Since Buddhism arrived in the West, inevitably some people have felt, “Zazen is good, compassion is good, self-discipline is good, but why all this bowing and incense? To whom does one offer incense and flowers?” To this all the Buddhists of the past and all Asian 
Buddhists today would answer with one voice: “Dear friends, a spirit of reverence is essential to successful practice. Without it, enlightenment can never be attained!”

Prostrations and offerings are admittedly just forms—just a human way of expressing what cats express by rubbing themselves against a beloved person’s legs. If it were natural for humans to stand on their heads or stick out their rumps to express reverence, then Buddhists would stand on their heads or stick out their rumps as a matter of course. Forms do not matter in themselves, but the attitude of mind symbolized by prostrations and so forth is of stupendous importance to followers of the Way.

My Tibetan lama told me at a very early stage of my training: “Ignorant people adopt the attitude of subject to king before a Buddha statue. Higher-level practice is performed wholly in the mind. Yet even if you attain the highest possible level—hard indeed to reach in one lifetime—you must daily alternate formless, wordless, above—conceptual practice with bowing down and making offerings. Never fail in that.” My Chinese Chan (Zen) teacher told me: “In between your rounds of meditation, practice bowing, offering incense, and making circumambulations. If you have no spirit of reverence, no feeling of awe for all that lies beyond the confines of that miserably circumscribed illusion you suppose to be your ‘me,’ you will make no progress. Why? Because when your practice improves, you will reflect: ‘I did better in my meditation just now’ and by so thinking fall back to the lowest level of ignorance owing to the consequent inflation of your devilish ‘I’!”

Those Zen monks who said, “Meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha” or advocated using Buddha figures as firewood and so on were talking not to Americans or to new Buddhists but to Chinese or Japanese Zen followers who could be counted upon to understand the meaning of such instructions, which really amounted to this: “Never for one moment suppose that veneration of sutras or images is of much use in itself, so don’t let it replace the rest of your practice, as ignorant people often do.” I doubt if it ever entered those monks’ minds that one day there would be people in the world who would take these powerful (and humorous) injunctions literally!

If it is wrong to have and to symbolize attitudes of reverence, awe, and gratitude by prostrations and offerings, then all Buddhists have been wrong since the dharma was first preached in this current kalpa 2,500 and more years ago. Can it be possible that those hundreds of millions of people at all levels of dedication to the practice we so greatly value included no single man or woman of true understanding until Buddhism reached America?

The Buddha was not a god, and long ago he passed into ultimate nirvana. When we make prostrations and offer flowers, not only is there no one to demand, require, or relish our obeisances, but also there is no one but ourselves and possibly some onlookers to know that we have made them! Even so, they must be made if we are to attain enlightenment. Why? Because our ghostly “I” must be humbled to the point of extinction before enlightenment is won; because that ghost is enormously powerful and positively thrives on such thoughts as “I have no need of outward forms”; because it is a simple and wholesome practice to show gratitude to our benefactors by outward forms (as is done at Arlington Cemetery and London’s Cenotaph to the Glorious Dead, though they are not expected to be aware of the reverence so offered); and because statues of buddhas and bodhisattvas are symbols of exalted possibilities and ideals, so charged with power by the thoughts and aspirations of their creators and beholders, that the positive energies flow from them to us, imbuing us with joy; giving rise to higher levels of intuitive understanding; augmenting our realization of unity with all the millions of beings, past and present, who have trod or are now treading the selfsame path toward the summit of wisdom and compassion; and thereby greatly strengthening our resolve to leap from the confines of illusory egohood into reality so vast that the entire universe is found to be no other than our true self.

Humbly I prostrate myself before the Blessed One, the Holy One, the Supremely Enlightened One, and thus express my admiration of, and true identity with, all sentient beings. May all of them win happiness!

From Zen Bow, a publication of the Rochester Zen Center, originally printed in 1982 (vol. 4, no. 4) and reprinted in 2015 (vol. 37, no. 4).

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