PRACTICE: "Notes on Gassho and Bowing"
Taizan Maezumi Roshi with John Daishin Buksbazen

Visitors to the Zen Center [of Los Angeles] often ask about the gassho and about bowing. What, they inquire, is the meaning of these gestures? Why are they done? And why is it necessary to do them so precisely and uniformly? These questions deserve careful consideration.

Although we are Zen Buddhists, it should be noted that the gassho and the bow are common to all sects of Buddhism, both Mahayana and Theravada. These two gestures date from the earliest days of Buddhism, or even earlier than that, and they have moved from India throughout the Orient, finally arriving recently in the Western world.

When Shakyamuni Buddha's enlightenment occurred, he went to see five of his former comrades with whom he had practiced various austerities and spiritual disciplines prior to his enlightenment. These five men, who were very devout monks, felt that their companion had gone astray when he abandoned their customary practices. "Come," they said to each other, "Let's not pay any attention to poor Gautama, he no longer is one of us." They were dismayed to find that he had seemingly stopped his spiritual practices, going so far as to even drink milk and take a bath (two forbidden acts according to their tradition). They could not understand why he seemed only to sit quietly, doing nothing of any value.

But when the Buddha approached them, it is reported that these five monks were so struck by the transformation of their former friend, by his serenity and the radiance of his personality, that they spontaneously placed their palms together and greeted him with deep bows. Perhaps it is a little misleading to say that they greeted him. More accurately, it should be said that they were bowing not to their old friend Gautama, but rather to the Buddha -- the Enlightened One.

What the Buddha had experienced was the Supreme Great Enlightenment (in Sanskrit, anuttara samyak sambodhi): the direct and conscious realization of the oneness of the whole universe, and of his own unity with all things. This is what enlightenment means. This very realization is actually in itself the act of being the Buddha. And it was to this enlightened state that the five monks bowed.

When the Buddha was enlightened, the first thing he said was: "Wonder of wonders! All sentient beings have the same (enlightened) nature!" What this implies is that in bowing to the Buddha, the monks were actually bowing to themselves, and to all beings. These monks were recognizing the great unity which their former companion had directly and profoundly experienced.

Let us examine the gassho and the bow more closely.


The word gassho literally means "To place the two palms together". Of all the mudras (symbolic hand-gestures or positions) we use, it is perhaps the most fundamental, for it arises directly from the depths of enlightenment. Its uses are many, but most commonly it is employed to express respect, to prevent scattering of the mind, to unify all polarities (such as left and right, passive and dominant, etc.) and to express the One Mind -- the total unity of Being.

Although there are many types of gassho, in the Soto sect we are primarily concerned with these four:

1. THE FIRM GASSHO. The most formal of the gasshos, this is the one most commonly used in our daily practice. It is the gassho we use upon entering the zendo, and upon taking our seats. We also use it at least sixteen times in the course of a formal meal, and during all services. It is made by placing the hands together, palm to palm in front of the face. The fingers are placed together, and are straight rather than bent, while the palms are slightly pressed together so that they meet. The elbows are held somewhat out from the body, although the forearms are not quite parallel with the floor. There is about one fist's distance between the tip of the nose and the hands. Fingertips are at about the same height from the floor as the top of the nose. This gassho has the effect of helping to establish an alert and reverential state of mind.

2. THE GASSHO OF NO-MIND. This is the next most commonly used gassho. It is basically used in greeting one another or our teachers. In this position, the hands are held a little more loosely together, with a slight space between the palms, although the fingers still touch. The elevation of the elbows from the floor is not so great as in the Firm Gassho; forearms should be at approximately a 45-degree angle to the floor. This gassho has the effect of deepening one's state of samadhi.

3. THE LOTUS GASSHO. This gassho is used primarily by officiating priests on special ceremonial occasions. It is made like the gassho of no-mind, except that the tips of the middle fingers are held one inch apart. Its name derives from the resemblance of this hand position to the shape of a just-opening lotus bud.

