Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Bow

So certain factions of the American right have got themselves all worked up again over President Obama bowing to a foreign ruler, this time, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan. This one hits a little close to home because, being a student of Zen, I know a thing or two about Japanese bowing customs.

The problem is that many Americans see a bow and then ascribe their own ideas as to what the act means and what the motivations were for the one who bowed. This is a fundamental problem. We see things not as they are but as we interpret them, providing our own narratives and interpretations to that which we perceive.

So certain people, mostly those who didn't like Obama anyway, see him bow and instead of thinking, "Oh, I see, he's visiting a foreign country and showing that he understands their customs and how things are done there. I get it - diplomacy," they instead think, "Look at him submissively admit that he's weaker and inferior to some foreign thug. The American President should bow to no one."

Indeed, in some western cultures, bowing is a symbol of submission, an acknowledgement of one's inferiority before a superior. "Bow down before the one you serve," it's been said. So their confusion is understood, but do they have to always view the rest of the world through the filters of their limited understanding?

In Japan, bowing is a mutual custom; both parties bow to one another in recognition of their shared nature. In Zen, we bow to figures of the Buddha and bodhisattvas, we bow to our teachers, we bow to each other. We put our left and right hands together in gassho - two dualities brought together into one unity, and bow. The bow has been interpreted many ways, as a pouring out of our ego from the top of our heads or a humble expression of our practice, but usually as a recognition of our shared Buddha nature. "I recognize the Buddha in you." As such, it's similar to the Sanskrit namaste, or "your true nature is the same as mine."

But mostly, a bow is just a bow. Our practice is to just bow and to leave our personal narratives and interpretations out of it - non-thinking.

Not that I'm reading any of that into Obama's bow. We was engaging, I believe, in some crafty diplomacy, showing both the Emperor and the Japanese people that he understands their ways, respects their customs, and is willing to share their practices. Quite unlike a certain rodeo clown who had visited them in the past, or his father, who once famously vomited on their Prime Minister.

But these Texas oilmen understood the Saudis and their customs, and showed the appropriate fealty and humility as needed, much as a junkie shows respect to his dealer. Where was the criticism then?

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