Filed in Devotion

Long Journey to a Bow

Overcoming the last great obstacle to awakening: the conceit of self

Christina Feldman

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Hans Georg Berger, Kneeling

WHEN news of the impending death of a beloved and esteemed teacher swept through the village, well-wishers gathered to pay their last respects and honor 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 kindly asked his devotees to leave. Turning to her husband, she asked why he was disturbed, remarking upon all the wonderful tributes that had showered him. “Yes, it was all wonderful,” he whispered. “But did you notice that no one mentioned my humility?”

The conceit of self (mana in Pali) 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 better than, worse than, and equal to another. Within these three dimensions of conceit are held the whole tormented world of comparing, evaluating, and judging that afflicts our hearts. Jealousy, resentment, fear, and low self-esteem spring from this deeply embedded pattern. Conceit perpetuates the dualities of “self” and “other”—the schisms that are the root of the enormous alienation and suffering in our world. Our commitment to awakening asks us to honestly explore the ways in which conceit manifests in our lives and to find the way to its end. The cessation of conceit allows the fruition of empathy, kindness, compassion, and awakening. The Buddha taught that “one who has truly penetrated this threefold conceit of superiority, inferiority, and equality is said to have put an end to suffering.”

Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, my first significant encounter with conceit happened in the very beginning of my practice in the Tibetan tradition, a serious bowing culture. I’m not talking about a tradition that just inclines 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 teacher’s room in the Himalayan foothills 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 self-abasement, and I determined never to do the same. My conceit appeared in the thoughts that questioned what this plump, unsmiling man swaddled in robes had done to merit this attention. The recurrent words “I,” “me,” “better,” “worse,” “higher,” “lower,” “worthy,” and “unworthy” provided fuel for plenty of storytelling and resistance.

Over the years, as my respect and appreciation for this teacher’s generosity, kindness, and wisdom grew, I found myself inching toward a bow, often a token bow with just a slight bob of my head. Occasionally I would engage in a more heartfelt bow born of deeper gratitude, but still an element of tension and withholding remained. I continued to practice in other bowing cultures. In Asia, I witnessed the tradition of 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 rather an object for investigation and a pathway to understanding conceit. The bow, I came to understand, was a metaphor for understanding many aspects of the teaching—pride, 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 a bow that reflected belief in unworthiness. As Kate Wheeler once wrote in this magazine, “A true bow is not a scrape.” Many on this path—both men and women—carry a legacy of too many years of scraping, cowering, and self-belittlement, rooted in belief in their own unworthiness. The path to renouncing scraping can be long and liberating, a reclaiming of dignity, and a letting go of patterns of fear. Discriminating wisdom, which we are never encouraged to renounce, clearly understands the difference between a bow and a scrape. A true bow 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.”

CONCEIT manifests in the ways we contract around a sense of “self” and “other”; it lies at the core of the identities and beliefs we construct, and it enables those beliefs to be the source of our acts, words, thoughts, and relationships. Superiority conceit is the belief in being better or worthier than another. It is a kind of conceit that builds itself upon our appearance, body, mind, intelligence, attainments, stature, and achievements. It can even gather around our meditative superiority. We see someone shuffling and restless on their meditation cushion and then congratulate ourselves for sitting so solidly. We might go through life hypercritical, 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 manifests in arrogance, bragging, or proclaiming our excellence to the world. On retreat we may find ourselves rehearsing the conversations we will have with our partner, recounting our trials and triumphs, but especially our heroism in completing the retreat where others failed. We can feel remarkably deflated when his only interest is when we’re going to take out the garbage. It can be subtle in our inner beliefs in our specialness, rightness, or invulnerability. Superiority conceit looks like a safer refuge than inferiority conceit (thoughts of being worse than another), but in truth both cause the same suffering. Feelings of superiority have the power to distort compassion into its near enemy, pity, and to stifle the capacity to listen deeply. Superiority conceit disables our receptivity to criticism because we become so convinced in the truth of our views and opinions.
© Hans Georg Berger
A traditional Buddhist story tells of the time after the Buddha’s death when he descended into the hell realms to liberate all the tormented beings imprisoned there. Mara (the personification of delusion) wept and mourned, for he thought he would get no more sinners for hell. The Buddha said to him, “Do not weep, for I shall send you all those who are self-righteous in their condemnation of sinners, and hell shall fill up again quickly.”

