Cleansing the Heart: Buddhist Bowing As Contemplation

 Rev. Heng Sure - Institute For World Religions


The nature of the worshipper and the worshipped is empty and still,
This Bodhimanda[i] of mine is like a pearl in Indra’s net;
Shakyamuni Buddha manifests within it.
My body appears before Shakyamuni,
Bowing at his feet, I return my life in worship.

Buddhist Bowing Contemplation Verse


            Contemplating the nature of mind is a hallmark Buddhist occupation. The Buddha called the mind “a monkey," and "a wild horse." The monkey mind calculates and schemes, chases thoughts of self and others, clings to rights and wrongs, and quarrels over me and mine. The wild horse mind loves to run away into fantasies and false-thoughts, to wander far without warning and to return when it pleases. It is difficult to break the wild horse mind to the saddle of mindfulness and discipline.

            To the Chinese, both feeling and thinking are represented by a single written character xin, which we will translate as "heart/mind."[ii] So the first half of our topic, "purity of heart," viewed from a Buddhist perspective, would be more accurately expressed as "purity of heart/mind."

            To assume that the mind of a meditator automatically rests in a state of permanent purity is to never have tried to meditate. Random, discursive thoughts rise and fall without cease, like waves on water. Purity of heart/mind is not a product that one attains like a possession, rather it is a process, a practice. From the perspective of practice we might begin by replacing the noun "purity" with the infinitive "to purify,” or employ the gerund form, "purifying," to indicate the dynamic and continuous nature of purifying the heart/mind. One purifies the heart by emptying out its cluttered thoughts and turbid emotions, over and over. Purifying requires letting go of attachments, “truing” or rectifying thoughts, and reining in desire's appetites.

Contemplation in Both Movement and Stillness

            The Buddha’s teaching in essence presents a variety of methods to accomplish purifying the mind. Chan meditation emphasizes two methods to calm the monkey and to tame the wild horse: shamata and vipassana. Shamata in Chinese is zhi, "stopping,” and vipassana is goan, "contemplating.”[iii] A skilled Chan meditator employs these two techniques in turn to direct the mind and body into progressively deeper levels of awareness and insight. “Stopping and contemplating” are not limited to seated meditation; ideally, one uses gongfu, or skill, in both activity and in stillness.

            Both aspects of Purity of Heart/Contemplation appear with a characteristic Buddhist flavor, in “stopping and contemplating.” “Stopping” means to neither engage thoughts nor discriminate among them but simply to empty them out; sweep them away, and cleanse the mind as you would polish a mirror. Tang Dynasty Master Shenxiu (600-706) wrote a verse that describes this process:

The body is a Bodhi tree,
The mind a mirror-stand bright.
At all times wipe it clean - -
Let no dust alight.

—Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra [iv]


            “Contemplating” complements stopping.“ Here the task is not to sweep thoughts away, but instead to mindfully observe each thought as it rises and falls in the mind. Such watchfulness reveals the nature of thoughts, emotions, afflictions, and habits.

            Used with diligence and discretion, “stopping and contemplating” gradually reveal the mind’s constant pursuit of dualities, discriminations and emotional attachments. Once purified of defilements, the mind can return to its inherent stillness and purity; one can realize the goal of Chan meditation: "understanding the mind and seeing the nature," (mingxin jianxing.) The enlightened mind is fundamentally still and pure. Thus, Master Hui Neng, (638-713) replied in verse to Master Shenxiu:

The body's not a Bodhi tree,
Nor mind a mirror-stand bright,
Basically there's not one thing:
Where can dust alight?

 —Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra [v]


            Here, “dust” refers to Basic Afflictions: greed, hatred, stupidity, pride and doubt. Afflictions reinforce an illusory sense of self; from the view of self comes arrogance based on the perceived existence of “me and mine.” The arising of arrogance, and its flip-side: inferiority or low self-esteem, create myriad related delusions, karma, retribution and its suffering. The Buddha’s project, in general, aims to replace the distorted view of self with a direct perception as things as they really are. Replacing the view of an illusory self with a proper view brings suffering to an end. Bowing, or making prostrations, by reducing the centrality of me and mine, is an effective method for bringing into focus an more accurate description of the reality of “not self.”

            Meditation masters practiced bowing as an active counterpart to seated meditation. Bowing has many purposes; perhaps its primary psychological function in the Buddhist context is to dispel arrogance and to transform the affliction of pride. Master Chengguan (737-839) the Tang Dynasty exegete, in his commentary to the Flower Adornment Sutra, explains "bowing in respect to all Buddhas,” the first of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva’s Ten Practices and Vows:

When one bows in respect to all Buddhas, a feeling of reverence arises in your heart, and animates your actions and speech. You express this feeling by bowing to all Buddhas. The practice gets rid of both obstacles of arrogance and ego. When respect arises, you deepen your ‘good roots’ of reverence and faith.

Avatamsaka Exegesis[vi]

            Here Master Chengguan explains a psychological effect bowing. He places his point of reference inside the mind of the practitioner as he or she bows to the Buddha. Chengguan says that body, mouth and mind experience a feeling of respect. The feeling of respect multiplies the awareness of the sacred presence around and within the worshipper. The obstacles of arrogance and ego diminish as bowing reduces affliction and increases good qualities. The Avatamsaka contemplations used when “bowing in respect to all Buddhas,” according to Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, constitute a unique feature of bowing in Buddhism.

            A close examination of the theory and practice of bowing in Buddhism reveals a highly-esteemed Dharma-door long considered indispensable to awakening. As we will see below, bowing has a history in Buddhist monastic liturgy as old as the Sangha, or Buddhist community itself. Why then, have scholars of Buddhism paid so little attention to bowing?

            Westerners in their first encounter with Buddhism typically assume that Buddhist practice is synonymous with sitting meditation.[vii] This view persists despite the reality that the most common Buddhist practice in Asia from the third century CE was, and still is, bowing to the Buddha. Scholarly literature in English on the subjects of Chinese Buddhism in particular, has tended to focus on meditation and philosophy, to the exclusion of devotional practice. Eric Reinders in his article "The Iconoclasm of Obeisance: Protestant Images of Chinese Religion and the Catholic Church,” substantiates the lack of materials by Western scholars about Buddhist bowing and obeisance. Reinders traces the European Protestant Iconoclasts’ aversion for physical gestures of deference and asks whether the quarrel in Europe arising from the Reformation has been projected onto Asian religions.[viii] Judith Lief suggests that the reasons why Westerners find bowing difficult are complex:

“As Westerners we tend to think of prostrating as a gesture of defeat or abasement. We think that to show someone else respect is to make ourselves less. Prostrating irritates our sense of democracy, that everyone is equal...On one hand we want to receive the teachings but on the other we don’t really want to bow down to anyone or anything.[ix]


            One of the reasons for Buddhism’s current rapid growth in the West may be because meditation seems egalitarian, and free of dogma; it makes no demands of faith or adherence to a creed. Bowing, on the other hand, seems inherently unequal, undemocratic, humiliating, and submissive. Because bowing takes one to the earth, it appears unsanitary and superstitious; it conjures up the taboos of idolatry and graven images. From a Gospel-based, logocentric perspective, bowing is mere ritual, i.e., not textual. It masks the real thing— doctrine. Moreover, given cultural values of individualism and the ethos of equality, bowing seems to replace self-determination with servility.[x]

            And yet, this marginalization of bowing constitutes a relatively recent trend. As we shall see in a brief comparative look at bowing as praxis in other religions, prostrations have figured prominently across the world’s religious landscape. Where in Buddhism it opens a path to samadhi and liberation, bowing takes on different faces in other faiths. The comparisons and contrasts nonetheless are revealing and shed light on an ancient practice that could infuse the contemporary interfaith dialogue with new meaning.

