When we bow to another person, says Brother Phap Hai, we honor both their kindness and ours.
There is a wonderful chapter in the famous Lotus Sutra where we meet a bodhisattva named Never Despising. His practice did not consist of sitting meditating for long hours, chanting the sutras, or reciting mantras. When he saw another person, he put his palms together, bowed, and said, “You will become a Buddha one day!” This was the Bodhisattva’s only Never Despising practice.
One of the first things that struck me when I visited a traditional Buddhist temple was seeing practitioners fold their palms in front of their hearts when they met. I immediately felt a sense of respect and holiness, not only for the shrine but also for one another.
The practice of bowing, whether as a physical or mental exercise, helps us connect with others as people who are just like us in their search for happiness and peace. For me, bowing to another person is a practice of touching the real and the living – in me and in him. Doesn’t that sound like the heart of meditation?
Recently a practitioner asked me about the benefits of meditation. I knew she was hoping I would talk about blinding lights, deep insights, or psychic powers. Perhaps to her disappointment, I shared my growing appreciation for the ordinary moments in my life – morning cup of tea, warm sunshine, laughter. I used to take these things as gifts rather than gifts. Now that I have been practicing more, my experiences with them have become richer, deeper, and more meaningful.
If I think this way, inanimate objects will also be loved, dear friends along the way. Whenever I sit down in the meditation hall, I bow to my pillow because it is a very kind friend to my buttocks and lower back. Practicing in this way gives me great joy and gratitude.
Within the confines of a monastery or practice center, I bow physically to others, but sometimes I find myself in situations where this seems strange. In this case, instead of focusing on the physical act of putting my palms together, I do a mental bowing exercise. I just open up to the other and touch the reality in both of us.
Perhaps the greatest advice I have ever received in my spiritual life was when a senior meditation teacher told me that as Buddhists we should always avoid “covering things with loads of bells and incense. Just be yourself, really yourself. “
The act of putting our palms together and bowing is primarily a physical exercise, but most importantly, it is a moment of mental pause and recognition. Here are a few different ways you can practice the bow:
At its most basic level, a bowing practice is to look into another person’s eyes and gently bring your palms together in front of your heart. You can bend your waist slightly or bow your head respectfully.
When we put our palms together in front of another person, we see the essential quality of good in ourselves and in them. This is really a moment of celebration. When someone folds their palms in front of me, it feels like a mirror is held up to me. In it I see who I really am. It’s always a powerful moment.
Another exercise is to visualize your hands as a lotus flower. When you place your palms in front of your heart, make an offering to the Buddha in front of you. You may find it helpful to quietly recite the following gatha: “A lotus for you, a future Buddha.”
Bowing can also be a mental exercise. Too often we fail to appreciate the ordinary moments in our lives. Bring your attention to encounters with people you normally overlook – the person at the cash register, the people accompanying you at the airport. Stop and take a moment to recognize the person in front of you. Send them your respect and appreciation with gentle eyes and an open heart. Mentally bow to the true nature of the goodness you share.
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