October 3, 2011

Namaste, Héshi, or Gasshō: Why Buddhists Bow ~ Seth Segall, Ph.D.

Photo Courtesy Hartwig HKD

Each individual being is important, but not self-important…

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshicha (1765-1827) used to say that everyone should keep a piece of paper with “for my sake the world was created” in one pocket, and a piece of paper with “I am but dust and ashes” in another. The Rabbi was expressing an existential truth: each individual being is important, but not self-important.

Western psychology has had precious little to say about modesty and humility. It sometimes seems these old-fashioned values have no place in today’s culture of self-promotion, entitlement, and exhibitionism. Years ago Western personality theorists reached a tentative agreement that five personality factors accounted for most of the variance in human personality: 1) anxiety proneness, 2) introversion-extraversion, 3) openness to experience, 4) conscientiousness, and 5) agreeableness. Modesty and humility had no place of honor within the standard model.

Not too long ago, Canadian psychologists Kibeom Lee and Michael Ashton challenged the five-factor model by proposing a sixth personality factor they called “Honesty-Humility.” People with high degrees of Honesty-Humility avoid manipulating others for personal gain, feel little temptation to break rules, are uninterested in attaining wealth, and feel no sense of entitlement to elevated status or privilege. Persons with low degrees of Honesty-Humility, on the other hand, are self-important, motivated by material gain, tempted to bend rules to get ahead, and Machiavellian in their relationships with others.

It’s very interesting that honesty and humility are linked together. “Honesty-Humility” almost sounds like the ideal Buddhist personality factor: ethics, modesty, and non-greed all rolled into one. It also sounds maybe a little Canadian, eh?

“Honesty-Humility” was in the news a few months ago when Baylor University psychologists showed that job supervisors rate health care employees who score high on Honesty-Humility higher on job performance than those who score low. Honesty-Humility predicted job performance ratings better than any of the other five personality factors!

In Asian Buddhist cultures modesty and respect for others are conveyed through the simple gesture of bowing. The hands-together bow is used throughout Asia: in Japan (gasshō), China (héshi or hézhǎng), Thailand (wai) Viet Nam, (hiệp chưởng) and India (the añjali mudrā or namaste).

The practice of bowing can sometimes be difficult for Westerners to fully appreciate. They often see it as a violation of the Biblical injunction against bowing down before graven images and idol worship or associate it with “kow-towing”—the acceptance of undemocratic status differentials, submission to power, and self-abasement.

These connotations can prevent Westerners from experiencing the beauty of bowing practice. Bowing is an expression of Buddhism through motion. In Zen, for example, one bows upon entering the Zendo, bows to the Buddha, bows to one’s cushion, bows to one’s teachers, and bows to one’s fellow practitioners. Zen is a bona-fide bowing bonanza! What’s the meaning of all these bows?

The word “gasshō” is Japanese for “to place the two palms together.” It’s a sign of respect—but respect for what? Judeo-Christian bowing is a recognition of God’s sovereignty. Does bowing before the Buddha acknowledge the Buddha’s sovereignty? Is it an act of fealty?

Hardly. The Buddha isn’t a diety—he rules over nothing, is sovereign over nothing. Buddha images are a four-fold representation. They represent the totality of existence, our own capacity for awakening, the teachings, and the historical source of those teachings. When we bow we express gratitude for the historical Buddha as a teacher, gratitude for the teachings themselves, respect for our own capacity for awakening, and acknowledgement of the oneness of Being. The Buddha is neither separate from the totality of Being, nor from ourselves. In bowing to the Buddha we bow to ourselves-as-part-of-everything. We acknowledge the smallness of our egos, the vastness of Being, and the way of Enlightenment.

Zoketsu Norman Fisher once observed Dainin Katagiri Roshi mumbling a Japanese verse as he bowed. Katagiri Roshi translated the verse:

“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.”

Similarly, the Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkuni has noted:

“It is important to understand the significance of this humble gesture. When we bow down before a Buddha image it means we are able to let go of the importance of the self. We bring our head below our heart. We bow with body, heart and mind and by so doing we gain merit. When a student bows before a teacher, it is the student who gains merit because she/he is able to let go of the self; the teacher gains nothing at all.”

The practice is not a recognition of the teacher’s higher existential status or superiority. It’s a letting go of our small self and a demonstration of the appreciation and respect due all beings. The teacher returns the bow. According to Katagiri Roshi, “bowing is mutual, just one bow, bowing back and forth.”

Respect for all beings is a core principle in Zen. It’s an expression of what Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life.” But it goes beyond that: we even bow to our cushion. We are grateful for, respect, and help maintain the inanimate world as well. Since everything in the universe is connected, everything is necessary for our own small individual existence. We show gratitude and respect for our cushion, the ground that supports us, the walls that protect us, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the earth, moon, and stars.

Bruce Blair, Yale’s Buddhist chaplain, once told me that Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn continued to bow one-hundred-and-eight times every morning even into his seventh decade. Bruce asked “Do you want to know why one-hundred-and-eight times?” I knew “108” was an auspicious number in Buddhism, but was game and replied, “Okay, why?” Bruce then told me to follow his lead. We started doing prostrations in the middle of New Haven Square, Bruce counting aloud as we did them: one… two… three… four… five…. After ten I got the idea. No logical reason. No “meaning.” The meaning was in the performance itself. Just do it. Bruce and I smiled at each other. Direct transmission!

Bowing is good for the soul. In India they say “namaste,” “I bow to the divinity in you,” in accordance with the Advaita Vedānta doctrine that ātman and Bráhman are one. In Buddhism it’s not divinity we’re acknowledging, but our capacity for awakening and the non-duality of existence. It’s a spiritual exchange in which we recognize the unique importance of each being in the universe as well as the smallness of the Self. I like to think that Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshicha would have appreciated it.


Seth Segall, Ph.D. is a retired member of the clinical faculty of the Yale School of Medicine, the former Director of Psychology at Waterbury Hospital, and a former president of the New England Society for the Treatment of Trauma and Dissociation. He is the editor of Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings published by SUNY Press in 2003. His blog,The Existential Buddhist, explores issues related to Buddhist philosophy, psychology, ethics, meditation, and social activism from a non-dogmatic point of view. Seth is also a professional grandfather, classical piano student, gardener, environmental activist, and aspiring novelist. He is affiliated with White Plains Zen. You can follow Seth on Twitter by clicking here, or on  Facebook by clicking here. Subscribe to his blog’s feed by clicking here.


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