Resistance to Bowing in Burma
Each yogi approaches the act of paying respects in a unique and deeply personal way. For some Westerners, there is no conflict whatsoever, and they feel deeply grateful that they have the privilege of encountering living members of the Saṅgha and sacred statues before them to which they can bow. Others have shared that while they don’t know how much it affects their practice, they understand it is part of the culture, and on that basis are happy to embrace it. However, it is not uncommon for some foreign meditators (and even meditation teachers) to feel quite challenged by this practice, and who question its value during their time in Myanmar.
There are several possible reasons, some cultural and some personal, for yogis to feel resistance towards this practice. Some Western yogis feel comfortable with the idea of bowing towards those whose character they know and respect, but are uncomfortable bowing before a person that they do not know well— and respect-- in advance. Such obeisance is not common in Western countries, and is not stressed as a practice at many meditation centers—in fact, when meditation first spread to these countries, some teachers made a conscious effort not to include this aspect out of fear for this very resistance. Yet other yogis have mentioned that the physical act of bowing down and showing deference is to them a sign of weakness and submission, perhaps due to their ethnicity, culture, history or religious background. For example, some Jewish yogis have shared that they find it hard to bow because, for many Jews, bowing before another brings back painful anti-Semitic memories of when their ancestors were forced to bow down as a people before a foreign power. A different sentiment may be felt by some American yogis, who come from a culture where the self and the individual are so pronounced and a part of its historical narrative.
Prekhemma Sayadaw addresses these concerns in a beautiful way. He notes that the proper attitude for bowing should always be out of genuine respect and deference, and never out force, fear, capitulation, or even custom. Interestingly, in Saving Buddhism, Alicia Turner tells how Burmese themselves revolted at the idea of using the shikho as a sign of submission. In 1903, John Van Someren Pope, Director of Public Instruction for Burma, demanded that all Burmese pupils perform a formal shikho to their students each day. Students at the Rangoon Collegiate School, however, refused to do so, arguing that “shikoing was… reserved for religious objects of respect,” and not something that should be done by force or represent submission. The standoff ultimately resulted in a protest involving hundreds of students and which shut down the schools entirely for a period, and even some Europeans suggested that if these secular “teachers really wanted to be shikhoed, they should ordain as Buddhist monks.”
Prekhemma Sayadaw adds that regardless of one’s culture or religion, having— and manifesting— respect for those living a noble life is an important human quality to develop. For without having even a trace of humility or reverence for such living examples of purity, the Sayadaw cautioned that it becomes much more difficult to develop any such qualities within oneself. And for this reason, he felt that the specific form of bowing is not as important as cultivating the appropriate mental qualities. It is important to note, however, that this should not be taken as advice that can be applied in every Buddhist context. In some sites, bowing down in a formal and precise way is an integral part of the practice.