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In their book, The Essential Dogen Writings of the Great Zen Master, Tanahashi and Levitt open the section on bowing like this:

Bowing with palms together expresses respect to the awakened nature of others.  It also sanctifies and expresses gratitude to the room where one practices, the meditation seat, and anything that is offered, including food.  Formal bowing follows an offering of incense and is done in multiple prostrations to the floor (page 16).[1]

I am reminded of the time that President Obama met with the Prime Minister of Japan and he bowed to him. Some in America were shocked that he was bowing—there was indignant outrage—to say the least.  I am sorry that some people are not aware of the value, use, and reason for bowing since it is used in many cultures and nations around the world.

When I first came to the Zendo (Southern Palm Zen Group) and was instructed on the basic steps to follow before, during, and after the service I was told about bowing. I followed along and as I bowed to the alter on entering it reminded me of the bows that are made by the Catholics as they walk around the sanctuary and bow to the alter as they pass it.  Protestants don’t do that.  Hummm.  Then as I bowed to the cushion I felt like I was paying respect to the person who made that cushion and the things that went into the fabric and the stuffing and the buttons and all.  I felt like it was a silent thank you to them for giving me a soft comfortable place to sit while I joined in the service and ultimately into a time of quiet meditation.

Bowing…since that time I have used it everywhere and as often as I can.  I bow to my students when they come into the classroom, I bow to my food whenever I eat, I bow to my students at the end of each class as a silent thank you and good-by. The other day I bowed to each of my students as they stood up to make a speech at their graduation luncheon from their six week leadership training program.

As the student looked at me from behind the lectern we made eye contact, I smiled, reminded him or her to take “3 breaths” and then I gave them a little bow.  It helped the person to release some nervousness and proudly and confidently began the speech.  What they had to say may have only taken a minute or two but I could see it was one of the proudest moments of their lives.  Upon completion I gave him or her two thumbs up–they smiled at me and walked back to their table. I felt exactly as Rujing describes in this verse.

 Rujing chanted a verse:

Both the bower and bowed-to

Are empty and serene by nature—

The way flows freely between them.

How wondrous (page 17)![2]

The way flowed freely between us that afternoon.  The way flows freely each time I take the opportunity to bow to someone or something.  Bowing helps me stay in the moment, mindfully, compassionately, and gratefully.  To become one with all and to be liberated from my small ideas and my small self, this is a wondrous practice to master.  I recommend it highly…

in gassho, Shokaiingassho

Things to focus on this week:

1.  I will begin each day setting my intention to bow to everyone and everything.

2.  I will remind myself that life is wondrous—even when I don’t see the wonder!

3.  I will remember to be open to new ideas, new cultures, new ways, and new things.

4.  Lastly, I will keep a journal of the opportunities that have been presented to me so I can keep track of my progress and my opportunities for growth.


[1] Tanahashi, K. Levitt, P. (2013) The Essential Dogen, Writings of the Great Zen Master. Shambhala: Boston, MA

[2] Ibid.

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