Comparative Bowing Practices

            Bowing is by no means unique to Buddhism; it constitutes a ubiquitous practice across the spectrum of organized religions. In the Middle Eastern and Hellenistic traditions, beginning with the Ugaritic and Accadian religions of ancient Babylon, we discover a kinship—in language, liturgy and doctrine— between Babylonian and Semitic bowing practices. Babylonian texts, Hebrew scriptures, and the Kur'an, explain bowing in similar fashion.

            Accadian letters from the sixteenth century BCE appear In the archives of the royal palace of Babylon at Ugarit that mention bowing: "At the feet of my lord I bow down twice seven times from afar.[xi]" Jewish literature reveals an almost identical reference where vassals in the Amarna letters write, "At the feet of the king. . . seven times, seven times I fall, forwards and backwards." And in the Gilgamesh, the founding literary epic of Babylonian civilization, we find, "When they had slain the bull, they tore out his heart, placing it before Shamash. From afar, they bowed down before Shamash.”[xii]

            In Judaism we find a highly developed, normative and codified system of bowing spanning the centuries from the Hebrew scriptures to the Kabbalah[xiii]. In the Hebrew scriptures, hawa used exclusively in the Eshtaphal stem, and hishtahawa , mean “to prostrate oneself”, and “to worship.” Hawa is cognate with the Ugaritic hwy to bow down. In Exodus 24:1 we find, "Come up to YHWH... and bow low from afar." Moses and his companions are expected to appear before the Lord and to prostrate themselves before Him in accordance with accepted rules of ceremony." In theTorah the saga of the Israelites‘ wandering includes the episode with the Golden Calf. God in his wrath, prepares to destroy the tribe for their failure to bow. He tells Moses, "I have seen this people and it is a stiff-necked people. "In Ezekiel God calls the Israelites "impudent children and stiff-hearted." The stiffness indicates inflexibility and unwillingness to bow. They are externally "stiff-necked" and internally, "stiff-hearted."

            Talmudic literature praises Individuals such as Rabbi Akiva, (second century, C.E.) who performed bowing as a personal practice of humility.[xiv]

            In a long section of the Mishnah Torah, the Laws of Prayer, Chapter 5, Moses Maimonides defends his practice of excessive bowing. Where a common person bows only at the opening and closing of the central prayer sequence, the High Priest bows at the beginning and the end of every blessing within the sequence. Maimonides says that all of these bows should be bowed so far that all the joints in the spine are loosened and one makes oneself like a rainbow..[xv]

            The Spanish Kabbalist mystical masterpiece, the Zohar, in its Tahanun recension, contains penitential prayers that were recited daily in prostrate form. The Zohar calls this section, "Nefitat Appayim," "falling on one's face."[xvi]

            In Islamic worship the salat, a ritual prayer or divine service, is an expression of humility which was considered as the attitude to the Deity most befitting humanity. The etymology of salat is transparent, from the Aramaic root sl which means "to bow, to bend, to stretch." S'lota is the stative form, which means the act of bowing. In the Kur'an the salat is very frequently mentioned along with sakat; the two are obviously considered the manifestation of piety most loved by Allah.[xvii]


It is said, "The nearest a creature is to Allah is when he is prostrating, and that is the meaning of the saying of Allah: "And prostrate thyself and come near!"[xviii]


            The highest goal of the salat is complete absorption in the Deity by humiliating oneself. Sufyan al-Thawri is reputed to have said, "If a man does not know humility, his salat is invalid."[xix]

            The recitation of the Kur'an (Qur'an) itself is associated with prostration. Bowing, moreover, is used as a means of healing; it can cleanse one of grievous sins. Thus it is not surprising to find that Islamic literature praises a paragon of bowing: It is related from Ali b. Abdallah b. Abbas that he used to perform a thousand prostrations every day, and they used to call him "the Prostrator."[xx]

            Rules for bowing in Eastern Orthodox Church worship are ordered “fittingly and reverently,” as set forth in the books of the divine services, and particularly in the Church Typicon. The presence of rules that proscribe making prostrations at special times testifies to the universal presence of bowing within standard Eastern Orthodox devotions. The full prostration is seen either as penance or as an act of deepest reverence. However, on celebrations and festive occasions, the liturgy omits prostrations to the floor.

            Making prostrations is Orthodox Christianity’s standard form of religious worship. Orthodox monks on Mt. Athos cultivate personal bowing practices in their cells in marathon sessions that last for hours, even all night. While bowing is generally practiced in monasteries, Orthodox Christian laymen who have zeal are permitted to pray on their knees in church and to make full prostrations whenever they wish, excepting those times when the Gospel, Epistle, Old Testament readings, Six Psalms and sermon are read.[xxi]

            In Roman Catholicism’s Rubrics of the Roman Catholic Breviary and Missal there are instructions for priests, ministers, prelates, and canons as to when to kneel, genuflect, or sit, also how to uncover the head and how to bow profoundly.[xxii]

            In daily Mass, the Roman Rite from the Ceremonial of Bishops includes two kinds of bows: a bow of the head and a bow of the body. A genuflection, (kneeling,) made by bending only the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration. Genuflections, however, are added to prostrations to create a more vigorous spiritual practice. For example, in Rev. John Ryan‘s discourse on Irish Catholic asceticism, the monks of Ireland specialized in vigor, which could include genuflections and prostrations in phenomenal number during prayer.[xxiii]

            The Desert Fathers of Egypt practiced bowing as mortification and as punishment, as well as to praise the Lord. St. Francis of Assisi's humility brought him close to the ground. At his deathbed he instructed the monks to remove his clothes and lay his dying body on the bare ground inside the Portiuncula, the tiny chapel beloved of Francis. He wished to be close to the earth as his spirit returned to the creator.

            Dominicans have the inspiration of St. Dominic who often used to pray by throwing himself face down on the ground, and saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” (Luke 18:13). He would quote the repentant words of David (2 Sam. 24:17), Psalm 43, (“My soul is laid low in the dust, my heart is stuck to the earth.”) Or Psalm 118 (“My soul sticks to the floor; make me alive according to your promise.”) [xxiv]

            The Benedictine Rule requires bowing when showing hospitality to arriving and departing guests. The Rule specifies that when a Brother comes back from a journey, he should, on the day of his return, lie face down on the floor of the oratory at the conclusion of each of the customary hours of the Work of God. An ordaining novice prostrates himself at the feet of each monk to ask his prayers. When a monk is excommunicated for serious faults he must bow in full prostration.[xxv]

            The Benedictine Rule guides bowing for contemporary Catholic monastics as well. The following are instructions from the Handbook for Postulants and Novices prepared by the Novice Master of a contemporary Benedictine Hermitage in California:

We do a lot of bowing here at the Hermitage. Western Catholics are far more familiar with genuflecting than with bowing, so our practice of bowing may seem a bit strange to you and very Eastern... Our practice of bowing has a variety of meanings. Most basic of all is bowing as an expression of our true nature as creatures.

