As I discovered during my stay at a zen center, bowing is commonplace. You bow as you enter the dojo. You bow twice as you settle into your cushion. You bow when someone close to you sits down. You bow many times during the service after the sitting. You bow to the person across from you as you exit. You bow at the closing of a work session. You bow.
Some of the bowing I struggled against. I didn't love bowing to a statue of the Buddha. When I expressed my discomfort, one person framed bowing not to an external Buddha but the Buddha within. I found that helpful, though it didn't completely dispel my reservations.
In a larger sense, all the bowing is about acknowledgement. The bows at various points moving through the dojo were ways of creating increasingly sacred thresholds, both spiritual and physical. The bows to others are also acknowledgements: recognition of the spiritual work in process or the physical contribution.
I love how bowing in this way is an embodied way of acknowledging others. It reminds me of the Indian head-wiggle. This passage from Gregory David Roberts's Shantaram captures some of its depth:
No discovery pleased me more, on that first excursion from the city, than the full translation of the famous Indian head-wiggle. The weeks I’d spent in Bombay with Prabaker had taught me that the shaking or wiggling of the head from side to side – that most characteristic of Indian expressive gestures – was the equivalent of a forward nod of the head, meaning Yes. I’d also discerned the subtler senses of I agree with you, and Yes, I would like that. What I learned, on the train, was that a universal message attached to the gesture, when it was a used as a greeting, which made it uniquely useful.
Most of those who entered the open carriage greeted the other seated or standing men with a little wiggle of the head. The gesture always drew a reciprocal wag of the head from at least one, and sometimes several of the passengers. I watched it happen at station after station, knowing that the newcomers couldn’t be indicating Yes, or I agree with you with the head-wiggle because nothing had been said, and there was no exchange other than the gesture itself. Gradually, I realised that the wiggle of the head was a signal to others that carried an amiable and disarming message: I’m a peaceful man, I don’t mean any harm.
Moved by admiration and no small envy for the marvellous gesture, I resolved to try it myself. The train stopped at a small rural station. A stranger joined our group in the carriage. When our eyes met for the first time, I gave the little wiggle of my head, and a smile. The result was astounding. The man beamed a smile at me so huge that it was half the brilliance of Prabaker’s own, and set to such energetic head waggling in return that I was, at first, a little alarmed. By journey’s end, however, I’d had enough practice to perform the movement as casually as others in the carriage did, and to convey the gentle message of the gesture. It was the first truly Indian expression my body learned, and it was the beginning of a transformation that has ruled my life, in all the long years since that journey of crowded hearts.
Bows and head-wiggles have a simple, transformative power: they connect one person to the other through a physical gesture. They are the strokes of the brush in the art of acknowledgement.
I'd like to be a bolder artist and acknowledge others more. We are so quick to criticize. Our mental machinery runs so fast that we are already thinking of a response before someone finishes speaking. If I focus more on acknowledgement, maybe I can slow down my own internal race to engage, and welcome in greater patience and kindness.
That doesn't necessarily mean that you'll see me bowing and head-wiggling any time soon. Every culture has its own avenues for expressing the art of acknowledgement, which is at its deepest level a practice of the heart and mind. So, inside, I am bowing and head-wiggling. And from this space of acknowledgement, I see you.