"Notes on Gassho and Bowing"
Taizan Maezumi Roshi with John Daishin Buksbazen
Visitors to the Zen Center 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
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
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
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
4. THE DIAMOND GASSHO. 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
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", he is, 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
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
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, he 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 ben
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
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.
[from ON ZEN PRACTICE, Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi and Bernard Tetsugen
Glassman, ed., pp 54-61. 1976. ISBN: 0-916820-04-1.]
Reproduced in GASSO vol 1 no 1 (ISSN: 1072-2971) with permission of the
Zen Center of Los Angeles, 927 South Normandie Avenue, Los Angeles, CA
90006. All rights reserved.
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