Today I’d like to talk about bowing. There are many reasons people bow; some cultural, some religious, but many different reasons.
I know some people have difficulty with the fact that some Buddhists bow to Buddha statues. The 2nd and 3rd commandments of the Christian Bible specifically prohibit behavior like this. When then Israelites made and bowed before the golden calf, worshipping it, Moses wasn’t happy about that AT ALL. He burned the calf, ground it up, and made them eat it!
So it makes sense that seeing images of golden Buddhas and monks with shaved heads in strangely colored robes sitting and bowing before them would make some people feel ill at ease.
Sometimes when people who haven’t attended here just yet ask what our Sunday morning and Wednesday evening service is like, I get the feeling that what they’re really asking is “Is it too weird?” After all, a lot of our first timers have practiced by themselves but not in a group. So I always make sure to explain that when we bow to the Buddha statue, we’re not venerating a deity. The original Buddha - as I like to say - was absolutely not a god, he was just a dude with a really great idea. I’m sure in some flavors of Buddhism this is tantamount to blasphemy, but there’s no denying that regardless of whatever happened after his parinirvana, after his death, he was a human being.
Why would we bow, or some might say “lower ourselves”, before a statue of a person? Isn’t that an empty gesture? If the representation which we are bowing before isn’t infused with the spirit of any sort of deity, why bow at all? Put that way, it seems sort of crazy, like bowing before your shoes in the morning.
Once, I was struggling with how to handle a certain situation and I asked for advice from a sangha member here. He said, “When situations are very difficult, I ask ‘what would the best version of myself do in this situation?’’
Most people I know are working toward some sort of goal. I want to be a better girlfriend. I want to support my child’s goals more lovingly. I want to improve my work so that I get a raise. I want to donate more to charity. All of us have desires like this, some level at which we hope to perform. We can see it in the abstract, we know what the end result would be. A happier partner. A joyful and fulfilled child. A raise. Knowing you did a good deed for charity.
These end results though are only abstract ideas. And on some level we don’t feel as if we are the person who will achieve them. It’s some future version of ourselves that will achieve those goals.
This is where the Buddha statue comes in. As Glenn sensei says, Zen style zazen engages four of your senses. The bell for hearing. The incense for scent. The mala for touch. For sight, it’s the Buddha, right there in front of you.
And that Buddha? That lump of metal or wood or stone or earthenware doesn’t have any sort of holy spirit inside it, true. What it does have, is you. That Buddha, whether it’s one inch tall or 10 feet tall, represents the very best version of yourself. The one who achieves those goals we mentioned a moment ago.
When I come in here and stop in front of that altar, I see the original Buddha, yeah. It’s kind of difficult not to. But I also see the handiwork of my Zen teacher, for he crafted it. I see the decisions he made when sculpting it, I see his process for choosing colors and draping the robe, etc. But the main thing I see is myself. The best version of myself, gently saying “hello. I know you can do it. Because I am always available to you.”
The Buddha statue at my home is making the abhaya mudra. Sometimes called the mudra of blessing or protection, it also symbolizes reassurance. When I sit down and I see the Buddha on my little altar, with his hands in the position of reassurance, I see myself, a little later, a little older and hopefully wiser and more enlightened, saying directly to me “All those worries you brought to this cushion, all the little hurts of your day, will be alright. Whether it be a cyclone of grief, or the disillusionment of anger and fear, you brought them here with you. But the most important thing you brought with you to the cushion? That’s you.
You do have the tools you need. I have the tools I need. I can let go of anger, attachments, wishing that things were different than they are. That Buddha, that version of myself, reassures me that it is so. When I bow to the Buddha, that hope is what I am bowing to.