This gassho is also known as the gassho of being one with life. Like the lotus gassho, it is used by officiants in services. Although the hands and arms are in basically the same position as in the gassho of no-mind, the diamond gassho is made with the fingers of each hand extended and interlocking, and with the right thumb on top of the left.

In each of these gasshos, we keep the eyes focused upon the tips of our middle fingers. But regardless of the style or variety of the gassho, and in whatever setting it is being used, the fundamental point of the gassho is to be one with the Three Treasures: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Of course, we can look at the Three Treasures from many perspectives, and with varying degrees of depth and clarity. At perhaps the most superficial level, the Three Treasures are seen as external objects of supreme reverence for all Buddhists. Unfortunately, in this view, the Three Treasures tend to be perceived as something other than oneself. But as our vision opens up, we experience that each of us is, in fact, the Buddha. We see clearly that everything we encounter in the world is none other than the Dharma -- the functioning of underlying enlightenment. And, realizing the oneness of all beings, we come to realize that the Sangha -- the all-embracing brotherhood of practice -- is simply all composite things, including each of us. Having this awareness we become -- or rather, we /are/ -- one with the Three Treasures.

So, joining our hands palm to palm, we simultaneously create and express the absolute, the oneness which goes beyond all dichotomies. It is from this perspective that we make the gassho, and that we bow.

It is no ordinary person who bows; it is the Three Treasures recognizing itself in all things. If anyone thinks of himself as "just ordinary", [they are], in effect, defaming the Three Treasures. And as we place our palms together we unite wisdom and samadhi, knowledge and truth, enlightenment and delusion.


Dogen Zenji once said: "As long as there is true bowing, the Buddha Way will not deteriorate." In bowing, we totally pay respect to the all-pervading virtue of wisdom, which is the Buddha.

In making the bow, we should move neither hastily nor sluggishly but simply maintain a reverent mind and humble attitude. When we bow too fast, the bow is then too casual a thing; perhaps we are even hurrying to get it over and done with. This is frequently the result of a lack of reverence.

On the other hand, if our bow is too slow, then it becomes a rather pompous display; we may have gotten too attached to the feeling of bowing, or our own (real or imagined) gracefulness of movement. This is to have lost the humble attitude which a true bow requires.

When we bow, it is always accompanied by gassho, although the gassho itself may not always be accompanied by bowing. As with the gassho, there are numerous varieties and styles of bowing, but here we will deal only with the two main kinds of bow which we use in our daily practice.

1. THE STANDING BOW. This bow is used upon entering the zendo, and in greeting one another and our teachers. The body is erect, with the weight distributed evenly and the feet parallel to each other. The appropriate gassho is made (see above). As the bow is made, the body bends at the waist, so that the torso forms an angle with the legs of approximately 45 degrees. The hands (in gassho) do not move relative to the face, but remain in position and move only with the whole body.

2. THE DEEP BOW (FULL PROSTRATION). This bow is most often used at the beginning and end of services, and upon entering and leaving dokusan. It is somewhat more formal than the standing bow, and requires a continuous concentration during its execution so that it is not sloppily done.

The bow itself begins in the same way as the standing bow, but once the body is bent slightly from the waist, the knees bend and one assumes a kneeling position. From the kneeling position, the movement of the torso continues, with the hands separating and moving, palms upward, into a position parallel with the forehead. As the bowing movement progresses, the backs of the hands come to rest just above the floor and the forehead is lowered until it rests upon the floor between the hands. At this point, the body is touching the floor at knees, elbows, hands, and forehead. The hands are then slowly raised, palms upward, to a point just above the ears. Then the hands slowly return to the floor. This action is a symbolic placing of the Buddha's feet above one's head as an act of reverence and humility. There should be no sharp, abrupt movements of the hands or arms, no bending of the wrists or curling of the fingers when executing this gesture. When the hands have been raised and lowered, the body then straightens as the person bowing gets to his feet once again and ends in gassho, just as he began. In kneeling, actually the knees do not touch the ground simultaneously, but in sequence; first, the right and then the left knee touches the ground. The same is true for the right and left hands and right and left elbows, in that sequence. In practice, however, the interval between right and left sides touching the ground may be so minute as to be unnoticeable. In bowing, movement should not be jerky or disjointed, but should flow smoothly and continuously without either disruption or arrested motion.

