When we bow to another person, says Brother Phap Hai, we honor both their goodness and our own.
In the famed Lotus Sutra, there is a wonderful chapter in which we meet a bodhisattva named Never Despising. His practice was not doing long hours of sitting meditation, chanting the sutras, or reciting mantras. Upon seeing another person, he would put his palms together, bow, and say, “You will become a buddha one day!” This was bodhisattva Never Despising’s only practice.
One of the first things that made an impression on me when I visited a traditional Buddhist temple was seeing practitioners join their palms in front of their heart when they met each other. I immediately felt a sense of respect and sacredness, not only toward the shrine but toward each other.
The practice of bowing, whether as a physical or mental practice, helps us connect with others as human beings who are just like us in their search for happiness and peace. For me, bowing to another person is a practice of touching what is real and alive—within me and within them. Doesn’t that sound like the heart of meditation?
Recently, a practitioner asked me about the benefits of meditation. I knew that she was hoping I would talk about dazzling lights, profound insights, or psychic powers. Perhaps to her disappointment, I shared with her my growing sense of appreciation for the ordinary moments of my life—a cup of tea in the morning, warm sunshine, laughter. Before, I had taken these things as a given rather than a gift. Now as I practice more, my experience of them has become richer, deeper, and more meaningful.
When I reflect in this way, even inanimate objects become dear, dear friends on the path. Whenever I sit down in the meditation hall, I bow to my cushion because it is a very kind friend to my buttocks and lower back. Practicing in this way, I experience a lot of joy and gratitude.
Within the confines of a monastery or practice center, I will physically bow to others, but sometimes I find myself in situations where that might be thought strange. In that case, rather than focusing on the physical act of joining my palms, I do a mental bowing practice. I simply open myself to the other person and touch the realness within both of us.
Perhaps the greatest advice I ever received in my spiritual life was when a senior meditation teacher told me that as Buddhists we should always avoid “covering things over with a whole lot of bells and incense. Just be yourself, truly yourself.”
The act of joining our palms and bowing is first of all a physical practice, but most importantly it is a moment of mental stopping and recognition. Here are some different ways that you can practice bowing:
On the most basic level, one practice of bowing is to look into the eyes of another person and gently bring your palms together in front of your heart. You might bend slightly at the waist or bow your head in respect.
When we join our palms in front of another person, we are recognizing the essential quality of goodness in ourselves and in them. That is truly a moment of celebration. When somebody joins their palms in front of me, I feel as if a mirror is being held up to me. In it, I see who I truly am. It is always a powerful moment.
Another practice is to visualize your hands as a lotus flower. As you join your palms together in front of your heart, make an offering to the buddha in front of you. You might find it helpful to recite silently the following gatha: “A lotus for you, a buddha-to-be.”
Bowing can also be a mental practice. Too often we fail to appreciate the ordinary moments of our life. Bring your awareness to encounters with people whom you might normally overlook—the person at the checkout counter, the people in line with you at the airport. Stop and take a moment to recognize the person in front of you. With soft eyes and an open heart, send them your respect and appreciation. Mentally bow to the true nature of goodness you share.