Many people have this question the minute they walk into the zendo and are told to make full prostrations to the Buddha image on the altar. They come with an idea that Zen is beyond words and letters, beyond religion, beyond rules, beyond piety, and so the idea of such a thorough-going and outrageous display of what seems like religious fervor seems quite disturbing to them.

Illustrations by Robert Beer from Tibetan Thangka Painting: Methods and Madness, by David and Janice Jackson, courtesy of Snow Lion Publications.
Illustrations by Robert Beer from Tibetan Thangka Painting: Methods and Madness, by David and Janice Jackson, courtesy of Snow Lion Publications.

So why do we bow? I had this same question myself in the beginning of my practice. My teacher at the time took me up to the altar and let me look closely at the tiny Buddha there. He pointed out to me that the little Buddha was also bowing. So I was bowing to the Buddha and the Buddha was bowing to me. “If he can do it you can do it,” he said. I thought that was fair enough.

Bowing is just bowing. You do it mindfully, in a particular way, aware of the body and mind in the doing of it. The so-called meaning of it is extra. It’s not a symbolic or conceptual act. It’s just another form of sitting practice. You sit, you walk, the bell rings, you get up and bow. To just do what you do withfull attention and without much worry is an important part of the method in Zen.

And there’s another way of looking at it: We are bowing to an image which suggests for us. So the bowing is a training method. We offer our whole body and mind to wisdom or to compassion, opening ourselves, in the act of the bow, to that quality letting go of everything else in our life but that quality, bringing it out, making it big, fashioning it day by day, bow by bow.

When I bow to the Buddha on the main altar at Green Gulch, I train my mind deeply, creating a powerful predisposition in myself toward the development of love and appreciation for the Buddha nature that is my own nature. When I bow to Tara, I am training my mind, creating a predisposition in myself toward the feminine and active in my own nature.

This kind of training is not something most of us are used to. Our sense of training has largely to do with will or skill, and this kind of training has to do with warmth and devotion. Yes, piety. But after all, piety is all right, devotion is all right. In fact, they are very tender and splendid emotions if you can cultivate them without getting hysterical about it. It’s okay to respect Buddha and make offerings to Tara. We can appreciate Buddha and Tara and all the other figures that we practice with as “other” when we really appreciate that they aren’t really other. The more familiar we are with ourselves as we actually are, the more comfortable we are with Tara and Manjushri and everyone else. As my first teacher said, the bowing is always mutual; there is one bow back and forth. Buddha bowing to Buddha, Tara bowing to Tara.

A long time ago, when I was serving as his attendant, I noticed that Katagiri Roshi always mumbled something as he bowed. I asked him what it was but he couldn’t tell me since it was in Japanese. Later on, I received in the mail a translation of the bowing verse, which I have used ever since.

“Bower and what is bowed to are empty by nature,” it goes. “The bodies of one’s self and others are not two/ I bow with all beings to attain liberation/ To manifest the unsurpassable mind and return to boundless truth.”