“Namaste” is a common word of greeting or parting in India and Asia. I first learned its meaning as the verbal form of bowing to another. In some cultures who bows first or last, and how deeply, is based on the relative status of the people involved. Bowing became a part of my life in my mid-twenties, when I was involved with Genjoji, also known as the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center in Sonoma County, and was studying Zen and Tibetan Buddhist writings.
I learned that bowing could be something more than a greeting or something with which to end a letter. When I bow to another, I am not bowing to the Other’s ordinary self, but to the expression of Buddha Nature in them. The expression of Buddha Nature in me, is offering recognition and respect to the corresponding expression of Buddha Nature in them. It is both a letting go of egoistic demands and a recognition of the basic Unity amongst beings.
In other words, it is the recognition of God within each of us, or Spirit, the Divine, Allah, Krishna, Higher Self, etc. Most traditions, even those which emphasize the external expression of God, also recognize each of us as a unique expression of the Divine. Bowing in this way is a reminder that we are each an expression of that which is greater than any of us, a combination of both humility and divinity.
Of course any practice can become distorted. I have heard of competitive bowing, where the last one to bow is considered the most humble. Competing as to who is more humble is not true humility. Yet that does not mean one cannot still use the practice in a meaningful way. I can choose to use bowing or even just greeting to remind myself to look for the inner expression of God in others, rather than only seeing or addressing another ego. Not that it is easy to remember or to do!
I believe this ‘seeing God in each other’ is the foundation of spiritual living. It is not the robes one wears, the books one quotes, the dramatic speech patterns or proclamations of holiness or psychic prowess that defines to me whether a person is living a more spiritual existence. It is how he or she treats one another and particularly the less fortunate amongst us. I remember a bumper sticker that touched this point, asking “Who Would Jesus Hate?” While the irony was probably lost on some, for me it was an amusing and powerful expression against the distortion of the most basic Christian beliefs of love and forgiveness.
Writing this here and now serves to remind me of the bowing practice, something no longer active in my life. In my twenties I practiced it regularly. Bowing became natural to me. Over the years as I ceased being involved in Buddhist communities, I bowed less and less, feeling self conscious in practicing a behavior that seemed alien to those around me. Yet the impulse to do so occasionally will still pop up.
Fundamentally this is less about form, bowing or not, and more about a choice to re-focus how we relate. Do I remain only in the egoistic engagements that occur all the time? I do have an ego I identify with, and it can become defensive more easily than I would like. Yet consciousness creates choices. The more I choose to remember that the person opposite me with the annoying voice and frequent demands for attention is also a facet of God, the better I will be able to find healthier ways of relating with the other, hopefully to bring out God or higher self within us both.
So I close with namaste, that when we meet and connect again, it not only be from a place of ordinary ego, but also be the re-joining of God or Buddha Nature within all sentient beings.