In this sense the bow is an expression of gratitude for the utter giftedness of life itself in the very moment. We bow to the ground, the earth, mother earth, of which we are a part, but in doing so we are also bowing to the "ground" of all that is, God, Source, and Sustainer of all that is...Thus the bow is a gesture of communion with all that lives within the mystery of God...we bow in acknowledgment of this central, ongoing mystery...

In some mysterious way, the bow contains our whole life. One should be prepared to bow always, even in one's most ordinary moments, and one's last moments. Even if you can't do anything but bow, if done as an expression of who you really are, it contains everything." [xxvi]


The Iconoclasts' Protest: Bowing In Protestant Christianity

            European Protestants continue to be troubled by bowing. Leading Protestant reformers in Northern Europe broke from centuries of domination by an all-powerful, hierarchical Roman Catholic establishment that wielded absolute religious and political authority. They protested against the need to show deference on bended knee to mere humans (the various Popes, and the Vatican’s hierarchy of Cardinals and Bishops,) or to icons and the ever-expanding pantheon of saints and martyrs. Known as “Iconoclasts,” the Protestant reformers further rebelled against the ritualization of compulsory respect.

            One of the fundamental principles in Protestant theology is the inefficacy of human action, even that of clergy’s Holy Office and Mass. Martin Luther, for example, believed that ritual was false and that truth was a matter of the Word, or “Logos.” Because ritual was not directly translatable into words, therefore ritual actions could make no direct claim to the efficacy of Truth. It follows from this view that the essence of correct religion is textual and that the popular practices of believers represent a dilution or corruption of the Logos.[xxvii]  Certainly given their grievances with an oppressive establishment that created the Iconoclasts, it is easy to sympathize with the Protestants desire to simplify and to reform the religious heirarchy that was increasingly unresponsive and distant. It is not my intent to demean the impulse that created Protestant practice; the necessity of the Reformation is an historical fact. Rather I want to clarify one aspect of Protestant doctrines implications on the resulting study of Asian religions.

            The Reformation’s iconoclasm with its antipathy for icons and devotion has shaped Western scholastic discussion of non-Western cultures and Asian religions.[xxviii]The wider context for this discourse concerns issues of colonialism, post-colonialism, and the controversial academic stance known as Orientalism.[xxix] Edward Said defined Orientalism as “a coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western experience... The phenomenon of Orientalism deals principally, not with a correspondence between Orientalism and Orient, but with the internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient . . despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a "real" Orient.[xxx]

            Gregory Schopen says that with rare exceptions the scholarship done in the West on devotion in Asian religions projects battle lines, expectations and categories conditioned by the conflict between Protestant and Catholic issues of papal authority and the source of religious truth. This conflict and resulting interpretative conclusions may have lead to ignorance of Buddhist devotional practice and devaluing of bowing.[xxxi]

One can easily understand how a logocentric paradigm that emphasizes doctrine and intellectual analysis of texts, would influence the writing of Western Buddhology, seek for confirmation of that paradigm and distort or ignore aspects of practice that did not reflect its bias.

            As we look towards Asia for to expand our investigation into comparative bowing practices, we find that obeisance has both secular and sacred significance. In Ancient and Medieval Chinese society, knowledge of how and when to make ritual prostrations was a requisite skill in civil society’s daily etiquette.

Bowing in Pre-Buddhist China

            We can document detailed instructions on the standard forms of ritual bowing in social relationship as early as the Zhou Dynasty, (1122-225 BCE). Bowing in its variations created vertical hierarchy in the pyramid of authority relationships from emperor or king to subject, through parents, to siblings and friends. The regulations in the Rites of Zhou for bowing stipulated how to bow in secular society. We assume that the rules for rituals of secular bowing also applied in sacred space.

            Shuowen Jiezi was the earliest etymological dictionary of the Chinese language, written by Xushen (58-147 CE). The earliest definitions of words used for various forms of bowing appear in the Shuowen. Duan Yuzai[xxxii] (d.1750 CE), a Qing Dynasty scholar of the Qianlong Emperor's court, wrote the Shuowen Jiezizhu, Annotated Etymologies of Literature and Chinese Characters, a commentary to the Shuowen Jiezi. Duan Yuzai researched etymological sources and clarified the terms used to describe bowing. Duan identifies Nine Styles of Bows from the Zhouli into divides them into two categories. The first is three methods of bowing; the second is six situations where one applies the three methods singly or in combination.

            The three styles are: kongshou, which means that the head hits the hands, folded and held at chest height, and sometimes while kneeling; jishou, which means bowing to the ground while kneeling, but not touching the head, and  dunshou and (alternately jisang ), which mean bowing and touching the head to the ground.

           The six situations six refer to applications of the first three, individually or in combination, in specific social situations. Six situations that require appropriate bows are:

            4) "Trembling" means that you are trembling with fear and distress. For instance, according to protocol, you need not bow any of the three styles, and yet you do, out of excess caution, perhaps, or because you avoid trouble by showing deference.

            5) "Auspicious" are the standard form required by social etiquette, such as paying respects to family members on holidays and birthdays, making social courtesy calls, to superiors or inferiors and for showing astute political diplomacy in a variety of situations.

            6) "Inauspicious" require jishou bows. Funerals were inauspicious events that required the utmost sincerity.

            7) "Single" mean you perform only one bow, no matter whether the head touches the ground or not.

            8) "Multiple" means you don't stop with the required number, but continue to bow on.

            9) "Restrained" is a form used primarily by women; here one needn't bow the head.

            Interest in Shuowen Jiezi’s analysis of these Nine Styles of Bows continued over 3000 years, from the 12th century BCE to the 18th century, when Duan Yuzai “corrected the terms.” The Nine Styles sustained their currency through the Tang Dynasty when Buddhist monk Daoxuan revived them for the benefit of novices in training as Buddhist clergy. Here, at least by contrast, the descriptions of secular bows have taken on religious interpretations.

            It is significant to note for the following discussion of Buddhist bowing that in Chinese bowing, there is no mention of internal contemplations. Daoxuan’s version of the Nine Styles of Bows highlight how Buddhism skillfully appropriated the Chinese society’s disposition for bowing and adapted it to accord with the principles of Buddhist meditation.

Bowing in Buddhism

            Bowing in Buddhism cuts across the lines of traditions and schools. Bowing has been part of Buddhist practice since the Buddha’s time in India and continues to this day. Within the Buddhist Sangha, or monastic community, the daily liturgical schedule began and ended with dozens if not hundreds of ritual prostrations. On ceremony days, clergy and laity alike might engage in the practice of liturgical repentance and bow up to ten thousand times.[xxxiii] Monks and nuns bow to the images of Sages, Awakened Beings, and the Buddhas, to their superiors, and to each other.

