The Old Buddha Communes With the Pillar

Master Ummon said, “The old Buddha communes with the pillar. What sort of mind is this?” He answered himself, “Clouds gather over the southern mountain. Rain falls on the northern mountain.” In the zendo the wooden Buddha on the altar is facing the back wall all day long without getting tired. Human beings are not wooden Buddhas, but nevertheless they are Buddhas, and commune with one thing or another all day long. What are they doing? What does it mean to commune with a pillar or with a human being or with an inanimate object? A pillar is a pillar, and a Buddha is a Buddha. Why do we sit zazen, why do we bow? Why do we eat the way we do in the zendo? Why do we maintain the various forms of practice that we do?

Today I want to talk about bowing. What is bowing? In our everyday practice we bow quite a lot. When I first came to Zen Center, the first thing that struck me—right away—was that everyone was bowing. At first I was a little hesitant to engage in something like bowing. Nobody I knew ever did, and it was something that I had seldom done. My gut feeling, though, was that I was drawn to it—but you know—who does it? Maybe I was getting caught by something, or engaging in something that made me feel some trepidation. But everyone around me was doing it. So I did it, and actually I liked it. It felt right to bow. Once I accepted it I felt grateful for the opportunity it afforded me to express myself with deep sincerity in such a simple direct way.

I remember my teacher bowing. He didn’t have any hesitation at all, and when he would bow to me, it would have felt funny not bowing to him. I felt very much at ease bowing to him. I began to realize that the act of bowing was as important as the act of sitting. That sitting and bowing are two expressions of the same thing. Zazen settles us in the deep fundamental stillness of the self, and bowing gives outward expression to that. I came to understand that sitting is just sitting and bowing is just bowing. Then I began to realize that the formal way of eating in the zendo is just eating, and it was very rarely that I had ever done that. Even though I had always just eaten, it didn’t have the same quality of attention and merging.

When working with my teacher in the practice environment, the work always had a different feeling. Zazen, bowing, eating, and working together felt like the ancient Buddha communing with the pillar, the stones, the creek and the garbage. To understand zazen is to understand bowing. We can have a problem sometimes when we see ourselves as the subject, over against the other as the object—whether it be a pillar or a person. It is said that the foolish person sees himself or herself as other, whereas the sage sees the other as the one body. But more often than not, we don’t see the water for the waves. We don’t see the forest for the trees. In zazen we allow the waves to subside so that we can be at one with the deep fundamental stillness that is water. When the waves are calm, we can see all the way to the bottom.

When we bow we don’t necessarily think, “I am now bowing to that Buddha,” or “I am now bowing to that pillar,” or “I am now bowing to that person.” We can bow with nothing at all in our mind. When we bow to the pillar, we are not bowing to an object. One day someone asked, “Do we have to bow to the gomasio?” Gomasio is the sesame salt that we use to season our cereal. We bow when we pick it up and when we put it down. Formal practice is to bow at the beginning and at the end of each activity.

Bowing is an act of merging, communion, gratitude, acknowledgement, respect, and letting go of discriminating mind so that we enter the deep ocean of complete being. So, when we bow, we may ask, “Who am I bowing to? What am I bowing to?” We can also say “Just this.” When we bow to a wooden Buddha we’re bowing to ourselves, and when I bow to you, I’m bowing to myself—an all-inclusive, selfless act.

Master Tung-Shan, after recognizing his true face in the stream, said “Everywhere I turn I meet myself.” Of course each being has its own individual existence. The waves rise and fall. When the wave that is me rises up I say, “This is me here, and over there is you.” But whether rising or sinking, we’re always merging with ourselves. We are rising and sinking like the animals on the merry-go-’round. And in this undulating whorl called samsara, while the band plays on, we can wave to each other and smile. Although waves can be a problem we can learn how to ride them. But at the same time, we should understand the source of the waves, and we should know who we are. The purpose of our practice is to settle on just this as the touchstone of our lives.