I believe in bowing.
But it was difficult to get here.
Tuesday morning service at my friendly neighborhood Buddhist Temple. It’s a quiet service: only about 10 of us, mainly women. We each hold 108 beads on soft cords in our hands and chant words of compassion.
Each person approaches a flower heavy altar, at the center of which is a statue of a great Teacher, and we bow. Except me.
I would not bow.
Growing up with a mad man who could crack at any moment, I learned to avert my eyes when he was around. This automatically bowed my head slightly. He liked that. It’s no mistake that evil tyrants demand that their subjects bow. It’s a strategic physical and psychological position. To me, bowing meant declaring myself a beaten dog offering myself for more humiliation. Bowing brought to mind images of war ravaged citizens begging for their lives.
I finally asked Roshi to tell me about bowing.
He spoke slowly, with a soft Japanese accent. “The top of your head is most vulnerable. There is a soft spot there. If someone wanted to kill you, they could do it with one big rock. When we bow to one another, we say “I trust you with my life.” In our case, it is saying to this Teacher, ‘I trust you with my spiritual life.’ Offer your soft spot, where there is less resistance. Some truth may enter with out having to fight your ego.”
For the first year of our lives, the three boney plates of our little skulls are not yet fused. Touch the top of any baby’s head and you’ll feel a soft warm indentation. Mothers instinctively protect that soft spot. We murmur love and instructions into that furry little dip.
How often has that circle at the top of our heads been covered, uncovered, decorated, protected, exposed, and touched in the quest for understanding?
Men remove their hats before entering church. Boys are asked to remove baseball caps in the classroom. Mothers braid flowers into yellow wreaths for their daughters’ wispy heads. Kings and Queens wear crowns. The Buddha is often shown with a lotus flower sprouting from the top of his head and the alternate halo and thorns that encircled Jesus’ head were hugely significant.
So many Rulers and Teachers have asked us to be humble, to let go of our pride and bow and I have screamed at every one of them.
Roshi said, “A good Teacher has no desire to control you or hurt you. He only wants you to let down your defenses and open your mind.
I can do this. In fact I’ve been yearning to do this for years. I’m slow to trust. The protective shields over my soft spots are semi permanent. But as I learn how resilient my spirit is, how badly I want the wisdom of good Teachers, I am finally willing, thrilled even to bow my head, offering that fontanel like a cup, please pour pour pour.