Bowing and Samadhi: Purifying the Mind with Buddhist Bowing Contemplations
by Heng Sure

In this paper I trace the uses of sacred and secular bowing East and West. I define the phrase "purity of heart" in its verb form, "purifying," and use "mind" for "heart," in the Mahayana Buddhist context. I show contemplation's vital connection with the practice of bowing. I compare several ancient religions' use of prostrations, show the curious absence of scholarly attention to bowing in Western Buddhologists and Sinologists , and comment on how that absence influences the theory and practice of bowing in American Zen Buddhism. Finally, I present three aspects of prostrations: physical, mental and spiritual, in Mahayana Buddhist repentance bowing. I conclude that bowing in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism embodies both "purity of heart" and "contemplation." It is not ancillary to meditation, rather the bowing door includes both "stopping and contemplating," and opens directly to samadhi, to Prajna wisdom and to Great Compassion.
Chinese Chan meditation came from the Indian Buddhist practice of Dhyana and in turn, produced Japanese Zen and Korean Son forms. Chan meditation has two aspects: "jinglu" and "siweixiu." Jinglu means "to purify the mind," and in the Tientai system codified by Master Zhiyi (538-597), came to be know as "stopping" (zhi). Siweixiu means "thought cultivation" and in the Tientai system, came to be called "contemplating" (guan). The terms in Sanskrit have become familiar in the West: shamata and vipassana. In the theme of our monastic conference, shamata, or "stopping," corresponds to "purity of heart," and vipassana, "contemplating," clearly resonates with "contemplation."
A skillful Chan meditator uses both stopping and contemplating as methods to bring the mind back to samadhi concentration. The technique of "stopping" purifies the mind by relentlessly sweeping away all random thoughts, especially selfish pride, without discriminating among them. "Contemplating" intentionally poses a visualization, a single, wholesome thought in the mind. The purpose of visualizing is to "fight fire with fire," and dry up the stream of discursive chatter. If the meditator can enter a state of single-minded samadhi, then he can return that one thought to its source in the "true mind of the Buddha-nature."
Purifying the mind with Chan requires skill with both "stopping and contemplating," because meditation is a dynamic, therapeutic process. Purifying requires a steady vigor and mindfulness, persisting until all traces of delusion and ignorance are transformed into wisdom and "awakening." At that point the cultivator's focus moves from purifying to a higher level of contemplation, perhaps in the form of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva's Practices and Vows, which are the Bodhisattva's path in action.
Other religions concur with the Buddhist notion that thoughts of arrogance and pride need purifying. Bowing is a practice that religions seem to recommend universally for reducing pride. Bowing includes genuflection, or kneeling, full prostration, and variations of the two. Bowing transforms pride through ritual gesture, mental reflection and spiritual contemplation. Bowing serves other purposes in both secular and sacred contexts. Twelfth Century BCE China's Rites of Zhou, Babylonia's Gilgamesh epic and the Hebrew Scriptures discuss secular bowing, how appropriate ritual courtesy lubricated social etiquette and maintained hierarchy.
Bowing has sacred applications in Abrahamic religions. These include the Pentateuch, where Moses bowed to show respect for the awesome majesty of the Yahweh. In Exodus the Lord chastises the Israelites as "a stiff-necked people," for their stubbornness, and inability to bow.. The sacred Qur'an teaches that before Allah, prostrate is the appropriate attitude for a human. In Orthodox Christianity, bowing is a personal practice of humility. Genuflection and prostration became part of the rubrics of Catholic Mass. Bowing was a central ascetic practice to the Desert Fathers and anchorites East and West. And universally, religious individuals have bowed to repent and to renew, to seek to reintegrate a heart wounded by ethical injury and to return to purity after a moral misdeed.
Curiously enough, Western scholars of Buddhism seem to ignore bowing and its related devotional issues. There are reasons for this lacuna. A Protestant Christian doctrinal background and its quarrels with Roman Catholicism over metaphysical and theological issues seems to predispose some scholars to disdain bowing. This bias may have established a bias against bowing in North American Buddhist circles. One example of this process is the expedient means American Zen teachers employ in order to introduce bowing to beginning meditators from Reform Jewish and Christian backgrounds.
Chinese Mahayana Buddhists interpret the Indian legacy of bowing with its three aspects: physical, psychological, and spiritual. The physical aspect teaches Twelve Forms of Respect, and the contemplation of "Five Limbs Touching the Ground". The mental or psychological aspect purifies the view of self and its offspring, arrogance, through training a proper, Dharma view. The spiritual aspect of Buddhist bowing replaces the view of self with an interactive contemplation that comes from the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra's Practices and Vows. I will explain the bowing contemplation verse used in the Mahayana and show how its application leads to the selfless liberation of the Buddha. By bowing in worship to all beings, the view of a self disappears.