To bow is to bend. This requires flexibility – otherwise things might crack or break. When one bows as an act of the heart this is humility.
What is literally happening is that we take the head and put it on the ground. The head is the most important bit; it holds all the sense organs and the brain. The face is also related to with a strong sense of self-identity; when asked to describe a ‘person’ we rarely give details of their feet – it is usually the face.
By bowing down my head it follows that other things are raised up in relation to ‘me.’ The question to ask is ‘what do you raise up (or bow down to) that is higher than your own, personal, ego-self?’ The opportunities for bowing in Buddhism are many. Usually one would bow three times in respect to the three refuges (triple gem).
Bowing to one’s teacher with gratitude and humility
The thing most commonly bowed to is the Buddha image. At the risk of repeating this information it is very important to be clear that the image is a symbol not an idol. The image symbolises the realisation of the highest human potential, representing so much that is worthy of respect, worthy of bowing down to. The act of bowing not only acknowledges the value of this potential, these sublime human qualities, but it sets up a very tangible connection with those qualities in myself. We are all capable of wisdom, kindness, patience, etc., to some degree, and in one way bowing points back to one’s own ‘Buddha nature.’ Buddhists commonly bow to images, stupas, teachers, parents, the four directions.
Bowing is also used as a training in mindfulness. It is customary that when one enters or leaves a shrine room one bows. This sets up a point of stopping, of recollection; ‘I am in this room, relating in this way, at this time.’ It is also customary at various times of the day to bow to senior members of sangha. Again, this requires a sensitivity and presence of mind; ‘am I junior, what is the situation now, what is the time?’ As there are these tradtional times of paying respect one needs to be in touch with time and place, to be prepared. Bowing is ideally a beautiful and graceful act and it is very un-beautiful to see someone rushing in at the last minute and ‘whipping off’ three quick ones.