The Long Journey to a Bow

When news swept through the village of the impending death of their beloved and esteemed teacher, well wishers gathered to pay their last respects and honour him.  Standing around the master’s bedside, one by one they sang his praises and extolled his virtues as he listened and smiled weakly.  “Such kindness, you have shown us”, said one devotee.  Another extolled his depth of knowledge, another lamented that never again would they find a teacher with such eloquence.  The tributes to his wisdom, compassion and nobility continued until the master’s wife noticed signs of restlessness and thanking his devotees, asked them to leave.  Turning to her husband, she asked why he was disturbed, remarking upon all the wonderful tributes that had been showered upon him.  “Yes, it was all wonderful” he whispered.  “But did you notice that no-one mentioned my humility?”

The conceit of self (in Pali: Mana) is said to be the last of the great obstacles to full awakening.  Conceit is an ingenious creature, at times masquerading as humility, empathy or virtue.  Conceit manifests in the feelings of being superior to or better than another, the belief in being inferior to or worse than others and lastly the conceit of being equal to or the same as others.  Within these three dimensions of conceit are held the whole tormented world of comparing, evaluating, judging and measuring that afflicts our hearts.  Jealousy, envy, resentment, fear and beliefs in unworthiness spring from this deeply embedded pattern of conceit.  Conceit perpetuates the dualities of ‘self’ and ‘other’, the schisms that are the root of such depths of alienation and suffering in our world.  Our commitment to awakening and the end of suffering asks us to honestly explore the ways that conceit manifest in our lives and to find the way to its end.  The Buddha taught that ‘one who has truly penetrated this three fold conceit of superiority, inferiority and equality, is said to have put an end to suffering’.  The cessation of conceit allows the fruition of empathy, kindness, compassion and awakening.

Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, my first encounter with conceit happened in the very beginning of my practice in the Tibetan tradition, a serious bowing culture.  Not a tradition of just inclining the head slightly, but a culture in which Tibetans undertake pilgrimages of hundreds of miles doing full prostrations the entire way.  In Tibetan communities the serious bowers can be spotted by the callous in the center of their forehead. Walking into my teachers room for the first time, I found myself shocked to see people prostrating themselves at his feet. My reaction was visceral, I saw their bowing as an act of abasement, humiliation, self effacement and I determined never to do the same.  My conceit appeared in the thoughts that questioned what this plump, unsmiling man swaddled in his robes had done to merit this attention or make him better and loftier than his students.  The recurrent words of ‘I’, ‘me’, better, worse, higher, lower, worthy and unworthy provided fuel for plenty of story telling and resistance.

Over the years as my respect and appreciation for his generosity, kindness and wisdom grew I found myself inching towards a bow, often a token bow with just a slight bob of my head, at other times a more heartfelt bow born of a deeper gratitude, but still an element of tension and withholding remained.

I continued to practice in other bowing cultures.  In Asia I saw elderly nuns with many years of practice and wisdom kneeling before teenage monks who had yet to find the way to sit still for five minutes.  In Korea I saw a practice environment where everyone bowed to everyone and everything with respect and a smile.  It dawned on me that bowing was not, for me, just a physical gesture, but an investigation and a pathway to understand conceit.  The bow, I came to understand, was a metaphor for understanding many aspects of the teaching – pride, selfing, conceit, discriminating wisdom and self-image.

My first challenge on this journey was to distinguish the difference between a bow as an act of letting go of conceit and duality, and a bow which expressed beliefs in unworthiness that reinforced one of the most lethal faces of conceit. As Kate Wheeler once put it, ‘A true bow is not a scrape’.   Many on this path, men and women,  carry a legacy of too many years of scraping, cowering, self belittlement rooted in beliefs in unworthiness, one of the expressions of inferiority conceit.  The path to renounce scraping can be long and liberating, a reclaiming of dignity, respect, a letting go of patterns of fear, self abandonment and inner reliance.  Discriminating wisdom, which we are never encouraged to renounce, clearly understands the difference between a bow and a scrape.  A true bow, in my understanding, can be a radical act of love and freedom.  As Suzuki Roshi put it, “When you bow, there is no Buddha and there is no you.  One complete bow takes place.  That is all.  This is nirvana.”.  A true bow is not a statement of worthiness, unworthiness or sameness – it is a gesture of a profound understanding of the emptiness of all ideas of ‘self’ and ‘other’.

Conceit describes the ways we contract around a sense of ‘self’ and ‘other’, construct identities and belief systems, believe them to be true and enable those beliefs to be the source of our acts, words, thoughts, choices and relationships.  Superiority conceit is the belief in being better than, worthier than or superior to another.  It is as kind of conceit that can build itself upon our appearance, our body, our mind, our intelligence, our attainments, stature and achievements.  It can even gather around our meditative superiority.  We see someone shuffling and restless on their meditation cushion and congratulate ourselves on our transcendence of such activity.  We might go through life hyper-critical, quick to spot the flaws and imperfections in others, sure we would never behave in such unacceptable ways.

Superiority conceit is easily spotted when it manifest in arrogance, bragging or the tendency to proclaim our excellence to the world.  It can be subtle in our inner beliefs in our specialness, rightness or invulnerability.  Superiority conceit superficially looks preferable to and to be a safer refuge than inferiority conceit, but in truth both cause the same suffering.  The feeling of superiority has the power to distort compassion into its near enemy of pity, stifles  empathy and the capacity to listen deeply and to learn.  Superiority conceit disables our capacity to receive criticism, so convinced are we in the truth of our views and opinions.

