"Therefore, Rahula, you should train yourself: 'I will purify my bodily acts through repeated reflection. I will purify my verbal acts through repeated reflection. I will purify my mental acts through repeated reflection.' That is how you should train yourself."— MN 61
When I first went into a Buddhist meditation hall, I was struck by the presence of the Buddha image. It seemed larger than life and I had an immediate sense of panic. I noticed others bowing and felt uncomfortable and a little caught out by the ritualised nature of these actions. My precious personality was on show. I was full of half baked ideas and un-arisen fears. I realised I needed to work hard to overcome this ego-driven rigidity.
In Jack Kornfield's excellent book Living Buddhist Masters, Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah makes a very strong point about the reasons why bowing occurs in Buddhism. Bowing is a good remedy for conceit and pride. By bowing there is recognition of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. In mind this is a recognition of the qualities of purity, radiance and peace. The outer action trains the interior state. The mind and body are brought into harmony. The mind is rigid when resisting the simple gesture of bowing. Bowing is a sign of internal ease. Becoming harmonious means moving beyond exterior form. What Ajahn Chah means is we can seek through a simple gesture to get beyond selfishness, beyond opinion, beyond a sense of entitlement, of exemption from the nature of the world.
Language traps us into concepts of difference, of discrimination, such as size, importance, race, religion, pretty, ugly, black, white, north, south, east, west. These language concepts are created from craving, they arise in response to craving. Craving arises from ignorance. This is so all along the chain of dependent origination. The formula runs “from this comes that,” but in truth it means “from this comes this:” no distinction is involved.
Along the Noble Eightfold Path, the simple act of bowing connects the mind to Right Resolve (Samma sankappo):
"And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill-will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve."
— SN 45.8
To bow, in the Buddhist context, is therefore not to grovel before an idol or a god. It does not mean blind obedience to an ideology or a teaching. It means instead a willingness to examine the greed, ill-will and clouded thinking that has arisen, or remains un-arisen, in order to favour the arising of renunciation of what is harmful; filling the heart instead with kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, in place of animosity, pride, jealousy, infatuation, or worry; clearing the mind of ignorance, in expectation of the arising of equanimity and wisdom.