(Follow this link to see the September 2020 Priory Newsletter where this was originally published.)
Great Master Dogen was a monk who, in his search for a deeper answer to his own spiritual question, traveled from Japan to China around 1225. Having found his answer, he is credited with bringing the Soto Zen tradition back to Japan and establishing it there. He is credited with establishing a whole new approach to Buddhist meditation and practice in his native country and yet, when he was asked what he brought back from China, his response was, “a soft and flexible mind.”
Great Master Manzan Dohaku, a Soto Zen monk who lived from 1635 to 1715 and is credited with reforming and reviving our tradition, Dogen’s tradition, once said that “as long as bowing lasts, Buddhism will last… if this bowing should cease, Buddhism will cease.”
Each morning in a Soto Zen temple, as part of morning service, we do a number of full bows both toward the main altar and to our fellow members of the sangha. We are bowing to that which has the appearance of the Buddha. In this context, bowing has the meaning of Buddha Nature in me, recognizes and bows to Buddha Nature in some “other:” the appearance of the Buddha on the altar or the Buddha Nature as it appears in the Sangha.
There are many different meanings for bowing throughout the world, often expressing variations of our status or rank relative to the person we are bowing to. The bowing that Manzan is referring to in “this bowing” is the bowing from the place where Buddha bows to Buddha. When we enter fully into the mind of “this bowing,” we cannot help but let go of the small self. Often the small self is a bit afraid of this bowing; interestingly, it is the mind of “this bowing” which enables us to enter into a situation where we can pay respect to or make use of some person or situation which is vertically superior to us. What I mean by this is that because we can bow from the place of our own Buddhahood, we can bow to and accept a teacher or situation that knows something that we don’t yet know, even though we may have difficulty with that teacher or situation.
When we do full bows at morning service we are practicing that mind of “Buddha bows to Buddha,” we are practicing it so that we can bring it into our daily lives. Every morning we bow to the appearance of the familiar Buddha, the beautiful statue on the altar or the Sangha assembled and on its best behavior. Eventually, as we go along in our practice, that appearance of the Buddha begins to show up, shine through, in unexpected places and the situations of life ask us to bow.
Like, maybe our boss asks us to do something that we don’t want to do and it occurs to us that we could just bow and do that thing; it occurs to us that we can let go of our objecting and complaining mind, the mind of the small self. We realize that our own inherent dignity, based in the Greater Self, the Buddha, is not affected or compromised or demeaned by this bowing. It is just Buddha bowing to Buddha and Buddha getting on and doing what needs to be done.
I am not naive in talking about this: I am acutely aware that this can be very difficult. There can be very good reasons why this may seem or even be impossible at any given time. I bring it up to say that there is something very important and not necessarily apparent going on in the bland practice of bowing. Just as getting down on our knees and touching our heads to the floor every day can help to keep our bodies flexible, so, the willingness to consider bowing, and to attempt to practice it in this deeper sense, is one of things that leads to that highly valuable soft and flexible mind that Dogen brought back with him from from China.