Learning to Bow

Jack Kornfield is an American Buddhist Master. His book, A Path With Heart, continues to be one of the most significant books I take along on my spiritual journey. Kornfield’s new book is called, First the Ecstasy, Then the Laundry. Essentially, it’s about demystifying spiritual practice, revealing the necessity of spiritual life as everyday life — a life of meditation, mindfulness, prayer, worship, diaper changing, commuting, and laundry.

In the foreword to his book, Kornfield writes of his early days of becoming a monk in Thailand. He had difficulty learning to bow, and bowing was central to the Buddhist way. Each time the monks entered the meditation hall, they would drop to their knees on the stone floor and three times bow with their heads between their palms. It was a practice of reverence, a way of demonstrating their commitment to simplicity, to mindfulness, and compassion.

Apparently, Kornfield wasn’t fully into the bowing practice. After a short time, one of the Senior monks took him aside and said, “In this monastery, you must not only bow when your enter the hall, but also each time you meet your elders.” Kornfield asked who his elders were. They were, he was told, everyone who preceded him in ordination. In other words, everyone. And so he bowed to everyone. Sometimes it was easy enough. There were many in that monastery who were renowned far and wide for their wisdom and piety.

But, he writes,

I would encounter (also) some twenty-one year-old monk, full of pride, who was there only to please his parents or to eat better food than he could at home, and I had to bow because he had been ordained the week before me. Or I had to bow to a sloppy old rice farmer who had come to the monastery the season before on the farmer’s retirement plan, who chewed betel nut constantly and had never meditated a day in his life. It was hard to pay reverence to these forest dwellers as if they were great masters.

But he began to work to find a way to make this bowing to everyone valuable, to have it be meaningful. He writes,

I began to look for some worthy aspect of each person I bowed to. I bowed to the wrinkles around the retired farmer’s eyes, for all the difficulties he had seen and suffered through, and triumphed over. I bowed to the vitality and playfulness of the young monks, the incredible possibilities each of their lives held before them. I began to enjoy bowing. I bowed to my elders. I bowed before I entered the dining hall and as I left. I bowed as I entered my forest hut, and I bowed at the well before taking a bath. After some time, bowing became my way — it was just what I did. If it moved, I bowed to it.

It seems to me that there are at least two aspects of this business of bowing that we might consider. One is bowing as a way of honoring, of showing respect, and of demonstrating humility. The other is bowing as an expression of welcome.

Americans have a particularly difficult time with bowing. That difficulty no doubt has to do with the independent mind-set, the democratic spirit grounded in the revolutionary rejection of all myths of divine right, royal blood, and the privileges of “high birth.” Out of that proud democratic spirit, comes a radical attitude of absolute equity coupled with a Puritan, anti-papist suspicion of such concepts as “sacred,” “holy,” and “reverence.”

The key word in all this, of course, is “pride.” The novice monk must first overcome pride. Kornfield had to get over the sense that he was a cut above the young monks and certainly a cut above some old farmer. And why does the novice monk — or anyone setting out on the path to personal, spiritual growth — why does anyone need to “swallow,” or overcome, pride?

Because pride separates.

Our western dualism divides the world into subject and object. In this dualism, we are the prideful subjects, the observers, the masters of a world of objects. We are the inheritors of that old patriarchal god whose mandate was to go forth of subdue the earth.

So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

And God blessed them, and God said to them,

Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it;

and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air

and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.

It is a pride-ful construct, this godlikeness, this commission to subdue the earth. It is a construct we — particularly we westerners — have nurtured and fortified to the point at which we are alienated from the earth, from the creatures with whom we share the earth, and from any of our own kind who are not, so we declare, like us. The consequence for us is a deep sense of aloneness born of separation, of the emptiness of lives disconnected from nature and from everything “not me.” Everything to which we hold ourselves superior is that from which we are separated. And that from which we are separated is part of us lost, for it is not, after all, that everything belongs to us, but that we belong to everything.

Learning to bow is a way of reconciling and reconnecting. Bowing is an expression of humility, a humility in which we are not lessened but in which the preciousness of that to which we bow is recognized and honored as being a preciousness in which we participate.

It is said that the clasped-hands bow expresses this: “The god that is in me greets the god that is in you.” There are two simple lessons in that–two simple lessons that may take years of experience to absorb — that indeed there is a god in us: divinity, holiness, preciousness; and that there is a god in all others. The first principle of Unitarian Universalism affirms this, in affirming “The inherent worth and dignity of every person” and the seventh principles affirms that every person is part of an interdependent web of all being. Learning to bow is a way of learning to overcome the pride that separates us from the whole and a way of learning to be part of the web.

The bow can be figurative, of course — a sort of mental attitude of reverence and respect. But I suggest we are all novices on this path, not ready for spiritual short-cuts, and that it would serve us well, at every opportunity, to press the hands, “bend the back of pride,” and experience fully –physically, mentally, spiritually — the bow that relates us.

You may have noticed that I have a brief ritual of bowing before I enter the pulpit. It is a simply acknowledgment that I am about to presume to engage in something, something of extravagant importance, that is far larger than I.

Chris and I visited a Japanese garden on Mt. Desert Island in Maine a couple of years ago. As we approached the garden, the young woman who tended the sand garden came to do her work. Before she stepped over the garden border, she knelt, briefly, and bowed her head. I thought at the time how wonderful it is, what a gift it is, to have a work that warrants a bow before it is begun. Now I think that perhaps the work any of us do might be transformed by bowing before we begin it, enlarging the meanest task with our humility.