Inferiority conceit is more familiar territory for many of us, probably because a chronic sense of unworthiness is so endemic in our culture. The torment of feeling worse than others and not good enough is the daily diet of inferiority conceit. A student on retreat came in distress to report that none of her more familiar dramas and agitation were appearing, and she was convinced she was doing something wrong. The teacher suggested that this odd experience could actually be one of calmness and was surprised when the suggestion was met with even more distress and denial, with the student exclaiming, “Calm is not something I can do.” Another student experiencing rapture in her practice continued to assert that it was menopausal flashes, unable to accept that she could experience deep meditative states. Inferiority conceit gathers in the same places as superiority conceit—the body, mind, and appearance, as well as in the long list of mistakes we have made throughout our lives.

Inferiority conceit is fertile in its production of envy, resentment, judgment, and blame, which go round and round in a vicious circle of storytelling, serving only to solidify our belief in an imperfect self. This belief 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.

Governed by inferiority conceit, we may be adept at bowing to others, yet find it impossible to bow to ourselves, to acknowledge the wholesomeness and sincerity that keep us persevering on this path. Learning to make that first bow to ourselves is perhaps a step to realizing that a bow is just a bow, a simple gesture where all ideas of “self” and “other,” “worthy” and “unworthy,” fall away. It is a step of confidently committing ourselves to realizing the same freedom and compassion that all buddhas throughout time have discovered; it is 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 and reclaims the confidence so necessary 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; however, a closer look shows us that it is more a conceit of mediocrity and minimal expectations. Equality conceit is when we tell ourselves that we all share in the same delusion, self-centeredness, and greed, that we all swim in the same cesspool of suffering. We see someone falling asleep on their cushion and feel reassured. We observe a teacher dropping their salad in the lunch line, and it confirms our view that people are essentially and hopelessly mindless. Sameness can seem both comforting and reassuring. Thinking that others are also struggling on the path can make us feel relieved of the responsibility to hold aspirations that ask for effort and commitment.

Equality conceit can express disillusionment with human possibility. When we look at those who appear happier or more enlightened than ourselves and primarily see their flaws, we are caught in equality conceit. 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 think that we are relieved of the task of bowing. The offspring of equality conceit can be a terminal sense of disappointment, resignation, and cynicism. After Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, was released, several newspapers responded by publishing the electric bill of his home. What wasn’t mentioned was how the home’s electricity was generated by solar power. It seemed there was a driving need to reduce his message and show that we’re all hopeless carbon emitters.

All forms of conceit give rise to the endless thoughts and storytelling that solidify 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 they appear. The clues lie in our judgments and comparisons, the views we construct about ourselves and others. Suffering, 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 when we can either solidify conceit or liberate it. Instead of feeding the story, we can 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 that we are present and compassionate in the process of conceit building is a moment of learning to bow and take a step on the path of freedom.

Life is a powerful ally because it offers us the opportunities to let go of the conceit of self. There are times when our world crumbles. Unpredictable illness and other hardships come into our lives, and we face the reality once more that we are not in control. Sometimes there is simply no more that “I” can do. In those moments, we can become agitated or we can acknowledge that we are meeting the First Noble Truth: at times there is unsatisfactoriness and suffering in life. When we face the limitations of our power and control, all we can skillfully do is bow to that moment. The conceit of self is challenged and eroded not only by the circumstances of our lives but also by our willingness to meet those circumstances with grace rather than with fear.

A teacher was asked, “What is the secret to your happiness and equanimity?” She answered, “A whole-hearted, unrestricted cooperation with the unavoidable.” This is the secret and the essence of a bow. It is the heart of mindfulness and compassion. To bow is to no longer hold ourselves apart from the unpredictable nature of all of our lives; it is to cultivate a heart that can unconditionally welcome all things. We bow to what is, to all of life. By liberating our minds from 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.