            In Tibetan Buddhism, prostrations form an important part of the most common foundational practice called "ngondro"("preliminary practices").[xxxiv] Over the course of several months or longer, the beginning practitioner is expected to complete at least 111,000 full-body prostrations along with chanted Refuge Prayers as part of the ngondro practices (which include several hundred thousand other prayers, purification mantras, offerings, mandalas, and devotional meditations). Completing these 111,000 prostrations, is known as "chak-boom" in Tibetan.

            The late Dudjom Rinpoche bowed on a daily basis, even into his eighties. The fourteenth century Tibetan saint Tsongkhapa is known to have performed over a million prostrations during his four year meditation retreat in a cave. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama puts his palms together and bows to whomever he meets, whether person-to-person or before a large audience.

            Mahayana Buddhist monastics bow from morning to night. Bowing opens and closes every one of the three daily ceremonies. Each ceremony requires a minimum of nine bows. Interviews and meetings with teachers, superiors, depending on respective rank, require from one to three full prostrations, each set of three prostrations followed by a half-bow (Chinese: wenxun.) Zen students perform half bows (Japanese: gassho) to the altar, to each other and to the cushion before and after meditation.

            Novice monks in training bow hundreds of times each day, to mold the new “habitus” of monk’s deportment, to assist the transition of identity from lay-person to Sangha member. The canonical texts describe venerable Bodhisattvas of great accomplishment bowing to the ground before the Buddha. The Youth Sudhana, in the Gandhavyuha chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra, who is the archetype of the bowing pilgrim, bows to 53 teachers. Over and over he prostrates his five limbs (hands, feet and head) low to the ground to purge arrogance, repent of past offenses, demonstrate respect, and ultimately, to realize the highest goals of a Bodhisattva’s wisdom and compassion.

            Individual monks, historically took up bowing as an intensive form of practice. For example, Master Xuyun, ("Empty Cloud,"1840-1959) successfully completed an arduous “Three Steps, One Bow” pilgrimage across China, covering a distance of 1,000 miles. Years later, after his marathon bowing journey, he bowed one thousand or more bows per day over an extended period of months. Master Xuyun’s mother died in childbirth, and he wished to repay his mother’s kindness for bringing him into the world.

            The biography of Master Hsuan Hua, (1918-1995) an accomplished Chinese Bhikshu pioneer in North America, tells how at the outset of his spiritual career he made a practice of bowing 830 times, twice a day, rain or shine, and did so for ten years. His purpose, according to the biography, was to demonstrate his filial regard for his parents as well as to build a foundation for his future cultivation of the Buddha’s Way.[xxxv]

            What we know about how Buddhist monks bowed in India comes in large measure from Chinese Buddhist historians such as Ven. Daoxuan (596-667 CE). In his Shimen Guijingyi “Buddhist Rule and Breviary,” he gives definitions for twelve terms of respect for the Buddhist Sangha, or monastic community. Eight of the twelve entail some form of bowing. As it was Daoxuan’s priority to establish a working monastic standard, he compares across cultures—Indian and Chinese—to offer a picture of how central bowing was to the Buddhist contemplative life. [xxxvi] The eight are:

            1) Return in refuge and rely upon the object of veneration. Daoxuan comments that one "returns in refuge" to a Sage or a Worthy, or a Buddha, and chants his name as one bows.

            2) Bow to the Worthy Ones. He notes that this is the same as the first category of the Rites of Zhou’s “Nine Styles of Bows.” (See “Bowing in China”, above.)

           3) Unroll the bowing cloth in preparation to bow. Daoxuan says that this refers to unrolling the nisidana, "the bowing cloth" which along with an alms bowl and three robes is one of the three requisites of a monk.

            4) Place the five limbs on the ground in ultimate respect.

Monks in the Theravada, or Southern Tradition bow from the knees. Tibetan Buddhist lamas perform full-body prostrations. This form of "five-point bowing" is typical of the Mahayana Tradition.

            5) Place the head at the venerated one’s feet in respect.

Daoxuan says, “The highest part of my body is my head and here we place it at the lowest part of the other person. Paying respect with what I honor to the lowest part of the other shows the highest reverence. In China according to the norms of respect, the farther away one bows, the more respect it shows. In India, to show the highest expression of respect one approaches close to the body of the venerated person and touches his or her feet with one’s hands.”

            6) Kneel with the right knee on the ground.

This is done when requesting a teacher to teach Dharma.

            7) Kneel with both knees on the ground.

Indian Buddhists practiced three aspects of genuflection: "foreign kneeling," "mutual kneeling," and "relaxed kneeling." “Foreign kneeling” gets its name from its source among the barbarian tribes. Monks perform "foreign kneeling" and nuns the “relaxed kneeling.”

            8) Bend the body and kneel.

One performs this gesture of respect whenever his or her teacher permits it. This may be done when bowing to the Buddhas and Bodhisattva's images.

            Xuanzang (596-664), the famous Buddhist pilgrim and contemporary of Daoxuan, travelled to India during the Tang Dynasty to search out the original teaching and rejuvenate Buddhism in China. In his Record of the Western Regions in the Great Tang, Xuanzang discusses the customs of India and lists nine forms of ultimate respect that he witnessed among the Indian Sangha. He was aware of the significance of bowing in cultivating the fundamental attitude of humility appropriate to a spiritual seeker. He lists a graded series of bows from a simple nod of the head, raising the hands and bending the waist, placing palms together at chest height, up to genuflecting, kneeling, or touching the head to the ground. Finally, ultimate respect is shown by throwing the entire body to the ground.[xxxvii]

            As Chinese bowing styles in the Rites of Zhou were specific about external form, Buddhism had similar precision in detail and complexity of gesture. The unique quality of Buddhist bowing was that its primary function was internal. Bowing, then as now, helped cultivators "empty out" egotistical impediments that obscure enlightenment. In other words, bowing aimed at restoring the essential non-duality of the Buddha-nature present in all beings.

            Thus, bowing in Asian Buddhist practice is real and significant. Given the centrality of bowing in Buddhism, it is a curious anomaly that Westerners who seek the Buddha’s Way so seldom encounter bowing. Just as bowing has been largely ignored by academics, so too, has it been overlooked by Buddhist practitioners. What happened to bowing as it was imported to the West?

            This writer in the Autumn of 1969 lived as a scholar-practitioner at Antaiji, a tiny Soto Zen temple in the (then suburban) Northwest corner of Kyoto, Japan.[xxxviii] I participated in the daily practice of zazen, including week-long retreats in total silence, and witnessed the ordination preparation and liturgy in this branch temple of Eiheiji, the headquarters of the Soto School. At Antaiji, under the tutelage of Uchiyama Kosho Roshi (1912-1998) and his students, I was taught deportment, which included bowing in every situation. Monks and laity bowed easily and readily. Bowing was as automatic as removing one’s shoes before stepping up onto the tatami mats on the temple floor.