The other aspect of bowing has to do with welcoming. Welcoming the lovely, sunny morning; welcoming the visit of lover and loved one; welcoming the team from Publisher’s Clearing House; this is easy welcome and welcome we understand. But the happy visit of sunshine, lover, or good fortune is only part of human existence and human experience. And we westerners, with our compartmentalized little minds, have another trick some other cultures avoided — and that is to divide existence and experience into good and evil, welcome and unwelcome.

The Persian poet, Rumi, expressed it this way:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture.

Still treat each guest honorably,
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Well, I’d hate to tell you what I would have said to that had someone read it to me some years ago as I was recovering from heart surgery. There’s little to nothing in our western cultures to support the idea of welcoming whatever comes to us. The proud British culture that formed me gave me A. E. Henley, who wrote,

“In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced or cried aloud; Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed. It matters not how strait the gate How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” Add to that some Rudyard Kipling rot about how to be a man and you’ve got someone who’ll welcome nothing he’s not ordered, who’ll deny or fight to the death every intrusion, and who’ll “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And what does that sure-footed stance against the vicissitudes of life get us? Most likely another heart attack to finish us off. But we’ll go bravely, having bowed to nothing.

It is hard. Bow, give welcome to the bludgeoning grief over the death a loved one? Bow, give welcome to the cancer? It is hard. I read the books. I listen to the teachers. And I do the meditation practices. But I tell you, every suffering visiting my body, mind, or spirit is more often than not first met with a fierce struggle which may or may not end in my bowing and giving welcome.

Perhaps that’s why it is called spiritual practice.

So why do it? Why learn to bow, to welcome suffering, fear, pain? Because all that — like beauty, joy, love — because all that is, inseparably, part of Truth. It is. Pain is. Fear is. Suffering is. Death is. If one desires to live fully, If one desires to live in the Truth, then one must be willing to open the door to what is, whether it is Publishers Clearing House or trouble.

“This being human is a guest house,” Rumi wrote. “Every day a new arrival.” And what is sent to us is not some ideal but what is sent to us is what is. Not to bow to all that comes, attempting not to let anything in unless it’s Mr. Feelgood, is to attempt to live in a make-believe world. The Visitor, welcome or not, is. What does this mean, “Hey, whoopee. Look, Cancer’s here! Come on in!?” Does it mean let disease, grief, suffering in, sit down and wait for it to carry you off?

Not by any means. Acceptance does not mean suicide. But denial can mean suicide. Investing all one’s energies into raging at the unfairness of God or the Universe can be suicide. Sinking into despair and depression can be suicide. I think of bowing to whatever comes, not as lying down before it as surrender to an enemy, but in terms of welcoming what comes, engaging with it, listening to it — and yes, learning from it.

Carl Sagan, after surviving a near-fatal illness said, “I recommend almost dying to everyone. It’s character building. You get a much clearer perspective of what’s important, the preciousness of life.”

One of the friends Anne Lamott writes about in her biographical book, Traveling Mercies, has AIDS. He bows to what is, to that reality in his life — that is, he welcomes all his life as it is. With that, he lives life as fully as he is able. And he says that he is living “a disease-threatening life.”

There’s a phenomenon in psychology known as the “secondary symptom,” such as “secondary anxiety” or “secondary depression.” This is expressed as “Oh my God, I’m anxious,” or “Oh God, I’m depressed.” Essentially, this is panic. Rather than bowing to the visitor and beginning a “conversation” one dashes around screaming, compounding the suffering which visits with useless fear.

I mentioned in a recent sermon that I am intimately familiar with depression. I’m reminded of one of singer Paul Simon’s classics, “Hello darkness my old friend.” Depression is certainly not an old friend I go looking for when I have a free evening. But I have learned to bow when it visits, that is, to welcome it as being “what is,” every bit a part of life as beauty and joy. I bow to it in welcome when it comes. I live in it, and through it, and, when it leaves, I welcome my life without it. I know full well that whistling a happy tune fools neither me, those around me, nor the visitor; attempting to bar the door and raging against such visitors serves only to make them stronger, more determined, more disruptive, more destructive.

At the close of the Foreword to his book, Kornfield writes,

“To bow to the fact of our life’s sorrows and betrayals is to accept them; and from this deep gesture we discover that the heart holds more freedom and compassion than we could imagine.” That, one could say, is the “pay-off,” the reward for learning to bow, to welcome what comes – -the discovery that we can hold more of the full reality, we can live in, live with more of the reality of all existence. When we learn that, we live with less fear, with less anger, with less despair: and in that, we live more “disease-resistant” lives.

Someone has said, “If you’re going to practice forgiveness, start with something less than the holocaust.” If we are going to practice bowing to all that visits, it is good to start with small things, bowing to what annoys and irritates and disappoints us, and practicing the bow until our welcome can embrace more and more of all life’s shapes and forms, lights and shadows, pain and peace.

A Teacher says, “It is … helpful to realize that this very body that we have, that’s sitting right here right now … with its aches and pleasures, is exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, fully alive.”

Mary Oliver writes:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in Autumn;

when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:

what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything

as a brotherhood and a sisterhood…

and I think of each life as a flower, as common

as a field daisy, and as singular…

and each body a lion of courage, and something

precious to the earth.

When its over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.