Christina Feldman is the author of a number of books, including Compassion and The Buddhist Path to Simplicity. She is a co-founder of Gaia House and a senior teacher in the Insight Meditation community. She lives in Devon, England.

Image 1: © Hans Georg Berger, Kneeling, Archive No. 3773,13, hansgeorgberger.d
Image 2: © Hans Georg Berger, A Monk Dressing; Feet, Archive No. 608-08

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superpowersteve's picture

I bow alone every morning when I first wake up. I bow in thanks of life! I bow without thinking I am doing it!.

Lotsawa's picture

Wonderful article, thank you so much!

lsmithdog's picture

I agree...a true way to touch that inner struggle. I found this insight moving and sincere, the way the bow might be when it is done without conceit. Thanks for this...it awakened parts of myself I needed to see.

Damien9's picture

There was so much in this article. I sought to take some key ideas

Sometimes there is simply no more that “I” can do.
When we face the limitations of our power and control, all we can skillfully do is bow to that moment.
to embrace a whole-hearted, unrestricted cooperation with the unavoidable.
and cultivate a heart that can unconditionally welcome all things

marginal person's picture

wow, so much said about the bow......in the east they bow to the tao....while in the west the bow is to the dow....my pooch, he bows before his chow but my cat, he simply meows... i bet you wish i'd made a vow never to write about the bow and so i'll end my rant right now with a simple ciao and a heartfelt bow

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Haha thanks marginal person, that made my morning.

flyrcairplanes's picture

This article has been incredibly helpful for me. I honestly have never realized how many of my thoughts are riddled with a feeling of superiority. I don't have a zen group in my town and have always thought about driving to a neighboring city to sit. The reason I haven't is because they also do chanting and I always felt uncomfortable with that. Now I realize that I really looked at chanting as something that weak people do. A form of religious escapism. I now see how arrogant that is. So many obvious other examples have flooded my mind. Thank you for reposting this article.

celticpassage's picture

I would suggest that bowing and not bowing is just a cultural manifestation rather than a diagnostic of great spiritual truth. Bowing or not bowing won't move you 'further along the path' at all. Rather, it seems to be a more or less pointless discussion.

Dominic Gomez's picture

My cultural preference is to trade fist bumps or high 5's with fellow Buddhas. (Grew up in Kewlifornia.)

celticpassage's picture

Nice. I loved San Diego when I visited for a week. Such perfect weather: it was amazing.

Dominic Gomez's picture

SoCal is blessed that way. I'm in the crisp Pacific NW now where they have 4 seasons.

robertomainetti's picture

it took me some time until i start enjoying to bow to monks and others...now it come easy as triggering a reflex full of joy but if they hand me a hand i handshake. this is my world now...

mas's picture

In my view, for the act of human bowing to truly express the absence of the conceits described in the article, then it must be done with reciprocity. Or better yet, simultaneously. A one-sided performance of the offering "bower" and a receiving "bowee" does not achieve this unless the roles are also reversed on the same occasion. I do not advocate bowing unless, perhaps, it is to a tree or the sun. If anything, bowing to human beings as described in this article ignores basic human psychology and flow of energy. In fact, it more firmly establishes dualistic and hierarchical concepts of self and other.

celticpassage's picture

???

Dominic Gomez's picture

Mutual recognition of one another's Buddha nature is the basis of Buddhist bowing. It is not kowtowing.

mas's picture

Bowing in recognition of Buddha nature is not an act that is typically performed mutually. It has a similar effect to kowtowing when it is one-sided, regardless of the broader intention.

marginal person's picture

Our problem is distinguishing between religious Buddhism and dharma practice. Gotama presented himself as a teacher not a savior. He spoke about anguish and the ending of anguish. His teaching was " like an open hand" nothing was hidden and he urged his followers not to accept his insight blindly but to prove it to themselves. The teachings were not something to believe in but things to do. Most people refuse to think for themselves so we have the idealization of Gotama as a god rather then the reality of a person who woke himself up through his own effort. Bowing is a social convention and as such, not essential to the path.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Like shaking hands on an agreement while hiding the other with fingers crossed behind one's back. Such is samsara.