Master Obaku, the teacher of Master Rinzai, was famous for his frequent admonition to his students. "Don't expect anything from the Three Treasures." Time after time he was heard to say this. One day, however, Master Obaku was observed in the act of bowing, and was challenged about his practice.

"You always tell your students not to expect anything from the Three Treasures," said the questioner, "and yet you have been making deep bows." In fact, he had been bowing so frequently and for so long that a large callus had formed on his forehead at the point where it touched the hard floor. When asked how he explained this, Master Obaku replied, "I don't expect. I just bow."

This is the state of being one with the Three Treasures. Let us just make gassho. Let us just bow.

[HAKUYU TAIZAN MAEZUMI - Ordained as a Soto monk at the age of 11, Maezumi Roshi is Dharma successor to three major lines of Zen teaching, representing both Soto and Rinzai traditions: Kakujun Kuroda Roshi, Hakuun Yasutani Roshi, and Koryu Osaka Roshi. He [was] the Founder, Director and resident Zen master of the Zen Center of Los Angeles.

JOHN DAISHIN BUKSBAZEN was a former Vice President of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, and a student of Maezumi Roshi.

This article originally appeared in ON ZEN PRACTICE II, ed., Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi and Bernard Tetsugen Glassman. Zen Writing Series. 1976. Zen Center of Los Angeles, 927 South Normandie Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90006.]

QOTD: "Do not think you will necessarily be aware of your own enlightenment." -Dogen Zenji.

This answers the question "Why should I bother practicing with a teacher?" rather nicely. One should not self-judge one's progress or place on the dharma path by constantly looking down, or they'll only see their own feet..

Yesterday, I participated in a “Life Vows” intensive class with my teacher, Hogen Bays.  I was initially scheduled to attend the full Life Vows sesshin at Great Vow Zen Monastery, but a number of things came up, and I had to back-out of that.  While having tea with my dharma sister, shuso-with-the-mostest and favorite sesshin nag Jomon (you ARE my favorite sesshin nag ;), she asked me why I wasn't there.  I gave perfectly valid reasons.

Yet they all still felt inadequate.  Very “blah blah blah”-ish.

I need to start going.

I need to talk to Hogen about it.  And I need to do so outside of sanzen.  This will take more time than sanzen will allow.

I was also signed up for the Mindful Eating workshop with Chozen-roshi, but swapped out of that as well; mostly due to money.  I'm waiting on my tax returns.  It'll be the last healthy tax return I'm going to see for the foreseeable future, and if the auto-deposit gets there in time, I may still try and go.  As to the money, I really want to use some of it to fly back to Wisconsin and see my mom and some old friends.  I haven't been “home” in nearly six years.  I want to bank most of it.  But I'm firm in that I also want to use some of it to pay for sesshin.  Apparently, it's for sesshin that I won't suck it up and go to :|

Which brings me back to Life Vows...

