Yoga Wicca Buddha

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To Whom Do You Bow?

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

I grew up steeped in a Christian idea of worship: as humble devotion paid to a perfect, all-powerful God. Such devotion could feel inspiring, promising a kind of ultimate consummation.


But it depended on a level of belief I could not sustain, and dogmas I could not accept. I needed God to be perfect, but reading the Bible put that deeply in question. In the end Christianity seemed to limit my experience rather than complete it.


I left God behind, but not the need to worship, to taste the exaltation of reverence. As a refugee from mainstream religion, to whom could I bow?



The pagan gods of antiquity were not perfect but they were powerful. And so mortals bowed to them in awe of their ability to control all the necessities of life. The rule of reverence was “Do ut des”: “I give that you might give.” Sacrifice won favour, and favour won the divine gifts of healing, fertility, abundance, and luck.


Alongside this model rode an alternate one. The yogini, magician or witch sought to have agency, relating to deities more as avatars of the power within each practitioner. Yogis strove to realize their inner divinity through breath work and postures. Magic-workers used spells and ritual to weave energy for their own purposes. 


I have played with both of these approaches, and more. With the benefit of Jungian thought I have understood the gods as archetypes, psychological forces I can summon for personal transformation. In the romantic tradition, I’ve revered nature for its beauty and sought to find “sermons in stones.”


But I couldn’t really complete my understanding of who or what I needed to bow to until I encountered Buddhism, which had a different focus altogether. Buddhism’s purpose is not spiritual exaltation or worldly benefit, but simply the relief of suffering. Cultivating the habits of mind that reduce one’s own suffering, one is able to reduce the suffering of others, whether by example or compassionate action. 


In the Buddhist understanding, the question of power—whether internal or external, power within or power over—is irrelevant, as is the question of perfection. In fact the Buddha maintained that to think in terms of relative power, to place oneself in a hierarchy involving superior, inferior, or even equal powers, is a kind of false conceit, an unskillful habit. It reinforces the idea of a separate self that needs to be defined against others, defended or elevated, justified or reformed. Like expecting perfection from those “above” one, such distinctions inevitably lead to suffering.


But in a world without those distinctions to whom shall I bow?


Well, Buddhists bow all the time, to statues of the Buddha and to each other. In fact, they will bow to any being—just without a sense of superiority, inferiority or equality. Rather they bow in recognition and appreciation of another’s significance. They bow to honour qualities in others, like patience or kindness, that reduce suffering. 


This is bowing, but not bowing down. And it is done, not to gain favour, but to open oneself up to the influence of those skillful qualities.


I’ve found that I can bow to the Buddha in gratitude for teachings I’ve found helpful. I can bow to another whose traits I admire—even if they are less than perfect in other ways. (Paradoxically, that imperfection makes their good qualities shine out more). I can bow to anything in nature that has inspired or educated me. 


In bowing I lower the barriers I’ve set around myself. And when the barriers are down, I can appreciate all the sweetness that surrounds me. It’s not dramatic. But it feels real and joyful. It is a sustainable kind of reverence, one that weaves me back into the world and back into life.


So I bow to you, dear reader. May your skillful qualities continue and increase. Thank you for being part of the dance of life.




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Archer has been trying to make sense of religion since her parents first abandoned her at Sunday School in the 60s. She’s a mom, yoga teacher and repository of useless bits of information on ancient religion, spiritual practices and English grammar. Check out her column “Connections” in Witches and Pagans.


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