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Why So Many Bows?

Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment

For a tradition that claims to be directly pointing to the True Nature of things, Zen does an awful lot of bowing and other ritualized activity. So one might wonder, how is all this ritual showing us our True Nature?

The meaning of Zen ritual has been debated for centuries and yet, you need to be involved in it to recognize the effect it has. One way to describe this effect is to view it from the perspective of the experience of body/mind. What is the meaning that arises out of these movements, these sounds, sights, and smells?

Most Buddhist rituals involve the six senses. There is light for the eye consciousness, smell for the nose and mouth consciousnesses, sounds for the ear, movement for the consciousness of touch, and chanting, recitation or visualization for the mind consciousness. Ritual can be understood by the way we experience it physically and mentally. Studying how contact with sense objects leads to the arising of consciousnesses is one form of the study of the self.

Kannon - the Bodhisattva of Compassion

Kannon - the Bodhisattva of Compassion


However, Zen ritual could perhaps be better described in terms of the paramitas, the practices of the Bodhisattva. Seen from these six lenses of intention and skillful action, it appears this way:

Dana - Giving

Zen ritual always includes the practice of making offerings to our awakened nature and to those who practiced before us and with us. In turn, those offerings then nourish people and animals and places too.  Thus it is, at its heart, the practice of generosity. For example, at Empty Hand Zen Center, after we make petal offerings (instead of burning incense), they are added to the dirt pile in the garden and become nourishment for more flowers. At Hosshinji we fed the rice offerings to the fish in the pond. In these ways we demonstrate our interconnectedness with our environment.

Sila - Ethics

The activity of performing a ritual is understood to be a wholesome one. It has a positive karmic effect because it is a way of making the wisdom and compassion of the Buddhist teachings manifest in the world. Consider also the positive karma associated with the intention to benefit all beings, the guiding principal of the Bodhisattva path, and the content of most dedications in the traditional Zen ritual. In this way you can see that Zen ritual is in harmony with an ethical life, and is itself an ethical activity.

Kshanti - Patience

Despite our efforts to be clear about our plans and expectations, things don't turn out the way we think they should. This is as true of ritual as of anything else. So we have the opportunity to practice patience with not knowing how things will turn out, patience with our own mistakes and judgments about ceremonies, and patience with others' mistakes and judgments.

Virya - Effort

Zen ritual requires great effort. There is the effort of getting everything and everyone in place to perform the ritual. There is the effort of performing the ritual itself, chanting and bowing, walking, sitting down, and standing up. This is "throwing ourselves into the house of Buddha," giving the whole of our life force to the Way during these precious moments of ceremony. Engaging the whole body and mind is itself the manifestation of the Way.

Dhyana - Concentration

One of the most important parts of performing any Zen ritual is having the presence of mind to respond. When the priest bows, you are able to hit the bell only if you are paying attention. This kind of presence is not as easy as it sounds. It requires a certain kind of openness, an availability to the moment. It requires concentration that is flexible enough to respond to the present and not one's idea of how the present should be. Thus Zen ritual requires and develops engaged, active concentration.

Prajña - Wisdom

Certainly the presence of wisdom can be discerned in the chanting of the sutras and poetry of Zen. This is speaking aloud the teachings as they have been handed across generations of practitioners. More importantly, however, there is the wisdom of expounding the Dharma with this body and mind. The wisdom of drawing the mandala with our own movements, demonstrating the teaching of interconnectedness and embodying our intention to turn toward the teaching, turn toward the path, turn toward the awakening inherent in this moment. 

In his usual poetic language Dogen, in Hotsu Mujoshin [Bringing Forth the Mind of Awakening]  sums it up for us this way:

Taking it up like this...“making a buddha” [is] called “bringing forth the mind.”  It is to provide one ball of food to living beings, to offer five flowers to a tathāgata. It is to make one bow to the three treasures [of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha]. 

So today I invite you to consider whether ritual can have a place in your heart/mind, as a way to make manifest your awakening life. In a world that often leaves us hungry for meaning, it's timely and it's timeless.