            I returned to California and began formal study and practice of Mahayana Buddhism with Venerable Chan Master Hsuan Hua at Gold Mountain Monastery in 1974. Gold Mountain’s schedule included many prostrations during a daily minimum of two and a half hours of liturgical ceremonies. Novice monks and nuns performed an hour each morning of “universal bowing.” Optional personal practices included bowing repentances, bowing to each word in a sutra (scripture), or the distinctive “three steps, one bow” practice which requires the practitioner to take three steps and make a full prostration.

            In the 1970s in San Francisco many Buddhist traditions were setting down roots and transforming their liturgical heritages.[xxxix] Even so, not all teachers of Buddhism in America presented the practice of bowing in its traditional Asian format. The bias against bowing by Protestants and Iconoclasts clearly influenced Buddhist ritual practice as it developed in the West. Some have decided to restrict, interpret or Westernize bowing. Others, such as the late Shunryu Suzuki, Roshi (1904-1971) founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, adapted bowing for Americans who meditated at the Zen Center. Suzuki, according to a story, seeing the "stiff-necked" reticence of Americans, not only did not drop bowing to cater to American's likes and dislikes, instead he increased the required bows before meditation to nine. When asked why, he said that in his view, Americans needed to bow more. Suzuki Roshi, in a Tricycle article from 1994[xl], asserts that before reaching liberation, bowing is serious business, an essential tool for the student of Zen.

            The Buddhist Churches of America (Jodo Shinshu) is one of the Japanese Pure Land forms of Buddhism. They were the first to reach San Francisco and establish a temple. The San Francisco Buddhist Temple was established in 1900. The BCA was the first Buddhist denomination in America to replace centuries-old Asian liturgical devotions with a Western style worship. To walk into a BCA service on Sunday morning it could be assumed that one had entered a Lutheran or Methodist church. Jodo Shinshu adopted on purpose the external accoutrements of Protestant Churches. Worshippers of Amida Buddha chant his name while sitting in a pew with a hymnal in hand. The Protestant liturgical style was in a sense, protective coloring for a community that was seen as "other" and who during the Second World War, were cruelly incarcerated in prison camps for their racial and cultural identity. Jodo Shinshu, as well as Soto and Rinzai Zen Schools preserved the tradition of making gassho, or half bows, done according to rules of protocol interpreted in the context of North America.

            Some would argue that in pruning away Asian devotional elements, Jodo Shinshu has become the most Protestant among American Buddhisms; others give that title to the Vipassana movement. Two founders of Insight Meditation, Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield ordained as Bhikkhus (monks) in the Thai Theravada Forest Tradition. After returning to America and disrobing, they continued to teach the meditation aspect of Theravada Buddhism to Westerners. They first however, set aside the bowing, icons and liturgies of Thai Buddhism’s devotional aspect. From one point of view, it was an expedient for Americans who in many cases were either Jewish or Catholic. Many Jews were overfed with Talmud, Midrash, and the intense scholasticism of Hebrew Rabbinics and came to Eastern religions seeking a more direct experience of spirituality. Catholics in many cases had turned away from High Church liturgical formulas, incense and hierarchical structures of orthodoxy and sought the simplicity and internality of Buddhist meditation. Both undoubtedly felt more free to explore Vipassana in the absence of ritualized forms. Vipassana continues to evolve and recently seems to be moving towards a more considered, historically resonant rapprochement with monastic forms. Where bowing will fit in remains to be seen. Thus we see that for different reasons, Jodo Shinshu and Vipassana have stripped away the icons and the devotional aspects, including bowing, in favor of meditation, psychological Metta (loving kindness) and mindfulness.

            Given the novelty of Buddhism in America in its second generation, and given our lack of familiarity with Buddhism as practiced by Asians, it is easy to see why Americans need a context for understanding bowing as a legitimate gesture of devotion to the Buddha.

            The following story reveals how the contextualization of bowing is evolving in the United States. Norman Fischer, former Roshi of the San Francisco Zen Center, in a 1997 article describes his own initial encounter with bowing, and how he teaches bowing to newcomers.[xli] Fischer begins by characterizing the reaction of newcomers to the Zen Center who arrive with mainstream Christian Protestant or Reform Jewish biases against lowering the body in worship. Their typical reaction, according to Fisher, is incredulous, even outraged and disturbed by bowing's display of piety and religious fervor.

            He explains that during his first visit to the Zendo, Fischer was told by Dainin Katagiri Roshi (d.1990) to make full prostrations towards the Buddha image on the altar. He asked Katagiri-roshi, "Why do we bow.” Katagiri showed him a tiny image of the Buddha bowing to the ground. "If he can do it, you can do it," he said. Fischer thought that was reasonable. Katagiri explained that “bowing is mutual, just one bow, bowing back and forth.”

            Fischer goes on to explain to his students that bowing is a mental training method that helps us cultivate an attitude of love and appreciation for the Buddha-nature within our own nature. Piety and devotion are okay as long as one doesn't get hysterical about it; they are tender and splendid states of mind.[xlii]

            He says that by appreciating how the figures are actually symbolic manifestations of oneself, then we become more comfortable with them as “other,” and external. The more familiar we get with ourselves as we actually are, the more comfortable   we get with the images that are "other."

            In their expressions of upaya, or expedient means, first Katagiri and then in turn, Fischer, have homogenized bowing into a democratic, egalitarian exercise. They interpret bowing in psychological language, identifying the images on the altar as capable of bowing back to the bower. By so doing, the exchange is now horizontal, not vertical. Westerners can approach bowing on even turf, and find a symbolic context for the many gasshos they will soon encounter in the meditation hall.

            The practice of bowing as it enters the West has already begun to be transformed by our logocentric sensibilities and our preference for individual expression.

            Later in the article Norman Fischer reports that he observed Katagiri-Roshi "mumbling a verse," when he bowed. Fischer asked what it meant, but only partially understood the reply, because Fischer didn’t speak Japanese at the time, and the translation came through Katagiri-roshi’s impromptu verbal rendering:

 "Bower and what is bowed to are empty by nature. The bodies of one's self and others are not two. I bow with all beings to attain liberation, to manifest the unsurpassed mind and return to boundless truth."[xliii]

            I suspect that Katagiri was reciting in Japanese the Chinese  bowing contemplation verse that has been recited by monks in both China and Japan since the fifth century.I will amplify Katagiri Roshi’s recitation to connect the practice of Zen in Zen, exemplified by Katagiri-roshi, with its Chinese parent, Chan. Below I will offer the Chinese bowing contemplation verse that is likely identical with Katagiri’s recitation. The earliest printed appearance of this verse seems to be in a text by Tiantai Master Zhanran, (b. 711) disciple of the reknowned co-founder of the Tiantai School, Master Zhiyi, in a Lotus Sutra liturgical text called “Fahua sanmei xingshi yunxiang buzhuyi."[xliv]  Dogen Kigen remarked on the line in his Hokyogi. Dogen’s master Rujing remarks that the line was routinely recited by Chinese monks in daily servces during the Song Dynasty (960-1126). [xlv] Inspiration for mental contemplations performed during bowing as well as while repenting comes from Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, who appears as one of the central exemplars of both the Avatamsaka and Lotus Teachings of Buddhism.