First off, I've participated in the “class” (as opposed to sesshin) version of this offering once before, back when Hogen offered it over a series of weekends.  I must say that I got a lot more out of it this time around, and I believe that is in no small part due directly to the reformatting of the offering into a one-day intensive.  You are allowed to stay more focused and immersed in the process, as opposed to three hours of thinking that is followed by a 165-hour interruption before you get to continue.  I will also say, though, that I'd like to have at least two periods of zazen (or quiet, reflective meditation for non-Zen/Buddhist folk) during the program.  At least two people vocalized that in the wrap-up.  I was unable to.  I agree whole-heartedly, though.  I felt that was missing, and I say that being a zazen-hater.  In this format, you're expected to think and reflect on-the-fly, and I felt a bit rushed in that regard.  I'd like to have had more time to really reflect and think about things before I was sitting in a group vocalizing about it.  Having said all that, it was a very useful day, and I tried to make the most of it.  I think I did a good job in that regard, because it's still ringing in me now, the morning after.  But again, points for sesshin.  If the intensive was helpful, and I want zazen to be included, doesn't a week's worth of this process sound good?

Anyway, vows.  Yeah.  Vows.

All the boiler-plate stuff was covered.  How a vow is both similar to and different from a promise, a goal, an oath, etc.  How a vow can help illuminate your path, inform your understanding of your own life, contextualize your vision of your own existence, etc.  But a few things made themselves very clear to me through the process.

  • I really dislike vows
  • I still have motivational issues
  • I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up
  • The vow I feel inclined to make, and the direction I feel pulled towards, scare the bejebus outta me
Here is what distilled from this class:

  1. Near-term vow(s):

    • To fulfill my ango commitment by attending every zazen period offered at the PDC (Tuesday mornings, evenings, Thursday evenings and Sunday sanzen)
    • To complete mock-ups for both the Heart of Wisdom e-newsletter and HoW booklett by the end of ango if not well before
    • To leave no task in an unfinished state (if at all possible) for the entirety of ango, and hopefully beyond

  2.  Mid-term vow:

    • To take the first five precepts in spring (on track for that), and then immediately ask to work towards jukai.  That means committing to at least two week-long sesshin this year. 

  3. Long-term (Great Vow):

    • To live life in a fully genuine way, and to offer some kind of aid whenever asked.

That point above, where I say that "The vow I feel inclined to make, and the direction I feel pulled towards, scare the bejebus outta me"?  I'll have to write about that at another time.  Stay tuned...

Last night I was (once again) very fortunate to get to hear preeminent Dogen scholar and artist Kaz Tanahashi speak at my zendo. We have him here at least once a year to teach and do a dharma talk. Kaz-sensei has been translating the Shōbōgenzō since his 20's when he was a Shinto adept. It's nearly ready for print. It is nearly a thousand pages, with a 100-page introduction, and three-hundred pages of footnotes, indices, sources-cited and bib. It's been his life's work, and most likely his scholarly magnum opus.

In the middle of the talk, he stopped and said "But let me tell you about getting to meet Bodhidharma..." He told us a story about visiting a monastery in northern Japan in the early winter. It was a huge temple-town, with a very high wall, and many buildings, and was considered one of the most important monasteries in the entire history of Soto. When he arrived, Kaz asked (as a formality) if there was room for him, the postulant who showed him through the gate said "No, it's fine. This abbot is very strict and most of the monks run away from him." Kaz began to notice that this huge monastery was--aside from a few laity tending to menial work--essentially empty.

Later, when Kaz was having tea with the abbot, the older priest asked Kaz "So, what are you doing? What is your practice?" Kaz answered "I'm translating Master Dogen's Shōbōgenzō into modern Japanese from the original Chinese texts." He expected the older monk to be thrilled, being that at the time, there were only three translations, and all were arguably less than effective conveyences of Master Dogen's teachings.

Now keep in mind that translating the Shōbōgenzō from Chinese to Japanese is effectively analogous to translating the entire Dr. Seuss cannon from English to Vietnamese (Actually, by word-count, it'd be a better analogy to say James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake", but not as many people are familiar with that, and even less understand the word-play there, so...). Both languages share an alphabet, but due to the very intricate word-craft and phonetic playfulness of the source material, "lost in translation" is a TOTAL understatement. Anyway, so he tells the abbot, expecting some excitement. The abbot, after taking a sip of tea, says "Well, it's better than doing nothing..."

