Why We Bow
By Zen Master Dae Bong
Bowing practice means that your body and your mind become one very quickly. Also, it is a very good way to take away lazy mind, desire mind and angry mind.
When you’re sleeping, your body’s laying in your bed, but your mind flies around and goes somewhere. Maybe you go to Las Vegas or you go to the ocean or you go to New York, or some monster is chasing you. Your body’s in bed, but your consciousness already went somewhere. When we wake up, many times, our consciousness and our body don’t quickly connect. So you wander around your house, and drink coffee, you bump into things.
Then slowly, slowly your consciousness and your body again come together. So that’s why, first thing in the morning, we do one hundred and eight bows. Through these one hundred and eight bows, your body and your consciousness become one very quickly. In this way, being clear and functioning clearly is possible.
We always bow one hundred and eight times. One hundred and eight is a number from Hinduism and Buddhism. That means there are one hundred and eight defilements in the mind. Or, sometimes they say one hundred and eight compartments in the mind. Each bow takes away one defilement, cleans one compartment in your mind. So our bowing practice is like a repentance ceremony every morning. In the daytime, in our sleep, our consciousness flies around somewhere. Also, we make something, we make many things in our consciousness. Then, we repent! So we do one hundred and eight bows; that’s already repenting our foolish thinking, taking away our foolish thinking.
Some people cannot sit. Sometimes due to health limitations or they have too much thinking, and if they sit, they cannot control their consciousness. Then, bowing is very good. Using your body in this way is very important.
The direction of bowing is very important. I want to put down my small I, see my true nature and help all beings. So, any kind of exercise can help your body and mind become one, but with just exercise, the direction is often not clear. Sometimes it’s for my health, sometimes it’s for my good looks, sometimes it’s to win a competition, but in Buddhism, everything’s direction is the same point –how to perceive my true nature and save all beings from suffering.
Our bowing takes away our karma mind, our thinking mind, and return to this moment very clearly, want to find my true nature and save all beings from suffering. This is why bowing practice is so important. If somebody has much anger, or much desire, or lazy mind, then every day, 300 bows, or 500 bows, even 1,000 bows, every day. Then their center will become very strong, they can control their karma, take away their karma, and become clear. This helps the practitioner and this world.
Kong-ans (Ch.: kung-an, Jap.: koan, meaning “public case”) have their origin in the records of encounters between Zen practitioners in ancient China. An important part of kong-an practice is the private exchange between teacher and student wherein the teacher checks the student’s grasp of the point of the kong-an. Kong-ans are probably best known for the unusual, seemingly non-rational quality of their questions, language and dialogues, and are not meant to be studied, analyzed or approached conceptually. The kong-an is an experiential tool that helps us cut through our thinking so that we can just perceive and function clearly. It is an essential part of Zen practice.
Here’s a famous example:
A monk asked Joju, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Joju answered “Mu.”
That’s the kong-an. Then there are questions connected with the kong-an, for example: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”
Sometimes the kong-an and the question are the same, for example: “The whole universe is on fire; through what kind of samadhi can you escape from being burned?”
Associated with kong-ans are short commentaries, sometimes in the form of poems.
Some kong-ans go back over 1500 years, others are created spontaneously by the teacher right there in the interview room.
Some Zen schools recommend using the kong-an as the single-pointed focus of meditation. This is not our style. Our kong-an practice has two functions: it helps us keep the correct direction of our practice—only don’t know—and it helps our wisdom to grow. The kong-an will often come up naturally during practice and in our life, so there is no need to make a special effort to hold it. Don’t worry about this. If we practice sincerely, the kong-an interview will take care of itself.
There is an interview room etiquette, involving bows and prostrations. The teacher will help you through it your first time, and as many times as you need afterward.
During intensive retreats, meals are eaten together in a traditional style derived from the formal meals of Korean Zen monks and nuns. Complex yet relaxed, the forms of these meals help us to attend carefully to what we are doing. They are another form of meditation together, helping us over years of practice to keep the mind of Just Like This in every situation in our life, however tricky or complex.