Why do we bow?
The common explanation which is given for bowing, or ‘gassho’, is with bringing together opposites. We take things which are separate and possibly opposed – left and right – and bring them together in a gesture of integration, with our hands positioned between our head and our heart.
We can give a slightly more subtle explanation: when our hands are in this position, we’re integrating aspects of ourselves which are often quite scattered. We have an idea of ourselves as subject, somebody acting on the world, yet we also have an idea of ourselves, and certainly our body, as object; something in the world that is either acting upon other objects or being acted upon.
There’s a smear of self between these various senses, but when we’re holding our hands in gassho, all those various senses are integrated in the simple gesture. Each hand is exerting itself and pushing against the other and each hand is experiencing the push from the other, so in microcosm gassho is a representation and enactment of this integration and an integration of ourselves with all of existence.
There’s a third explanation which can be made. In Shohaku Okumura’s excellent book about the Genjokoan, he points out that the characters which Dogen uses for ‘koan’ are different from those normally used.
‘Koan’ comprises two ideograms – ‘ko’ and ‘an’. In the usual rendition, the ‘ko’ ideogram means something like ‘universal’ or ‘public’ and the ‘an’ ideogram means something like ‘desk’. So, the consequent meaning of ko-an is something like: an order promulgated at an official’s desk, as agent for the emperor, which has universal effect. And that became altered in due course to refer to the verbal teachings of zen masters. Just as the emperor’s proclamation is of universal effect because he’s the emperor, the zen master’s proclamation would have universal validity because it was true.
Dogen uses a different character for the second ideogram. Although the ideogram is different, it sounds the same as the more usual one. This happens in Chinese a lot, and we can get a sense of it when we see equivalents in English: ‘principle’ and ‘principal’, for example. Anyway, this character has as one of its components the signifier for ‘hand’, which changes the meaning of the composite ko-an. The meaning which Dogen places on ‘koan’, by the use of this different ideogram, fundamentally changes. So rather than meaning something like a universal statement of truth, the koan is rather a statement of the reality of this person exerting themselves fully, in this karmic position. There is a pivot, from Truth as Representation to Truth as Expression.
The meaning which was brought out by Dogen’s successors, was something like, ‘to accept one’s lot’. That doesn’t mean to take a fatalistic position. It’s rather – “In this particular, unique, momentary dharma position my responsibility is to express this position fully”. I do that within a dynamic universe where everything is likewise expressing itself fully.
In gassho, in openness and gratitude, we do that. And so, the universe does not collapse into nothingness.
We can see that the third interpretation of gassho is not, as it were, a bowing to something – a Buddha or a teacher or something else, but rather it is part of the expression of the full momentary dynamic activity of this person. Or as my first teacher Nancy Amphoux would say, “Your life is the koan”.