aldrisang's picture

Whether bowing to yourself or bowing to others, there is only bowing.
This is a good practice to break down the wall of self and other.

jigme_phuntsog's picture

I have always loved bowing or doing full postrations, because it felt from the very first time as if I was surrendering to things as they are. I never felt I was doing it to belittle me in front of a master or an image, and I love to do it alone in my room. It all depends as to how our minds have been trained to see things. I also bow to you in thanks for this beautiful article.

joetheplumber's picture

I believe in bowing Bowing is a sign of respect for all things in your life time.
When i played Judo in 1960,we first bowed to the mat & then to the man we were going to play Judo with.
After playing we would bow to each other & then to the mat agin.
Please don't fix what isn't broken.

youngc23's picture

I understand the feeling of not wanting to bow because I experienced that a few years ago in a Theravaden retreat here in Mexico. An d the sensations of resistance to this act continue to intrigue me. Instead of being so mental regarding bowing or not bowing, I'm now ready to take Kristina's invitation serious--I'm going to do the work of going into the resistance and upon its disolution find out which way the resultant path leads me. Carroll Young

Dominic Gomez's picture

The 20th chapter of the Lotus Sutra contains the story of a bodhisattva named "Never Disparaging". Whoever he happens to meet (be they monks, nuns, laymen or laywomen) Bodhisattva Never Disparaging would bow in deep respect to them, speaking these words of praise: "I have profound reverence for you. I would never dare treat you with disparagement or arrogance. Why? Because you are all practicing the bodhisattva way and are certain to attain Buddhahood."
This bodhisattva does not devote his time reading or reciting scripture, but simply goes about bowing to other people, even those in the far distance. Nevertheless, Never Disparaging's behavior is often met with hostility by those whose buddha nature he shows respect for.
The story of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging explains the essence of Buddhist practice. Through it, Shakyamuni Buddha taught that the purpose of his appearance in this world was to be found in his own behavior as a human being.
Every human being has the potential for Buddhahood, however unlikely it may seem to our limited vision. When we are cognizant of the buddha nature in others (even those who we dislike) a phenomenal thing begins to happen. Others change and so do we. As we respect the dignity of others and make efforts towards their happiness, we become happier ourselves.
Arrogant people may look disdainfully at the likes of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging, but the Buddha nature that exists deep within their lives recognizes and is respectful of such sincere behavior.

madScientist's picture

I advocate not bowing, because it can also be possible that not bowing is simply not bowing. Nothing needs to be interpreted about this non-act. Non-bowing can be just as powerful an act as bowing provided it is done without any aversion or anything but emptiness.
I used to bow, but stopped when I realized I only did so in the presence of others. Sitting by myself, I would never bow. This led me to question my motives. Was I trying to impress others? Did I judge others by their outward appearance?
I finally came to terms with not bowing by focusing on the wisdom of the Buddha, "By walking on the path of Dhamma, I pay homage."
There is no real homage to the Dhamma by bowing ever so deeply in the dhamma hall if one is not bothering to practice every day due to any reason.
It is the practice that bears fruit, not the bowing. Bowing can help certain people, but it is not essential.

melcher's picture

So, what have you got to loose?

Freedomsage's picture

This is a very insightful exposé of the base of suffering: a conceptual relationship to life through delusion of self as inherently existent. I appreciate how author explores the subtlety of numerous relationships with life through the act of bow, which is an offering of one's complete presence without positioning. I receive this heart-felt offering for learning, contemplation and meditation with the deepest bow!

sylviej306's picture

I really thought my not feeling right in bowing was due to an ingrained teaching from my heritage"thou shalt not bow before other gods" but after reading this I realize it is just fear...fear of being less than, greater than or just like another...conceit...who knew? Thank you. I bow to you.