It has become something of a tradition at Naropa University to begin classes and meetings with a bow. Although this ritual is by no means compulsory, it seems to have taken widespread hold at the university over the years. Many students and staff find themselves performing the bow countless times during their degree program at Naropa, and many take enjoyment and comfort in the growing familiarity that a ritual such as this one can provide when it is repeated often. At the same time, many admit some frustration that they have only a vague understanding of the actual meaning of the bow itself. Hopefully, the following will clarify this understanding further.
In many Asian cultures, the bow is a traditional gesture of greeting, which communicates both friendliness and respect. Certainly, the bow we make to each other at Naropa communicates these things, but it also says something more. It has a deeper meaning. This bow is a way of acknowledging and honoring the qualities of warriorship that each of us has the capacity to express and to share with others.
By warriorship in this sense we do not mean warfare or aggression—but actually the opposite. The warrior whom we honor when we bow is someone who is brave enough to be a truly gentle person. Therefore, the emphasis is on bravery, not on warfare, because the warrior understands that aggression is actually the result of cowardice. So, in bowing to each other, we honor the inherent bravery, gentleness and wakeful intelligence that each of us can experience personally. We also honor Naropa as a place where the deepest purpose of our education is to cultivate these qualities and bring them to fuller expression in whatever field of learning we may choose.
Though the bow is a very simple gesture and takes only a few moments to execute, it actually has three distinct stages or aspects. The first is to take the warrior's posture, with eyes open, back straight and hands resting on thighs. Just assuming this posture in itself can bring a sense of clarity, alertness and strength. It can free one from distraction and depression on the spot. The participant feels the possibilities of wakefulness and vision; the desire to learn more is aroused. So, one begins the process by holding this posture.
The second stage is that, having taken this posture, one relaxes a little within and feels one's heart—which is open, somewhat exposed and vulnerable. It is the source of gentleness, the source of longing to make contact with others and to be helpful to them, to be of service. And so, for a moment, as one holds this posture, these aspects are felt fully. It is almost a kind of positive sadness.
And then, the bow itself, which is the third and final stage. Here, one makes a gift of personal warrior inspiration to all the others who are bowing together. The sense of that gift can also be expanded to encompass all others who are beyond the room. Either way, the basic intention is to make a generous gift of all these wonderful qualities as one prepares to bow. In fact, the willingness to share in this way is part of the warrior's bravery.
So, hold, feel and give. That is the meaning of the warrior's bow, which we do every day here at Naropa University. —Adapted from an essay by Frank Berliner, Naropa University faculty
Listen to an audio version of "The Bow"