Bowing is a common practice in Asia, both within and outside religious circles, a way of expressing respect and reverence, as well as a form of greeting. Tibetans bow and say tashi delek, meaning “excellent luck and auspicious good fortune to you.” Disciples and devotees bow to their teachers, to the gods, and to holy icons.
Buddhists commonly offer bows when entering or leaving a temple, shrine, pilgrimage site, or spiritual circle of any kind, as well as when entering the presence of spiritual masters and teachers, acknowledging the presence of an embodiment of the principle of enlightenment. Zen Buddhists use a short form of the bow, simply placing their palms together at the heart and inclining the torso; this is called gassho in Japanese. Bringing the two hands together at the heart represents the reunion of all polarities and duality in our spiritual center, the heart of enlightenment.
Bowing is a way of being, a way of giving, of offering up and opening oneself. Bowing helps us to be centered in the present moment and become more uncomplicated, vulnerable, and humble. The seventh-century Indian Buddhist master Shantideva said that just to raise one’s hand in a gesture of respect and reverence sows the seed of enlightenment. Since his time, bowing has become an intensive spiritual exercise for Buddhists. The devout get down on their hands and knees and then lower themselves face down and flat on the floor; this is a full bow, called a prostration. This gesture symbolizes yielding, surrender, reverence, and taking refuge in that which is good, true, and holy. In fact, this outer form of reverence simply reflects an inner gesture of awareness.
Prostrations such as these are an important part of the most common foundational practices of Tibetan Buddhism, called ngondro, or “preliminary practices.” Over the course of several months or more, the beginning practitioner is expected to complete over one hundred thousand of these full-body prostrations, along with chanted Refuge Prayers. It is also something Tibetan Buddhists continue to practice, in fewer repetitions on a daily basis, throughout their lives. The late Tibetan master Kalu Rinpoche explained that prostrating our five limbs on the ground reintegrates our separate sense of being into oneness with the original nature of the five elements.
Buddhist scripture tells us that the Buddha realized his great awakening while sitting beneath a tree in the wilderness of northern India at Bodh Gaya. According to the sutras, when he awoke on that auspicious day, the entire natural world bowed to him in gladness, recognition, and veneration. We join in reverence and enter into that moment each time we bow.
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