Bowing as Greeting

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?”


5 responses to “Bowing as Greeting

  1. I think I could really feel comfortable in a culture where bowing is a normal greeting. It seems far more intentional than most of the ways we greet one another, and anything that acknowledges the inherent value in another is beneficial, in my mind.

    • I agree with you that intent is very valuable. I imagine that even bowing could become automatic after a while, but perhaps if we were to be aware and connected with our greeting, it wouldn’t matter what form we used, simply the fact of being present and paying attention would make it a loving and powerful interaction.

      Thanks for your comment, Melissa!

  2. What a wonderful post. I have bowed to people–including complete strangers–before, quite unintentionally, and must admit that the experience was a little awkward. However, in each instance the other person returned the gesture with a smile, perhaps in response to the intimacy that such exchanges produce in a situation when bowing is not the expected custom?

    • I do love the shock factor (the kind that makes people smile at the uniqueness of the situation) when I do something unexpectedly delightful. I think making oneself vulnerable by doing something out of the ordinary (and thus opening oneself up to “judgment” for that act) allows the other person to feel safe to open up in an authentic, and potentially “odd,” way too. This might be the intimacy you were speaking of?

      Thank you so much for reading and sharing!

  3. Absolutely. I think intimacy and vulnerability are very closely linked, and both require trust. Luckily, bowing is one of those small extensions of trust that do not put one at great risk! Sending a cyber-bow in your direction, Elena! Thanks for a great, thought-provoking post!!!

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