“Bower and what is bowed to are empty by nature. The bodies of one’s self and others are not two. I bow with all beings to attain liberation, to manifest the unsurpassed mind and return to boundless truth.”
The robe worn by monastics is a symbol and reminder of the Triple Gem, as is the Buddha Statue. Therefore one is really bowing to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, not to some person or statue. And there are two components to bowing — the physical action and the mental one. Practicing humility, respect, mindfulness and gratitude.
And when bowing to a monastic, always remember that you are bowing to the robes, not the person. The robes are the “banner of the Arahants”, they are like a family heirloom that the Buddha has handed down to each successive generation. It is thanks to the ordained Sangha that we still have people who dedicate their lives to the Buddha’s teaching and try their best to live by example. And just because someone is a monk or a nun doesn’t mean they are going to be a supreme example of enlightenment, but you can still bow to the robe and what it represents. Of course there is no obligation to bow, and one should only bow if it is an expression of your confidence in Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha.
So when Buddhists see a monastic in patched robes of maroon, orange or brown, they are reminded of the Arahants. This is considered the “Banner of the Arahants” (Arahantaketu in Pali language) and is a sign of a person striving towards the purity, wisdom, equanimity and compassion of Enlightenment.
For me, I feel that being able to bow in this way is an honor and gift. With so many things coming to mind as I prostrate and bow. Gratitude for my teachers, my life, the sangha, the Buddha, the dhamma, and my body. The dropping of my ego in submission to all beings that they may be free of suffering. Grateful for this practice that has been handed down, generation to generation, for over 2500 years. And, in that very moment, sending your loving-kindness and goodwill to the Mahasangha (greater community of all monastics both living and dead).
You see, this can be a very powerful experience if we are fully present and clear in our intention. A gift that is as much for the self as it is for others.
Whether or not one bows to a monastic or the Buddha, is completely personal. No bow, waist bow, or full prostrate bow, I only suggest that you do it mindfully. Where are you, who are you with, and why are you there? This is your path, may you live it joyfully.
May you be well, happy and peaceful.