And that's how Kaz Tanahashi met Bodhidharma...

Realization: The more a person thinks that they are different from everybody else, the more like everybody else they become.

Inverse Corollary: The more a person appreciates the commonality of the human experience, the more exceptional an individual they become.

Well, it's now 2010.  I haven't been writing all that much lately, so a year-end wrap-up is probably in order.  Especially this year.  Without question, this has been the year of biggest change in my life since I moved to Oregon (literally over-night) back in Dec of 1999.  So this wrap-up will be a year- and decade-in-review, I suppose.

But before I start, I guess I'll have to lead with a minor disclaimer: there will be vastly less specifics here than many would put in.  Why?  Well, more than anything, I guess it's because I'm discovering that life, or at least talking about it, requires less by way of specifics and more about general tone and tenor, and without question, that has changed in my life dramatically.  The whys and wherefores really are only important to me.


I started writing a chronology of my life here, including employment history, and a bunch of other stuff.  Pointless.  Here's a nutshell...

In 1998, I fell in love with someone very special.  I moved to Portland to live with her, literally overnight.  In the past 10 years that I've lived in Portland, I lived with her for nearly nine of them, and was married to her for nearly seven.  We had many good times together, and I owe her a great debt of thanks and more for my life here, the love she showed me, and for putting in my life the young woman I now proudly call my daughter.  In the end, though, there was an unspannable difference in our lives that was no one's fault.  I know I disappointed her in a number of major ways, and yes, she most certainly did disappoint me as well, but not in any of the ways anyone may think.  She is a great person, and I still feel very strongly about her.  The one thing that I believe makes our life and time together a success is that we supported each-other through great and tumultuous changes in our lives.  If we did anything for each-other, it was that we allowed each-other to grow into who we are now.  We explored the truth of our spirituality, our love, our gender-roles and sexual identities, and our personalities in a very frank and honest way, and encouraged each other to be genuine.  It is for that reason alone that I asked her to agree to end our marriage.  We always thought that no matter what change may happen, the core of what we were as a couple would remain.  It honestly never really dawned on us that this thing, this "us" that we counted on as an anchor would too change.  But it did.   It was without question the hardest decision I've ever hard to make, asking her for a divorce, but I made a promise to her that I'd do everything in my power to make her happy.  I also made a promise to myself to live life in a genuine way.  Those two things came to a point towards the end of 2008, and combined with my deepening Zen practice, forced me to make a decision.  I know it was the right decision.  We are both happier people because of it.

The 00's saw so much change.  So very much.  Between December of 1999 and 2009, both of us lost all our father figures (that'd be three of them), we lost the daughter we were raising together, not once, not twice, but three times, we lost a dear friend to cancer, then one of the most precious feline friends the world has ever known.  A tumultuous move that was VERY poorly handled by me, the purchase of a house just before the bubble burst, a good friend going to jail for something he didn't actually do, then the loss of yet another of our beloved feline friends.  We both were changing at a quantum level.  Vegetarianism, veganism, Buddhism, weight-loss, re-evaluation of our core beliefs.  The trauma of addiction raised its head again.  At least I was able to take the lessons I'd learned from my own traumatic addictions and apply them in a way that saw some good come of it.

And then it was 2009.  I'd gone from being a Roman Catholic semi-Libertarian fading neo-con Midwestern web designer to a Zen Buddhist rampant Liberal latent bi-sexual unemployed writer.  Easy-peasy.

I got my own flat in April of 2009; a mother-in-law studio below a ranch-house on the slope of a cinder-cone volcano remnant.  It felt so very odd that after 40+ years, this was my very first space that was exclusively my own.  In the past, I'd always moved into someone else's space.  It's tiny, but not as tiny as it could be.  It's pricey, but not as bad as it could be.  It's in a great part of Portland that I love living in. It has a nice view of the sun-sets.  I like it.  Eventually I'll want more rooms than just a bathroom and my closets, but for now, it's a good home.

