When we bow to open up the ego to the whole universe we are ordinary students practicing Zen. When the universe expresses itself through the body as a bow, that is the awakened perspective.- Shunryu Suzuki
Most of us, most of the time, go around with our heads full of thoughts and intentions, desires and plans, which take us away from the reality of the present. Even when we're walking to the Zen dojo we might be thinking about bills we have to pay or about a conversation we might have when we get there. The forms of behaviour that we practice in the dojo are designed to bring our awareness to reality and the present moment and to abandon our egotistical 'picking and choosing'. When we step into the dojo we don't do it according to our personal preference, nor even according to the authority of someone else, but according to the prescribed form of our tradition and we do it with awareness. We step over the threshold with the left foot, then bring the right foot over to meet it. Then we put our hands together and bow to the Buddha and our dharma ancestors on the altar. When we've reached our place, we bow to the seat and the wall we will face, then we turn around and bow to the seat opposite.
To a Westerner unfamiliar with Zen or Zen arts, these actions can seem very strange. We no longer have a culture where we bow to one another in greeting or to show respect. Western missionaries travelling to Asia described Buddhists as statue worshippers or idolaters. Even a three year old child knows that a statue is not a sentient being, yet Buddhists bow to them. Many others think that Buddhists are worshipping a god or supernatural being called 'Buddha' who is represented by the statue.
Most Western cultures place a lot of value on the primacy of the individual - we do not like to bow to anyone or anything. This might be part of the reason that so many westerners are drawn to the iconoclastic or apparently nihilistic stories which come from Zen. Yet Zen is rarely iconoclastic and never nihilistic. Philip Kapleau tells the story of two Americans who travel to a Japanese Zen monastery in the 1950s and are dismayed to see monks bowing to the altar and ask, "The old Chinese Zen masters burned or spit on Buddha statues, why do you bow down before them?" The roshi replies. "If you want to spit you spit, I prefer to bow."
So, what is the meaning of our bowing to the Buddha?
Sometimes, to educate their disciples, Zen masters have burned statues of the Buddha. In this dojo there is a very beautiful statue of the Buddha and I always bow down respectfully in front of it. Why? Because it is Buddha? Or because it cost a lot? In fact, it is to you I am bowing, because when you practice zazen you are living Buddhas. You must not get this wrong: Zen is beyond all religions. Buddha is just a name. Only zazen is important; during zazen you are Buddha.- Master Deshimaru
When we bow to the Buddha we are showing respect to our teacher - just as we show respect to our living teachers and to representations of our dharma ancestors, we express respect to the teacher of teachers - the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha. It is unimportant that Gauthama Siddhartha is dead and that it is only a statue made of metal or wood that we are bowing to - what is important is our expression of appreciation. Really we are expressing appreciation to the principle that the statue represents, awakening to reality just as it is. We are bowing to the human inner nature, which is not our ego or our thoughts, but the reality that gives rise to ego and thoughts. We are bowing to Buddha nature, our own innermost heart and mind. We are bowing to everybody's Buddha Nature, becoming one with it. We are bowing before reality just as it is.
When we bow to the zafu and the wall we are bowing inwards to our own heart, our own Buddha Nature, the true reality of our being, rather than our narrow sense of personal identity. When we bow to the person opposite us, we are bowing outwards - expressing appreciation for the Buddhist community we are practicing with and for the world beyond it. We are bowing to one another's Buddha Nature.
Master Deshimaru taught that when we gassho, one hand represents the cosmos and the other represents the self. The two come together to form complete unity. So, when we bow this symbolises the unity in duality.
Sampai is the deepest bowing that we do in Zen. It involves prostrating ourselves repeatedly with our foreheads on the floor. Bowing is an expression of humility, but not humiliation - a wounded or threatened ego can be even stronger than one which is proud and confident. We are abandoning the identification with the narrow sense of self, the duality of self and other, in order to open up to the rest of the universe. Ideally the act of bowing should be an act conducted without effort of will and without conscious purpose - so that it is not our personal self that bows, rather it is an act without an actor; it is the universe that bows.
If we perform an action with our whole consciousness and we do it peacefully without recoiling from it or clinging to it or longing for something else, even if only for a brief moment, then we can experience an inner silence in which there is no judgement, or desire or abstraction to divide reality into 'self' and 'other'. At that time we lose the illusion that we are distinct and separate from the universe. Life becomes whole.
As long as there is true bowing, the Buddha Way will not deteriorate.- Dogen