Inferiority conceit is more familiar territory for many – the chronic sense of unworthiness so endemic in our culture.  The torment of feeling worse than others, not good enough, intrinsically flawed and imperfect is the daily diet of inferiority conceit.  It gathers in the same places as superiority conceit – the body, mind, appearance and the long list of failures and mistakes we have made through our lives.  Inferiority conceit is fertile in its production of envy, resentment, judgment and blame that go round and round in a vicious circle of story telling that serves only to solidify our belief in an imperfect self.  It is a belief that is often the forerunner of scraping as we create heroes and heroines occupying a landscape of success and perfection we believe to be impossible for us, just as we may see genuine liberation as impossible.

Governed by inferiority conceit we may be adept at bowing to others, yet find it impossible to bow to ourselves, to acknowledge the worthy, the wholesome and the sincerity that keeps us persevering on our path in the face of a belief system that seems insurmountable.  Learning to make that first bow to ourselves is perhaps a step to realizing a bow is just a bow, where all ideas of ‘self’ and ‘other’, worthy and unworthy have fallen away. It is a step of committing  ourselves with confidence to realizing the same freedom and compassion that all Buddhas throughout time have discovered, acknowledging that we practice to be liberated.  We practice because it seems impossible, we practice to reclaim that sense of possibility.  We learn to bow to each moment knowing it is an invitation to understand what it means to liberate just one moment from the burden of self judgment, blame, envy and fear.  Letting go of inferiority conceit awakens our capacity for appreciative joy, to celebrate the lovely and reclaim the confidence so needed to travel this path of awakening.

Seeing the suffering of superiority and inferiority conceit we might be tempted to think that equality conceit is the middle path, instead it is more a conceit of reductionism.  We tell ourselves that we all share in the same delusion, confusion, self-centredness and greed; we all swim in the same cesspit of suffering.  Sameness can seem both comforting and reassuring.  We can feel relieved from responsibility or the need to hold aspirations that ask for effort and commitment.

Equality conceit can express disillusionment with human possibility.  We look at those who appear happier or more enlightened than ourselves and primarily see their flaws.  We see those who seem more confused or deluded than ourselves and we know we have been there.  We see our own delusions and struggles reflected in the lives of others and in a way feel relieved of bowing at all.  The offspring of equality conceit can be a terminal sense of disappointment, resignation and cynicism.

All forms of conceit give rise to endless thought and story telling about ourselves and others, all solidifying the beliefs we hold about ourselves and others.  Liberating ourselves from conceit and the agitation it brings, begins with our willingness to sensitize ourselves to the subtle and obvious manifestations of conceit as it appears.  The clues lie in our judgments, comparisons, the views we construct about ourselves and others.  Suffering, struggle, evaluating, envy and fear are all signals asking us to pause and listen more deeply.  We learn to bow to those moments, knowing they are moments where we can solidify conceit or we can liberate conceit.  Instead of feeding the story of self and conceit, we may be able to nurture our capacities for mindfulness, restraint and letting go.  Instead of volunteering for suffering we may be able to volunteer for freedom.  It is not an easy undertaking, yet each moment we are present and aware in the process of conceit building, approach it with kindness and clarity, we are learning to bow and take a step on the path of freedom.

Life, seen wisely, is a powerful ally in offering us the opportunities to let go of the conceit of self.  There are times when our world crumbles or falls apart.  Unpredictable illness, loss and hardship come into our lives and we face the reality once more that we are not in control, do not have the power to always fix adversity or make it disappear.  Sometimes there is simply no more that ‘I’ can do.  In those moments we can become agitated or fearful or acknowledge that we are meeting the first noble truth – there is unsatisfactoriness and at times suffering in life.  We can sink into despair or realize when we face the limitations of our power and control, all we can do is bow to that moment.  The conceit of self is being challenged and eroded not only by the circumstances of our lives but by our willingness to meet those circumstances with grace rather than with fear.  These moments of adversity can be greeted as enemies or seen as moments pregnant with insight and freedom.

A teacher was asked, “What is the secret of your happiness and equanimity?”  She answered, “A wholehearted, unrestricted co-operation with the unavoidable.”.  We could say that this is the secret and the essence of a bow.  It is the heart of mindfulness and compassion. To bow is no longer hold ourselves apart from the unavoidable and unpredictable, the nature of all of our lives.  It is to cultivate a heart that can unconditionally welcome and respect all things.  We bow to what is, to all of life.  Liberating our minds from all ideas of better than, worse than or the same as, we liberate ourselves from all views of ‘self’ and ‘other’.  The bow is a way to the end of suffering, to an awakened heart.

The journey to a bow is a moment to moment practice of letting go of the conceit that keeps us stuck in a small world of competitiveness, fear, striving and despair.  We can begin to hold that world with compassion, just as we learn to hold the vast amounts of suffering in the world that is born of conceit with the same compassion.  Not all pain or hardship in life can be fixed or avoided, but all pain can be met with a bow.  The pain of judgment, unworthiness and struggle that is born of conceit can be healed with the wisdom that sees and knows conceit just as it is and with the compassion that can let it go.