And nowhere is the nature of the mind - -the interpenetration of noumena and phenomena, the unity of Buddha and living beings - - more eloquently expressed than in the samadhi states of the Bodhisattva of Great Conduct, Samantabhadra.[xlvi] This undoubtedly was the source of Katagiri’s recitation, and gets to the heart of my thesis, that bowing in Buddhism, like Chan meditation, is a Dharma-door that opens to samadhi and liberation. Let’s look at the contemplation.


Mahayana Bowing Contemplation Verse

The worshipper and the worshipped, by nature, are empty and still.

The Dao and the response intertwine in ways hard to conceive of.

This Bodhimanda of mine is like Indra's pearls,

Shakyamuni Buddha appears within it.

My body appears before the Thus Come One,

With my head at his feet, I return my life in worship and bow down.


Commentary:          The worshipper and the worshipped, by nature, are empty and still.

“Worshipper and worshipped” refer to subject and object, the one bowing and the one bowed to. “Nature” is the Buddha-nature, while "empty and still," refers to the doctrine of anatta, or "not-self."[xlvii]

 The Dao and the response intertwine in ways hard to conceive of.

Dao translates variously as "the Way," or "the Path." The same word is used to present the fourth of the Four Noble Truths, "marga." “Response” refers to changes that take place when one cultivates the Dao according to the Buddha's Dharma instructions. "Hard to conceive of," suggests that the transformations of day-to-day, discursive consciousness that occur when one cultivates go beyond speech and logical thought. This happens because the very functions of conceptualizing and language are affected when one enters samadhi via this contemplation.

This Bodhimanda of mine is like Indra's pearl

Bodhimanda refers to the place of cultivation, literally "enlightenment field." In the verse the contemplator analogizes his body first as a Bodhimanda, the place where he cultivates, and secondly, he likens it to a pearl in Indra's net. Indra's Net is said to be an adornment in the Palace of the god Shakra. The net hangs before his "Good Views" Palace. In each interstice of the net hangs a perfectly round, luminous pearl. The many pearls reflect and inter-reflect; through each pearl one can see the all the pearls, yet the entire net of pearls is contained within each individual gem. Multiple pearls come forth from each pearl; the entirety can gather back into a single pearl. The cultivator visualizes this pearl inside his purified body/mind.

Shakyamuni Buddha appears within it.

At this point the cultivator, using the power of his mind's eye, visualizes the Sage he or she bows to, in this case, Shakyamuni Buddha, as if he were appearing right within the Pearl that he/she visualizes in his body and mind.

My body appears before the Thus Come One

The next step requires an interactive visualization. The cultivator adds an element to his vision: he sees his own body appearing in front of the Buddha.

With my head at his feet, I return my life in worship and bow down.

The interaction continues: the bower visualizes his body in the process of taking refuge. To “return my life in worship" is a literal translation of "namo" or “namah" the Sanskrit term used to praise a Sage or Worthy. One of namah's meanings is "to return my life back to its sacred source." It can be thought of as recognition that one's life does not belong to one as a possession, ultimately one does not “own” his or her life. By returning one’s life to a higher spiritual identity, one takes refuge with a secure and unchanging presence.

            At the end of the visualization the practitioner lets the thought go, and does not attempt to retain or grasp the vision, in accordance with the third of the Buddha’s "Four Stations of Mindfulness" (Brahma Viharas,) which is to realize that all thoughts are transient and thus, not to be grasped at[xlviii].

            It may seem counter-productive to deliberately introduce a thought, no matter how wholesome, into the mind, when the Chan principle is to never allow even a dust-mote's worth of thought to defile the fundamentally pure mind-ground. In Buddhism, however, this is called “fighting poison with poison.” It reminds us that all dharmas taught by the Buddha are expedient, not ultimate, yet at the same time, in the process of cultivation, all are necessary. The Chan School has a teaching, “We borrow the false to find the true.”

            Bowing is a mental yoga, a contemplation used therapeutically for its ability to replace and counteract the view of self, the source of pride and all the other evils that arise from arrogance. Further, to bring the vision of a Buddha or Bodhisattva into one's mind, given that it is technically an illusion that has "marks," is nonetheless, a purifying image that increases one's "good roots," and banishes harmful thoughts or instinctual desires, greed, anger, and delusion.

            Katagiri Roshi's bowing verse, as witnessed by Norman Fischer, testifies to the continuity of tradition from China of the Song Dynasty through Japan, to meet again in the West. Bowing in Chan and Zen, is more than a surrogate for sitting. It has meaning that engages physical, mental and spiritual aspects of cultivation. Bowing has a psychological function of replacing self-centric delusion. As the view of self drops away, karma has no point on which to gather; the deeper connections of our spiritual nature's interdependence gradually emerge to consciousness.

            Contemplations are an aid to samadhi; focusing with concentration on a single wholesome and directed thought, one purges the many random, discursive thoughts. Over time, the visualization's sublime aspects can connect with the nature, and the response to the Way can be "hard to conceive of."

            The reactions of college students in California who meet bowing for the first time in a monastic environment suggest that bowing appeals to Westerners today as it has historically to people in every culture.

Students' Responses at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas

            Students from Humboldt State University from the University of San Francisco and the University of California, Berkeley, come regularly to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas for a Monastic Encounter weekend, as a field trip in their religious studies courses. At the end of the retreat we ask students to evaluate what they enjoyed and what they would improve. One would assume that meditation would be the hallmark experience of a Buddhist retreat, and some students do mention meditation. Others enjoy the vegetarian food, the opportunity to talk with monastics or the tranquility and orderliness behind the walls of a Buddhist monastery. To my surprise, every retreat brings the same response: the students liked the bowing most. Here are excerpts from the evaluation forms:

            From an 18 year-old “atheist,” a Caucasian woman in her sophomore year.

“I’ve never done any religious practice before. The bowing put me off at first, I’d never imagined doing anything at all like that. I felt aversion but because everybody else was doing it, and because the monks and nuns interpreted the actions in psychological terms, it didn’t seem so threatening. When the time came I simply bowed and that was that. Once I tried bowing, it lost its strangeness. By the time I finished the first ceremony, I didn’t even notice that I had been bowing for an hour.


            From a 19 year-old "culturally Jewish" man:

“I realized that I had never before taken part in a religious ceremony of any kind. My parents never introduced me to religion. Joining the bowing and the chanting felt like water touching a thirsty plant. A part of my heart opened that hadn’t been touched before.”


            From a 19 year-old male Baptist junior :

When I left the ceremony hall I felt lighter in spirit, as if I had left cares and years behind on that bowing bench. I went back and bowed by myself for an hour in the darkened Buddha Hall. I wanted to clean out while I had the chance.”  


            We have seen how the world’s religious traditions, from Asia to the Middle East, with exceptions,[xlix] value bowing. An impressive list of world religions practice bowing, teach about it in texts and liturgies and hand down stories of the paragons of vigorous bowing. A summary of research into the various purposes of bowing among religions suggests the following topology: 1) secular bowing as a social courtesy; 2) bowing in repentance and reform. 3) bowing to establish a worshipful relationship to deities and sacred presences; 4) bowing to praise a deity’s majesty; 5) bowing as a liturgical ritual; 6) bowing to reduce pride and increase humility and goodness; 7) bowing as mortification and punishment.

