In his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about cultivating the wholesome seeds within us, and not watering the unwholesome seeds. Within this discussion, he talks about the custom of bowing to someone and what it signifies.
The seed of Buddhahood, the capacity to wake up and understand things as they are, is also present in each of us. When we join our palms and bow to another person, we acknowledge the seed of Buddhahood in him or her. When we bow to a child this way, we help him or her grow up beautifully and with self-confidence.
Where I come from (West Coast), you’re lucky if you can get someone to even say hello to you. Where I live now (The South), I feel much more comfortable and safe in this culture of greeting people, looking them in the eye, calling them “Ma’am” and “Sir.”
But how different would it be to bow?
I always saw bowing as extremely submissive. But then, I always thought saying “Ma’am” and “Sir” was butt-kissing as well, until I began to live it. It’s respect, pure and simple. It’s either mutual, in which case no one is lower than the other, or it’s one-sided, in which case, the person saying “Ma’am” has the high ground, because they’ve done what they’re supposed to do.
So if I were to bow to someone as a show of respect, an acknowledgement of the seed of Buddhahood within them, it wouldn’t be that I was saying the person is better than me, but simply that they are capable of great wisdom and awareness.
I realize that someone bowing would be seen as somewhat of a weirdo, but it’s still a fun thought experiment, an interesting “what if?”