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What’s All This Bowing About?

By Leslie Rawls 

Buddha statue at Clarity Hamlet, Deer Park Monastery; photo by Sol Riou

During noble silence at a recent retreat, a friend handed me a note that asked about bowing practice. I was grateful for the note for a couple reasons. First, even though I had planned to say something about bowing during my orientation talk, I didn’t. Our first night together was Halloween: the power had gone out, and the chilly Dharma Hall was full of spooky, flashlight-lit faces. 

I was also grateful because the note invited me to pay attention to my bowing until I could answer it. We were in Noble Silence when I received the note, so I had to wait until my next talk. The question had time to percolate in me. What is my bowing about? What am I doing when I bow as I come in and out of the Dharma Hall? Bowing has an outer form, but the question invited me to reflect on my bow’s inner form. Waiting and reflecting, I could respond from my practice and my heart. 

Outwardly, we bow by putting our hands together in a lotus bud. Sometimes it’s recommended we hold our hands over our hearts to help us remember bowing offers a heart connection. Sometimes we may even let our thumb touch our heart as we bow. 

Many verses are available for bowing. With one verse, our two hands represent mind and body. Then, we say silently, “With mind and body together, I offer the best in me to the best in you.” Or we hold our hands in a lotus bud—or the flower bud of your choosing—and bow, saying silently, “A lotus for you, a Buddha to be.” Both of these verses remind me of Sadaparibhuta, the Bodhisattva of Constant Respect. As we bow and the other person bows back, we each acknowledge, “You, my dear friend, are a Buddha to be.” Offering and receiving a bow, we remind each other of our great capacity to live an awakened life. 

So many chances to bow! We bow to say thank you; we bow to say, “Excuse me for interrupting.” We bow to say, “May I ask you to listen to me for a moment?” and “Thank you for listening to me.” 

How often do we bow with just one hand? Do we take the time to put things down so we can really be present with the other person? Sometimes I am holding something I really cannot put down. Then, rather than offer half a bow, I’ll touch my heart with one hand as I bow. This practice was a gift to me from a practicing Roman Catholic who came with her Buddhist fiancé to a retreat I offered in Virginia. She was not comfortable with bowing, but she was comfortable with offering her heart. So she would touch her heart and look straight into the other person’s eyes very lovingly. It was so touching to receive her bow each time we met and recognize she was participating wholeheartedly in the way that suited her best.

Thay has said, “To bow or not to bow, that is not the question.” The question is: Are we present for each other with our whole hearts, our whole being? That may mean bowing with palms joined or by touching our heart. Whatever it looks like, the outer form of bowing holds our most important treasure—our true presence. 

Some of us bow as we come in and out of the Dharma Hall, and my friend’s note asked about this bowing as well. Because that bow is alive, I cannot describe what’s happening for everyone. 

Coming into the hall, I bow to acknowledge I’m coming into a sacred space. My bow expresses my gratitude for the presence of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha in the space. As I bow, I look toward the altar. All the beautiful things on the altar remind me the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha are here. It doesn’t matter whether the altar holds a Buddha statue, beautiful flowers, or calligraphy. As I come into the hall and bow, I am recognizing the great opportunity for practice in that moment, and my immense gratitude for this practice.

As I leave the hall, I bow to again thank the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha in this sacred space. And I bow as I leave to remember I am going into a different sacred space, and the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha are coming with me. 

Sometimes my bows at the Meditation Hall door are a little simpler, just an expression of gratitude. Gratitude coming in, and gratitude going out. 

Our practice, particularly our bowing practice, is radiant. Like a wood stove in our hearts, bowing warms us and radiates warmth to those around us. We bow with awareness of our interbeing nature and with appreciation for the teachings, the practice, and each other.

THIS ARTICLE WAS EXCERPTED FROM A NOVEMBER 2019 DHARMA TALK.

Leslie Rawls, True Realm of Awakening, co-founded and practices with the Charlotte Community of Mindfulness in North Carolina, US. She was ordained into the Order of Interbeing in 1995 and received Lamp Transmission from Thay in 2009. Leslie has worked in many roles to support the Mindfulness Bell: as the first Family Practice Section editor, managing editor, Sangha Directory maintenance team member, and caretaking council member. Her beautiful children continue to inspire her and fill her heart. 

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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