Why Buddhists bow

Posted by on May 14, 2013 in Buddhism | 589 Comments

When people contact me about the blog, one thing they often say is that they like what Buddhism has to say, but they don’t like ‘all the religion stuff’ that goes with it.

I generally agree. I’m not much of a one for ‘all the religion stuff’ either. I guess that’s why I attract the readers I do.

But just because it’s not particularly important to my practice doesn’t mean I don’t get it or that I don’t respect it.

One of the practices that people have a problem with is bowing. Why bow to a metal statue in a temple?

Bowing is a symbolic act. It has no real meaning. Especially when what you’re bowing to is a statue. So why do it?

The importance of bowing

Underneath it all, bowing is an attitude.

There’s an important thread running through the Buddhist tradition – the thread of┬ámastery.

Mastery of your mind. Mastery of your passions. Mastery over karma even. Mastery over rebirth. Big stuff.

At the same time, there’s an equally important thread of submission. Submission to how things are. Submission to impermanence. Submission to the knowledge that you can’t control everything. Submission to the knowledge that your craving can never be satisfied, so stop chasing after everything.

We don’t actually like the submission stuff very much. We want the things we want. And we want them to be permanent. And we want to smash through all the things we don’t want. We want to control things. Or we want to die trying.

Why we need to bow


Bowing is a way to physically express an attitude of humility.

We aren’t naturally humble. If we are, it’s usually not a healthy kind of humility.

Humility is not about allowing yourself to be exploited, or letting the bad guys win.

True humility is not meekness. Bowing helps you to think about that stuff and bring some healthy change into your life.

Showing respect

Bowing to statues extends that symbolism further.

The statue of a Buddha (often called a ‘rupa’) is symbolic of reality, truth and awakening.

Bowing to it, you’re bowing to a higher principle. You’re symbolically paying respect to something you respect.

You aren’t bowing down to anyone else. You aren’t worshipping a divine power. You’re getting your mind in order.

A warrior needs a king

I once read a book about Jungian archetypes. One thing stuck with me.

It said something about a warrior needing a king to serve. A warrior without a king is just a hooligan.

This too is what bowing is about.

When you start to get some benefits from your practice, you can get pretty cocky if you’re not careful. You can start to think you’ve got life sussed.

Maybe you decide to become a teacher, to show everyone else that you’ve got life sussed (or perhaps to benevolently impart your wisdom out of compassion for all beings, but let’s go with the first one for now).

Ironically, Buddhism kind of appeals to egotists. They can even bow egotistically! Full and elegant prostrations in front of the packed shrine room. Yes, I know the moves!

Bowing gives you a fighting chance at overcoming this aspect of yourself.

Bowing doesn’t have to be physical

Clinging to the practice is not the point.

The point is that there is an important attitude here. We must balance mastery with submission, until something else awakens in us that is beyond both.

Buddhahood isn’t about becoming superman. But it’s not about becoming an ‘unworthy’ pushover either.


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