Saturday, 9. May 2009 23:31
In 1977 Ajahn Chah came to England and while here he visited many meditation groups. One particular group invited him to teach but stated beforehand that they wouldn’t bow. They didn’t do tradition. “Well,” said Ajahn Chah, “If they don’t bow, I don’t teach.”
So, relenting, the group bowed, and Ajahn Chah taught.
Now, Ajahn Chah was not being proud or conceited, and it wasn’t that he was offended by their tone. He simply felt that if practitioners of the Dhamma are not able to humble themselves – to show respect, and to resist the demands of the ego – then there would be little point in teaching them. It would be a waste of time. For how can someone who proclaims: “I don’t bow.” be in a fit state to even begin to comprehend a teaching which leads in the direction of freedom from all notions of self? If we refuse to humble ourselves then we are turning our backs on the Dhamma; we are abandoning the path to freedom.
Bowing is an incredibly powerful practice. And, for that matter, all demonstrations of respect and humility are too. In this monastery we maintain the small gestures of respect such as putting the palms together when addressing a senior monk, not standing over a senior monk when they’re sitting down, and generally being mindful of the nuances (which many Buddhists in the West are quick to abandon), knowing that these surface gestures nurture the deep roots of concord, mindfulness and wisdom.
Monastic life is bound by a precise code of respect. Respect holds the thing together: it keeps order, it gives strength and it maintains stability. Look at the state this country is in. The lack of discipline, the lack of morality, the lack of respect. It is disturbing. It hasn’t always been like this. Respect was once an important part of life here too, though not to the same degree as, for instance, Thailand and Burma.
So bowing is firstly an outward expression of respect; a putting down of a part of one’s attachment to self; a letting go. But it is also a profound practice in a number of other ways. For bowing composes us; it helps us to establish mindfulness. And it serves to remind us of the goal.
Humility and Respect
I was thinking about the above incident involving Ajahn Chah and I realised that there is a very potent message to be found in the life of the Buddha that shows how fundamental humility and the showing of respect are as we follow the Path.
Seven weeks after his Enlightenment the Buddha spent some time considering who he might first teach. He thought of Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta – the two great teachers whose doctrines he had mastered during his six year search – but found they had died only days before. “That is a great loss for them.” He reflected. “They would have understood.” Then he thought of the five ascetics who had attended on him whilst he had been engaged in severe asceticism; they had ‘little dust on their eyes’ and were capable of understanding. So he set off in the direction of the deer park at Benares – the place where they were staying.
Now, as far as the five were concerned the Buddha had given up the search for enlightenment. Previously – through his fasting, privations and extreme self-torment – he very nearly died. Having thus realised the futility of his bitter practices, and the need for a strong body if he was to conquer the defilements, he took solid food to replenish his strength. But, still well and truly mired in the view that the way to liberation was through self-torment, the five turned up their noses and abandoned the Buddha-to-be, thinking he had ‘reverted to a life of luxury’. The truth, of course, was far different.
So, when the newly enlightened Buddha arrived at the deer park and appeared to them in the distance, the five were not pleased. “What does he want?” they thought. And they spoke in hushed tones amongst themselves, glancing sideways in the Buddha’s direction, and they made a pact that they would not observe the duties of pupils to a teacher: they would not receive him, nor take his bowl, nor wash his feet. They wanted nothing to do with him.
But as the Buddha approached them it was clear that something had changed. It is impossible to imagine what effect on the mind seeing a Buddha walking towards you would have, but clearly the five were awestruck: their pact fell apart and they rushed to attend on him. One took his bowl, another set up a seat, and another washed his feet. They humbled themselves. They showed respect. They lowered the ‘I’ and primed their minds ready for the Dhamma.
Then of course the Buddha delivered the First Sermon and on hearing it one of the five attained to the first stage of enlightenment. Thus the Matchless Wheel of Dhamma was set in motion.
Now, that wheel would not have been set rolling, nor would it still be rolling, if it wasn’t for those five having humbled themselves and having shown respect. Imagine they had kept their pact. What effect do you think that teaching would have had then? None at all. So it was this priming of the mind with humility and respect that allowed their minds to absorb the Dhamma.
