December 12 : Bowing

Bowing is an ancient Buddhist custom and a custom of all religions. It is done to show respect and to humble our ego. In many of the Buddhist monasteries I have visited, and in monastic conferences I have attended, you really see the effect of bowing on the minds of the people who are trained in this way. We bow to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha because they are our refuge and they are the ones we want to emulate on the path to awakening. But we also bow to other practitioners that we respect. In a monastery, there is a lot of bowing, particularly juniors bowing to seniors, but also in some monasteries, everybody bows to each other. It sets a very nice atmosphere for people.

Especially in the Mahayana tradition, it is a way of acknowledging the potential in each individual we encounter, a way of showing respect to their Buddha nature. In our Western culture, bowing, especially for people who are brought up Protestant or Jewish, can seem quite odd and uncomfortable. But it is really a way to train the mind. Similarly, in Tibetan circles, people seem quite happy to bow to monks and to Tibetans.

It is a way of learning to show respect to everybody for their Buddha potential and for the way they are practising the path. It is a nice way to train our minds in seeing the goodness of others. If our mind in any way feels uncomfortable with it, a good place to start is to ask ourselves, “What is it in my mind that feels uncomfortable with this showing of respect, this humbling of my ego? Who am I comfortable bowing to and who am I not comfortable bowing to? What is going on in me, what stories is my mind making about this?”

In each environment that we find ourselves in, we need to know what is suitable. According to certain conventions, we have to follow those customs depending upon what group we are with and who we are with. There are a lot of things to check up on in terms of our actions and responses, ensuring that when we do bow, our heart is in it. It is not just something perfunctory that we do because it is a habit or because we are supposed to, but because it is something that we really see the benefit in.

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