            In all of the traditions I have examined, bowing has largely an exterior focus, consistent with the supporting theology. In Buddhism we see the practice of bowing applied in ways that parallel and overlap with the other traditions, yet a significant difference also emerges. In Buddhism, the focus of bowing turns back to the mind of the bower, instead of moving outwards towards a wholly transcendent Other.

            Buddha Dharma’s approach to bowing invites the practitioner’s to contemplate the nature of his or her heart/mind. In Buddhism, we discover two more purposes for bowing: first as a complement to seated meditation and second, bowing as a Dharma method that opens directly to samadhi, and prajna wisdom.

            Bowing in the various traditions look the same externally, but the internal experiential aspect of Buddhist bowing, it would seem, is different. In Buddhism, the myriad practices relate back to a central theme, the mind and its nature. The mind and its nature are fundamentally Buddha. The "goal" or the end of the spiritual path then, is to gradually remove all aspects of the view of self, until one rediscovers his or her non-dual nature. Bowing, as a road to the non-dual helps empty out and purify false concepts within. The false, illusory self is being erased as one bows. When the illusion of self yields to a larger context of Dharma, one can bow in empty space. This “true emptiness,” as the texts describe, is genuine "wonderful existence." Buddhist bowing then, aims to reveal the unsubstantial nature of both self and phenomena.

            Buddhist bowing, like its quietistic counterpart of seated meditation, also supports and reflects the larger "theology" from which they emerge. The unique aspect of Buddha Dharma is to awaken to the self nature—Buddha. Thus in Buddhism, bowing is neither symbolic icon worship, nor penitential mortification; it returns all Dharmas to the mind, where movement and stillness unite.

Going and returning with no border,
Movement and stillness have one source.
Opening and disclosing the mysterious and the subtle,
Understanding the mind and all its states;
Deep and wide and interfused,
Vast and great and totally complete....

Flower Adornment Sutra Preface50


Buddhist devotional practice in general, and bowing in particular, represent another dimension of practice awaiting exploration by cultivators of purity and contemplation



[i]Bodhimanda, Sanskrit for “field of practice,” “place of Bodhi (awakening).”

[ii]Fr. Thomas Hand proposes the word "psyche," for xin.

[iii]"Stopping" and "contemplating" correspond to the dual meaning of the Sanskrit word dhyana. Dhyana in Chinese is Chan  (Zen in Japanese and Son in Korean) and has two definitions: "calming the mind," (jing lyu)  and "cultivating thoughts."(siwei xiu). Calming the mind is shamata "stopping," and cultivating thoughts is vipassana, or contemplating.

[iv]Master Hsuan Hua, Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra; San Francisco, Buddhist Text Translation Society, p. 52.

[v] Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra, ibid. p. 57.

[vi]Avatamsaka Exegesis, (Huayen hengyuanpin biexingsuchao) ch. 2: 14.

[vii]"Elite Buddhists have redefined Buddhism as synonymous with the practice of meditation. Those Buddhist groups that do not focus on teaching of meditation, therefore, are viewed as not really Buddhist at all."Jan Nattier, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review 5/1 (Fall 1995), 48. See also  Paul David Numrich, Old Wisdom in the New World: Americanization of Two Immigrant Theravada Buddhist Temples (Knoxville, 1996) 119-125.

[viii]Eric Reinders, "The Iconoclasm of Obeisance: Protestant Images of Chinese Religion and the Catholic Church," Numen: The International Review For the History of Religions, 44, 1997, pp 296-322.

[ix]Judith Lief, "On Practice: Bowing," in  Tricycle: the Buddhist Review, Vol. IX, #1, Fall, 1994. p. 33.

[x] Reinders paints the picture:

"On one end of the yardstick  of obeisance was aversion to full prostration, and the implications of self-mortification, ritual nudity, despotism, militarism, deception, slavishness, China, Siam, Japan, primitives, Catholics, idolators and dogs. On the other positive end of attraction was Herbert Spencer's world: faint echoes of obeisance (growing fainter every day), freedom, industry, free-market capitalism, honest, dignity, Britain, Protestantism, (and perhaps even God.)" (Reinders, 1997 p. 314.)

[xi]  Samuel E. Loewenstamm, "Prostration From Afar in Ugaritic, Accadian and Hebrew," in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Number 188, Dec. 1967, pp 41-43.

[xii] Loewenstamm, ibid., p. 42.

[xiii]  I am grateful to Dr. Yoel Kahn, Ph.D., for his kindness in making available to me these materials on bowing in Judaism.

[xiv] The situation regarding bowing is complex in Judaism. Prostration was a common act of self-abasement performed before relatives, strangers, superiors, and especially before royalty. Abraham bowed himself before the Hittites of Hebron (Gen 23:7, 12). He also bowed before the three strangers who visited him at Mamre (Gen 18:2), as did Lot before the two angelic visitors who came to him at Sodom (Gen 19:1). The verb, however, is used less frequently of an individual’s worship of the Lord. Abraham on his way to sacrifice Isaac says that he is going to worship (Gen 22:5). It is used most often of particular acts of worship, e.g. of Abraham’s servant who "bowed his head and worshipped" (Gen 24:26, 48), and of Gideon (Jud 7:15) upon experiencing God’s grace. Such acts often involved actual prostration "to the earth" as in the case of Abraham’s servant (Gen 24:52), Moses (Ex 34:8), Joshua (Josh 5:14), and Job (Job 1:20). Yet, while one is compelled to observe the rules for proper bowing, at the same time the second commandment forbids the worship of any graven images or other gods (Ex 20:5; 34-14; Deut 5:9). The Israelites were warned not to worship the gods of the Amorites, Hittites, etc. (Ex 23:24; Ps 81:9 [H 10]). Nevertheless the Israelites repeatedly worshiped other gods (Deut 29:26 [H 25]; Jud 2:12, 17; Jer 13:10; 16:11; 22:9). See, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. I, ed. R. Laird Harris, et al. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), pp. 267-269.

[xv] Moses Maimonides, the Mishneh Torah: Laws of Prayer, Chapter 5; and par.10 and Par 12: Yad Hilkhot te_la 5:9-15).

[xvi]Uri Ehrlich published a revised edition of his dissertation on the gestures and physical aspects of Jewish prayer in Hebrew by the Magnes Press as Kol Atzmatai Tomarna (Jerusalem 1999). Chapter 2 in his book deals explicitly with bowing.

[xvii] Sura xxiii.2. Salat doesn't mean "prayer", another Arabic word dua corresponds to the concept of prayer. It doesn't occur in pre-Kur'anic literature. Muhammed took it, like the ceremony, from the Jews and Christians in Arabia. See also, Surah ii. 83, 110, 172, 277, iv. 77, 162, v. 12, 55.

[xviii]Qur'an xcvi. 19

[xix]Ibid., p. 499

[xx]Mysteries of Worship in Islam , pp 12-13.