When my former partner and I divorced, we were both seeing other people.  Being that we were polyamorous, that was fine and above-board.  And frankly, our polyamory is NOT the reason why we divorced.  It would have happened regardless of whom we were respectively seeing.  But anyway, I was romantically involved with a mutual friend of ours from about August 2007.  That relationship was really a very positive experience for both me and the woman I was involved with.  We, too, helped each-other grow, and helped each-other move into new chapters of our respective lives.  She is still one of my closest friends, and greatest confidants.  But it was a rather interesting thing to be getting divorced and yet still be partnered.  I will admit that it it was probably more helpful to my ego, self-esteem and emotional stability, but it didn't reduce the sense of loss from my divorce.  Trust me; it still hurt like hell.

In May, shortly after I moved into my current flat, I started seeing someone new.  She was a "formal" acquaintance, and in a number of ways was something I'd always been looking for, so much so that I ended the polyamorous relationship I'd had since 2007 in order to pursue this relationship in depth.  She struck-up a conversation on-line first (something I'm not really used to) and shortly thereafter, we began seeing each-other seriously.  To say it was tumultuous is to minimize both the highs and the lows.  We broke up a number of different times, and just before October, she decided to end it, but honestly, she did me a favor.  She wasn't the right person for me for any number of different reasons, and she had a problem with honesty and trust.  She didn't want to believe the core truths of both of our lives, and that made us completely incompatible.  I wanted it to work for the most part, but as time passed, I was more and more grateful that it was over.  I still wish her well, even though she has nothing but contempt for me now.  I can't help that at all, and frankly I don't really care.  I know in my heart that I acted in good faith at all times, and in the end, that's all that matters as far as karma is concerned.  It does shock me, though, that I had read someone so completely and utterly wrong.  Makes me wonder if my sensors are getting soft.

During one of the periods she (above) and I weren't seeing each-other, I had occasion to go on a date with a fellow polyamorous friend's girlfriend (yes, I know this gets confusing; need a score-card?)  Anyway, he's married, in a quadrangle-shaped life with his wife, his primary poly GF and another GF (yes, he's very busy!)  Anyway, I'd met his primary GF about 9mo earlier, and took an immediate fancy to her for a number of reasons.  While "broken up" with my on-again/off-again, we went out for drinks and hit it off.  A few kisses made us both know that we were very interested in each-other...

Then the on/off was back "on".  More tumult.  It was my mistake, honestly.  I shouldn't have started it back up, but for a number of reasons (mostly due to the new-found desire to have a biological child--something I thought I'd said goodbye to in my life) I did.  She and I tried again, and I didn't really speak to this new lady for quite some time while this summer relationship played itself out.  After the dust of that crash-and-burn settled, and I'd recovered a bit of composure, I asked her out again.  The attraction was immediately back as it was when we first saw each-other.  This relationship is very easy.  I won't say "effortless" because nothing is.  But it's so gentile; so easy.  It has a wonderful depth that comes from combining the lives of two people who have been around the block (or through the ringer, frankly) a few times and have truly lived and developed a maturity that only miles and past lives can produce.  We've been seeing each-other since December 15th.

December 15th.  The day back in 1999 that I hugged my late father goodbye, climbed aboard a Delta MD-80 and flew west to Portland, Oregon, with most of my belongings in two duffel-bags.  A place I'd only been to twice before, knew very little about, and had no real expectations of.  A place that I would soon learn was my destiny, and a place I could truly learn to be genuine in.  A place I love.  A place that I call home.

To everyone mentioned above; all the women whom I've been with, all my friends, all my family, and all those who know me here, even if we don't talk anymore, or are estranged, please take from this one thing: I hope and pray that you find the happiness and joy that you truly deserve from this life.  Each and every one of you have helped shape me into who I am, and to each of you I say--without reservation--thank you.

May we all take more confident steps down the path in this coming year.