I had an email from a chap who has attended a few meditation sessions at the Hermitage. He asked why we bow. Here’s my brief answer:
1. To show respect. In Asian countries, this is the traditional way of doing it. Again, as with the chanting, there is no actual Buddha to receive our respect, though we may imagine that we are bowing to him, as a kind of contemplation of him and what he represents. Who benefits from showing this respect? Oneself. The Buddha said that to respect those deserving of respect is a great blessing. One of the reasons why this modern world is deteriorating (spiritually and morally) is because there is a distinct lack of respect for elders, teachers, deserving religious figures, and so on. Respect is an integral part of monastic life and whenever we meet a monk who is senior to us (even by only a few minutes) we bow to them.
2. It helps us to develop mindfulness. We put down what we are carrying – both physically and mentally – and concentrate purely on the act of bowing. We try to be aware of the whole process. This is especially helpful before we begin to meditate. As with the chanting, it helps to prime and uplift the mind. In the Thai Forest Tradition, of which we are a part, we are taught to bow frequently: when entering and leaving our dwelling, our room, the shrine room, and so on. This practice provides us with frequent opportunities to pause and bring ourselves right back to where we are and what we are doing.
3. It helps us to develop humility. When we bow we lay down a part of our self, our ego. We let go of our views, opinions and conceit so that the mind becomes more open, receptive and thus in a more suitable state for seeing things truly. I know a young Hungarian man who studied philosophy at Warwick University and who attended the Buddhist meditation sessions there, as well as some retreats at our monastery. To begin with, he really didn’t like to bow. He loved the meditation and teachings but felt that the bowing and chanting were unnecessary cultural relics. But as time passed his view changed and he began to see them as ‘part of the whole package’. Eventually, bowing became important to him. Later on he told me how, before he would bow, he would imagine that the top of his head had been cut off. Then, as he bowed, he would imagine all of his views, opinions and beliefs pouring our of his head. When he came back up he felt quite open, refreshed and ready to learn.
Oh, and why three times? Firstly, to the Buddha; secondly to the Dhamma – his Teachings; and thirdly, to the Sangha – the order of monks and nuns. We call these three the Triple Gem or the Three Refuges.