The Castle of Ego
Generally people are very protective of their ego. It’s how we are brought up. We build a great castle around it, with thick, impenetrable walls, and towers and turrets, to ensure that nothing is able to harm or undermine it. When the ego does come under attack we fire out nasty little arrows through the slits in the towers: the harsh words, the excuses, the boasting, the lies, the punch in the face, etc.
But what sits smack bang in the middle of the front of a castle? The drawbridge. It is through the opening of this drawbridge that things are able to enter the castle.
Showing respect lowers the drawbridge. When we humble ourselves and show respect and perform the various duties and disciplines of respect, then we lower the drawbridge of the castle of the ego. We lower it to allow inside that which can help us – that which can cure us. We lower it to the Dhamma. The Dhamma then comes in and does the work, the work of liberation.
On that night when the Buddha gave his First Sermon those five ascetics lowered their drawbridges and the Buddha’s words entered. Those teachings went straight to the heart of the castle of one – Kondañña – and blew his sense of self to smithereens.
So to bow to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha is to lower oneself and open one’s mind to that which is higher and better and able to lead one out of suffering and into happiness.
Bowing Stabilises Us in the Present Moment
As monks in the Forest Tradition we are taught to bow all of the time. Ajahn Chah was very fussy about it. On waking we should bow. Before sleeping we should bow. And as often as possible in between these two times we should also bow. Why is this? Well, apart from the reason just covered, it helps us to constantly reestablish our mindfulness.
We enter out kuti, put down our robes, kneel down, put our palms together over our chest, close our eyes, and bow three times. This putting down of what we are carrying is an excellent metaphor. Because when we stop to bow not only are we putting down our physical possessions but we are putting down past and future. We recollect: “Where am I? What am I doing?” And then we mindfully and graciously bow.
Bowing is Beautiful
It is such a shame that the showing of respect is disappearing out of Britain’s door faster than you can say Jack Robinson. When I get on the plane back to Blighty after our annual pilgrimage to Thailand I’m quickly made uncomfortably aware of how privileged I have been to have experienced the undercurrent of respect that floods Thai culture from top to bottom. How’s this then? Well, what can I say? Because I’m reintroduced to Westerners! To be frank, most of the Westerners I encounter on the plane have abysmal manners. They’re rude, they push and shove, they’ve about as much finesse as an ostrich on stilts. It’s not that they aren’t aware of how to treat monks: how should they know? It’s simply that they don’t seem to show much courtesy to anyone. It really does underline the style, manners and respectful nature of the people of the culture I have sadly just left behind.
And of course one of the central ways Thais and Asian Buddhists in general uphold the banner of respect is through their bowing. I love to see people bow. What does it say about them? It shows that they are willing to humble themselves. And this is such a profound statement. These days people are so ‘in yer face’. “Look at meeeee. I’m so wonderful.” Everybody wants to be noticed. Everybody wants to be known. I read a bit of an article the other day which stated we are in an age where one of the prime concerns of people is the wish to be known. Look at the popularity of social networking sites. How many Facebook ‘friends’ have you got? The more the better, obviously. Or Twitter: it seems that people are obsessed with how many Twitter ‘followers’ they have. They want to promote themselves. They want to be seen. They want to be known.
But this is all wrong. This is the way to suffering, suffering, and more suffering. The root of all of our suffering is this believing in the sense of self. Our suffering lies with this identification with body and mind as being me and mine. So don’t be special. Don’t be anybody. Have as few ‘followers’ on Twitter and as few ‘friends’ on Facebook as possible. Go on. Go against the grain.
Bowing can go against the grain, especially when we don’t necessarily respect the person we are bowing to. As monks it is our duty to bow to a senior monk, even if he was ordained only two seconds before us. Now sometimes we may question that monk’s integrity. We may think he is sloppy. But whether he ‘deserves’ our respect or not is besides the point. It is not him we are bowing for; it is for ourselves. We bow, and we lower the drawbridge. We allow humility to take root in our mind and we move that little closer to enlightenment.
The next teaching will be on:
The new moon day, Saturday 23rd May
PS: Thanks to David for setting up twitter.com/ForestHermitage, where you will find the Hermitage’s news, needs, info, etc. being regularly updated!