayer speaks of its crossing over some yet to be fully understood ancient connection between two great traditions. Why is the bow so important in Buddhism?

Refuge and veneration are causal factors in attaining wholesome qualities of mine. Bowing and other expressions of veneration powerfully generate personal humility, they deflate the ego, knock it out of its privileged position in the universe by deferring to another. This seems to be a function of veneration or worship in all religions I am aware of, and I presume an essential function of God as an object of veneration in most. Prostration in particular seems also to be a natural embodiment or enactment with deep genetic roots; consider how lesser dogs instinctively make a similar gesture to express submission to our greater furry friends. This practice is an easy and profound antecedent to the gradual weakening, along the Path, of self-view. Expressions of veneration result in calm and the stilling of inflictive emotions as self-centeredness relaxes.

Bowing belongs to ritual conduct, as does shaking hands or wearing a tux to a formal dinner party. Robert Sharf writes, “Ritual habituation inscribes the self with a set of perceptual orientations, affective dispositions, automatic responses that are precognitive.” It begins by enacting these as if in play within an implicit frame of reference that one does not have to believe in or acquiesce to any more than one believes in the grammar of one’s mother tongue. To bow to the Buddha is to enact veneration for the Buddha, to enact veneration of the Buddha is to feel veneration for the Buddha, to feel veneration for the Buddha is to put aside one’s preconceptions and open one’s heart to the teachings of the Buddha. To do this is to align with the Buddha’s path. Any culture involves many such implicit frames of reference; consider how we carve out personal space, for instance: in the West a couple of square feet in front of you as you sit at a table is understood as “your space,” such that if someone puts something into that space it counts as “yours.” Most Asians make no such assumptions. Bowing invokes a frame of reference little known in the West; we must learn it.

In Burma children learn to bow before they can talk. They learn to bow to five kinds of people: to the Buddha (actually a representation thereof), to the Sangha, to parents, to teachers and to the elderly. Imagine the benefit of learning veneration for teachers! This is not a difficult practice if learned in a Buddhist temple environment in which bows and other ritual expressions of veneration are observed. It is a practice even easier and more pleasurable for kids than adults who have not learned its intricacies from childhood. The adult generally has the greater ego to complain. Either benefits enormously from the practice of bowing; one might even venture to state that Buddhist practice begins with bowing.

Let me recount my own personal experience, very much as a rationalized adult, in ritual expressions of veneration some fifteen years ago, from Through the Looking Glass:

My corporate job allowed me a certain amount of vacation time each year and I began to spend it all in sesshin [Zen meditation retreat], which meant a couple of long sesshins each year. The next spring I want to Green Gulch Farm above the ocean in Marin County, to sit a sesshin led by Rev. Norman Fischer. This was far more elaborate in form than anything I thought was possible. In fact I would suffer cultural shock for the next seven days.

Shortly after arrival, before the start of the sesshin in the evening, newbies were instructed in the fine art of oryoki. This involves a ritual process of receiving and eating meals, and of cleaning one’s bowls and utensils, all in the zendo, seated in meditation position. … This is not all: There were precise ways to enter the zendo (for instance, leading with the right foot, not with the left), to hold the hands as we walked, to bow toward those seated in our row then to those in the remaining rows, taking care to turn clockwise, then to sit backwards on our zafus and spin around to face the wall. For lecture we continued to sit cross-legged, not to raise our knees to our chins if we could stand it. I longed for the days when just not throwing spitballs nor passing messages got my by.

Service was a complex affair with many bows, led by Fischer Roshi, who offered incense initially with the help of an attendant and who also at precise points in the chants would make additional bows or approach the alter to offer additional incense. We, in the meantime, held our chant books in a certain way and were to chant with energy. Behavior outside the zendo was also similarly regulated. We did not break silence but bowed upon encountering each other, we could make ourselves tea, but had to sit while we drank it, and so on.

Of the minority with no robes,  I seemed to be the lone person in the sesshin who had not known to wear black or highly subdued colors. I wore things like green or blue., thankfully not yellow or orange Fortunately I was later relieved to see that, digging deeper into their suitcases during the week in search of a change of clothing, other participants came up with increasingly brighter colors eventually to rival or surpass my own.

This was all amazing to me. Why would people do all this? This was not at all like the Zen described, promised, so vividly and accurately by Alan Watts, not like real Zen. It wasn’t even cool and it entailed a lot of bother and stress. And this was on top of the agonizing pains in my knees and back from the unaccustomed long hours of sitting for seven days. I was already suffering from Zendo Stress Disorder.

