Dharma Q/A: What Are We Doing When We Bow?

Could you say something about bowing in terms of the form, practice and spirit?

Truly, there is no Zen practice without bowing. When I place my hands palm to palm, immediately this brings alignment, connecting the inner and outer world in a way that is openhearted, accepting, ready and willing. Even if we don’t emotionally feel this in performing the mudra (maybe we’re distracted or irritated) something inevitably shifts as we do this ritual over and over so that it becomes natural.

To place the hands palm to palm (gassho) and bow is a gesture of respect that is recognizable cross culturally needing no translation. Often, we are reticent in the west to do this practice, fearing it conveys some sort of submission or permission. But the bow is just the opposite – it brings integrity to the moment, to self and other, and represents the strength and courage to meet the world as it is beyond our ideas of how things should be.

In Zen practice, we bow a lot! We begin by bowing to one another, to our cushions, the zendo and to the altar. This shows respect for Buddha (awakened mind), Dharma (the teachings) and Sangha (the community of practitioners). Sometimes, bows are assigned as practice, like bowing to a picture of someone with whom you feel conflict or bowing to your workspace each day. I always bow to animals that have been killed on the road.

Bowing is not worship, though there may be the presence of reverence. You are neither bowing to something outside you, nor are you solely bowing to what is inside you in the sense of one’s limited ego or psychological self. Instead, the bow is recognition that there is no fundamental separation between you and the other you are bowing towards, while paradoxically acknowledges the appearance of you and I as we are.

As this is not a familiar custom on the west, the bow is a ritual easily overlooked in its importance. My teacher, Kyogen, was once asked by another great master, “What is the one thing your own teacher taught?” Kyogen replied, “Bowing each moment.” We should look into our direct experience and notice what comes up. When we bring the hands palm to palm and release the body’s rigid stance, we instantly resolve the tension of opposites and rest this mudra in front of the heart, a gesture that marries wisdom and compassion. In full bows, when the hands rise over the head, it is an enactment of placing the Buddha’s feet above your own limited view, resting in awakened mind.

If you are new to Zen practice, you might just begin trying these bows by starting at home or putting the palms together in front of the heart in prayer position as you meet your day. Notice what sensations arise in the body regardless of your state of mind. What thoughts arise? What is blocked? What is flowing? There is no need to force anything to happen, manufacture a special holy mindstate. Instead, let the wisdom of the body take the lead. When I teach full bows to children, I tell them when their forehead touches the ground, it is like releasing all their worried thoughts into the earth and standing up fresh and ready. This is a really good place to start.

With palms together,



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