Why do we bow?

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.

7 Replies to “Why do we bow?”

  1. Ajahn,

    Good post.

    I like the bowing especially because of your third point.

    It’s like Laungpour says in his recorded talk (observe and learn):

    ‘When you go to a teacher you expect to be taught. And you can’t be taught unless your willing to be taught’

    Metta

    Matt

  2. Great article. Enjoyed reading that. I suppose it also raises the question why chant in Pali. Why not the native tongue of the country showing respect. How can you possibly show respect by chanting, often so badly in my case, in a language I have zero understanding of. It’s like attending a catholic mass in Latin. Why not chant in English and understand what is being said ?

  3. Matt,
    Did he tell the story of when Ajahn Chah visited England in 1977? While he was here, a certain meditation group invited him to teach. However, they stated that he should know that they wouldn’t bow. When this message was relayed to Ajahn Chah he simply said, ‘If they can’t bow, I can’t teach.’ These words were passed back to the group, who eventually agreed to bow.

  4. Mark,

    So you haven’t been coming because your chanting is so bad. I see… 😉 Perhaps if you practise and get better you might get more from it.

    I love chanting in Pali. I certainly don’t understand a large part of it, but that doesn’t mean I get nothing from it. On the contrary, using the Pali I feel a strong connection to the Buddha, who supposedly uttered many of these phrases over 2,500 years ago. I also feel part of a long tradition of monks and nuns who have learnt these words, committed them to memory, and passed them on to future generations.

    I also love the sound of Pali chanting (Thai style), and find it very meditative. I think chanting in a language other than one’s own actually helps in this respect. It’s possible to become quite concentrated while chanting, which of course is very useful when done before formal meditation. I also think that if we were to chant in English day after day the words might end up being meaningless anyway!

    Also, because many Pali words lack English equivalents, I think it’s important that we learn some of them, and of course chanting can help with this. For instance ‘Arahang’, a key word which pops up several times in the chanting, has no English counterpart. It’s often translated as ‘Worthy One’, but it refers to a being whose mind is free of all defilement – a powerful word indeed. As you know, after the chanting, Luangpor and I will often define some of the terms, just like that.

    Having said that, I am certainly not against the idea of chanting in English. The question is, how should it be done? In Thailand it’s common for Pali and Thai to be chanted together, one word or sentence in the former followed by its translation in the latter. Thai lends itself well to chanting because it’s a tonal language – it has an inbuilt rhythm. Some attempts have been made to do the same in English but they don’t work for me.

    If someone devised a decent way of chanting in English, with accurate yet aesthetically pleasing translations, I’d be the first to try it.

  5. Hi Manapo,
    It is bad I agree, my chanting, but not the reason I’ve not been able to attend for a while. More that I am a taxi for both of my children to various sporting activities.

    Thanks for the comments and I agree with the points made. It’s like luongpor says it’s about listening and feeling the Rhythm to precede the quietness of meditation. I liken it to watching a Mozart opera. Even if it’s in Italian you still follow it through the emotions and the sound of the singing. I once watched the barber of saville at the Sydney opera house but alarmingly it was in English. It was not a good experience. Enjoyment was not given through understanding the words the music was lost as a background.

    I will see you soon when I can spread the taxi services out a bit.

    Mark

  6. Hello again Mark,
    I wasn’t saying you’re bad! And I’m sure it’s not why we haven’t see you for a while. 🙂
    Yes, I know what you mean about the opera. Listening to Christian monks chant, I find the Greek Orthodox impressive. Perhaps if I understood what they were saying it would put me off!
    Hope to see you soon.
    Ajahn Manapo

  7. Showing respect issue an important discipline. This practice can help to prevent an attitude contemt.

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