In contemplating the challenge to my cultural sensibilities and natural inclination toward the casual, during the subsequent weeks I came up not so much with a resolution as with a way of arriving at one. The easiest response to my discomfort would have been,

“Balderdash! Ritual forms are nonsense, they are a perversion of real Buddhism, of real Zen, or … or else a cultural artifact of the East Asian cultures in which these ritual forms arose that are of little relevance in the critical-thinking West. Ha!”

With this response in hand I would have been free to seek out retreat centers that loosened up on this nonsense. I did not know at the time of the ubiquitousness of such Buddhist meditation centers, largely to satisfy the demands of the thriving “balderdash” community. But the “balderdash” response was not good enough: How would I know that the response is correct?
In what for me was an almost unprecedented display of good judgment, of smarts and wisdom, I chose the opposite response: I accepted as a working assumption that there is a purpose for all of these ritual forms and related nonsense that I simply had yet to fathom. How could something persist generation after generation with no purpose? Furthermore the only reasons I could think of not to participate in the ritual forms all had to do with ego, pride and self-image, things I knew I was supposed to let go of in any case. For these reasons I make the decision to begin sitting every week with … Flint Spark’s group at the Clear Spring Zendo, the group infamous for its bows and ritual forms that until then had inhibited my participation.

I did not yet know it, but this is the moment when I fully aligned myself with Buddhism, the moment when I acquired Buddhist “faith” and in return relinquished the arrogant assumption that I already knew what I was doing. I had already learned in my career as a scientist that there was little danger in such a leap of faith as long as one did not thereby relinquish wisdom and discernment as well. I had given myself over to Generative Grammar on a similar basis as a linguistics student, and in fact came eventually around to rejecting it rather soundly, yet in the meantime developed quickly into a scholar. If the ritual and bowing thing did not work out, I would simply give it up and be all the wiser for it. What I did now was to establish a general policy to accept with a degree of wholeheartedness whatever I was taught by respected Buddhist teachers or texts, at least until I got to the bottom of it in my own experience. This policy would serve me well in the years to come and sustain an explorer’s sense of curiosity throughout my career of training.

The reader might well be wondering, How did the leap of faith thing work out, especially all the bows? Reb Anderson once wrote,

By giving up our habitual personal styles of deportment and bringing our body, speech, and thought into accord with traditional forms and ceremonies, we merge in realization with buddha. We renounce our habit body and manifest the true dharma body.

A short time ago this would have been incomprehensible to me; now it made perfect sense.
I discovered that learning ritual forms had gone through stages.

The first was awkward. There was uncertainty whether I was doing a bow correctly or holding the incense properly. My self, Little Johnny, was manifestly embarrassed and hoping nobody was looking.

The second was smooth. I knew exactly how to do the bow, where to offer incense, when to ring the bell, how to walk, to hold the chant book, to open the oryoki bowls. Little Johnny was manifestly proud and hoping everybody was looking. (They were of course too busy being either embarrassed or proud themselves.)

The third stage was clear and serene. I knew to care for the form, to bring body and mind fully into accord. The last hint of Little Johnny dropped away, along with his agenda, along with his perpetual “what’s in it for me,” along with his resistance and anxiety on the one hand and with his pride on the other. For at least the moment I could experience what liberation must be like, complete perfect release from all the little self’s baggage. At that moment  a hammer struck emptiness, there was no actor, there was only the form and the awareness of body and mind following along. The form was doing me.

I had discovered a crucial Dharma gate that I had a short time been ready to dismiss on the basis of unexamined tacit assumptions.

2 Responses to “The Buddhist Child Bows to the Buddha and to the Sangha”

  1. Hickersonia Says:

    This has given me a lot to think about, Bhante. Thank you very much.


  2. Kitty Johnson Says:

    I just returned from a retreat where I (most of the time) went through the ritual of bowing upon reaching my cushion and upon leaving the cushion. Over the years I’ve mostly done this because it was expected, and sometimes I blew it off completely. I did notice that in the final days of the retreat it seemed more heartfelt and less a requirement, but until reading this I didn’t really have the full sense of why it’s done, and what the purpose is. Next week, at another retreat, I’ll approach this ritual in an entirely different light. Thank you.


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