[xxi] “Why We Are Not to Kneel On Sundays,” from “Living An Orthodox Life,” Orthodox Christian Information Center, <>. See also, Orthodox America, <>

[xxii] Rubrics of the Roman Breviary and Missal Translated from Acta Apolstolicae Sedis LII (1960) No. 10, (Aug. 15), The Liturgical Press, St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota, Leonard Doyle, translator, 1960.

[xxiii]Rev. John Ryan SJ, MA, Irish Monasticism: Origins and Early Development, 1931 Jan. 3, Dublin, Talbot Press Limited. p. 345.  The Irish monks considered asceticism to be a form of martyrdom and there were three grades: white, blue and red. White martyrdom, the basic form, consists in external mortification, like renunciation, fasting and labour; blue martyrdom, the  intermediate form, consists in internal mortification, or triumph over the will and inclinations; while red martyrdom (the highest form) is actual death by violence for Christ’s sake. p. 400 fn.1. Ryan deduces that vigor in cultivation was a sign of weak powers of reflection. He proposes that perhaps because (Irish monks) were less capable of contemplations than the Easterns, (i.e. Asian monastics,) the Irish monks showed an exceptional zeal at reciting psalms and other vocal prayers.  This trait remained with them throughout the centuries. This would explain their devotion to the long psalm 118, because of its unusual length. Reciting it was a form of martyrdom.

[xxiv]Elizabeth T. Knuth, Nine Ways of Prayer of St. Dominic: Prostrations/Rev. 12 December, 1998 URL:

[xxv]Rules of St. Benedict Chapter 44.   p. 95;  p. 105; p. 117; and Chapter 67, p. 137; and p. 141.

[xxvi] I am grateful to Fr. Cyprian Consiglio and to Fr. Bede Healey of New Camaldoli Hermitage for their generosity in supplying me with these internally-circulated texts and materials.

[xxvii]Susan Rosa comments:" the formal statements of conviction issued in the wake of the Reformation... had encouraged the development of the notion of religion as adherence to a set of propositions. Rosa, Journal of the History of Religions, 1991.

[xxviii]The concern with bodily posture in worship includes three areas of questions concerning: 1) scriptural basis for truth claims, involving a characteristically Protestant appeal to the priority of textual authority over institutional authority; 2) bowing and genuflection's alleged insult to human dignity, involving therefore an implicit definition of a properly dignified self with its properly dignified posture (erect); and 3) its historical associations with "idolatry" and the Roman Catholic Church, involving, therefore, certain historical defining conflicts of religious, national and institutional identity.Scholars have emphasized the study of doctrines and beliefs and have ignored practice in general, and devotional or ritual practice in particular. Reinders and Schopen redress an epistemological blind spot of Anglophone humanities and Social Sciences, particularly Sinology and Buddhology.

[xxix] Said, Edward, Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. See also: Immanuel Wallerstein,."Eurocentrism and its Avatars: The Dilemmas of Social Science"1997, [Keynote Address at ISA East Asian Regional Colloquium, "The Future of Sociology in East Asia," Nov. 22-23, 1996, Seoul, Korea, co-sponsored by Korean Sociological Association and International Sociological Association] A supplementary bibliography on Orientalism and post-colonial studies is available at

[xxx]Said, (pp 1-3,5) ibid.

[xxxi]  Gregory Schopen, "Archaeology and Protestant Presuppositions in the Study of Indian Buddhism." History of Religions 31/1 (August 1991), 1-23.

“The study of Indian religions are dominated by a search in written sources for a logocentrism that typifies the Protestant traditions of most Western Indologists and Buddhologists.  Evaluations of quality and authenticity of their conclusions and foci of that scholarship must be reinterpreted in that light.

[xxxii]Duan served as governor of Wushan. Known for his literary acheivements, he was also famous as a advocate of the ancient virtue of yi "righteousness." Duan was expert at xiaoxue, "The Lesser Learning."  He wrote seven well-known reference works, including our text, the Shuowen Jiezizu. (Zhongguo renming dazidian p. 666.)

[xxxiii]“The Ten Thousand Buddha’s Repentance Liturgy” is bowed every Spring at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Northern California and requires 11,111 bows in all. The ceremony requires three weeks to complete.

[xxxiv]More on bowing in Tibetan Buddhism can be found in an on-line article by Lama Surya Das;

[xxxv]Master Hsuan Hua, Records Of A Life, Hong Kong, BTTS, 1958.

[xxxvi]T. 45, #1896, 862c.  Daoxuan obviously has access to the earliest Chinese etymological dictionary, the Shuowen Jiezi, as well as the Rites of Zhou, as he quotes from them in citing the “Nine Styles of Bows.”

[xxxvii]Datang Xiyuji, Chapter 2, “An Extensive Discussion of Indian Customs.”

[xxxviii] Antaiji moved to Hyogo Prefecture in 1976.

[xxxix]  Shasta Abbey, in the Soto Zen lineage, under the tutelage of the late Jiyu Kennett Roshi, developed a full monastic liturgy that has been said to resemble Anglican church music. Kennett Roshi was an accomplished organist; her Protestant religious background, university training in music and love for liturgy informed her translations of Japanese Zen ceremonies into Western modes.

[xl]Tricyle: The Buddhist Review, Vol. IV, No. 1, Fall, 1994, p. 32.

[xli] Norman Fischer, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Vol. VI, No.3, Spring, 1997

[xlii]  Fischer, ibid. (pp 58-59.)

[xliii] Fischer, ibid. (pp 58-59.)

[xliv] T. 1942, vol. 46.956a2.

[xlv]  I am indebted to Professor Dan Stevenson for this information.

[xlvi]For more on Samantabhadra, I refer the reader to Taigen Daniel Leighton’s Bodhisattva Archetypes: Classic Buddhist Guides to Awakening and their Modern Expression, Penguin Arkana, New York, 1998.

[xlvii]The Buddha taught the Three Dharma-seals," i.e. all dharmas made of components, arising from conditions, are 1) dukkha: subject to decay and destruction and thus, inherently unsatisfactory, tending to suffering, 2) anatta: not-self; 3) anitta: transient and impermanent.

[xlviii] Four Stations of Mindfulness: 1) the body is impure; 2) feelings lead to suffering; 3) thoughts are transient; 4) all dharmas are no-self.

[xlix]I have been unsuccessful in locating Hindu sources on bowing, and I will leave that rich tradition for an expanded analysis at a later time.

* This article appears in "Purity of Heart and Contemplation," Barnhart and Wong, Editors, Continuum Publishers, 2001/ Rev. Heng Sure -

___ ___ ___

American Pilgrimage - Three Steps, One Bow for Peace
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News From True Cultivators — Heng Sure & Heng Ch'au.

The letters of Heng Sure and Heng Ch'au... Three steps and a bow. That's how they walked it. Two monks on a pilgrimage of peace that took them through a series of wide-ranging encounters and extraordinary experiences -- within and without. These letters and photos are a record of their amazing journey.

Two American Buddhist monks on a journey of a lifetime, from downtown Los Angeles to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Talamage, California. A journey of more than 800 miles that took two years and nine months to complete. They bowed in peace, and for peace. Touching their foreheads to the ground, opening their hearts with one wish for the world. Peace. For everyone, everyday, everywhere.