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Why do we bow?

Kung Fu School Wall

Why do we bow?

We bow to the room when we enter it, we bow to the ancestors when we cross the line into the training space, we bow to our sifu when we enter or exit their awareness. We bow to each other when we encounter each other. Why do we do it?

We bow to preserve tradition. I recently heard a story that a Chinese master believes that the Japanese martial traditions seem to be just as strong as ever, whilst the Chinese ones look to be dying out (slowly). Whether this is true or not, he believes that the Japanese very strong adherence to tradition might be the cause. They would never question bowing when they enter the dojo, whilst for the younger generation in China (and by extension in the West), bowing can seem a bizarre servile activity.

There must be more to it than simply because it has always been the case. It isn’t a natural thing for us in the West. Maybe in the days when the Sifu chose the students, the students would naturally be respectful of them. Nowadays, the art is passed on in exchange for money and hard work, it is tempting to think of it with a sense of entitlement: I paid for this, why shouldn’t I have it? Why should I have to do more than that? Why should I have to lower my head?

I believe that bowing is a mark of respect for the art, the space, and those that came before. We show our respect because we are grateful. We are aware that what we have is a treasure. We preserve and hone this treasure and pass it on to future generations who will surely improve it and understand it better than we do. We are delighted to be able to take part in this incredible process and we recognise its gifts that pervade every aspect of our lives. I don’t show respect to my Sifu because he is somehow superior to me, but simply because I am happy that he has given me the opportunity to develop myself and grasp this beautiful art.

Bowing engenders humility. Shaolin Kung Fu was born from the marriage of Buddhism and martial arts and martial arts have a tendency to increase and strengthen the ego. In no other field do people have such a marked tendency to feel they are somehow more than those around them because of reaching a certain level in their field. Although the danger of succumbing to the ego is strong, this is also an opportunity to recognise and transcend it. This is one way that martial arts can become spiritual in nature.

Finally, the atmosphere of the training hall is intensely affected by the people who use it. When everyone respects the space, and humbles themselves before using it, there is a seriousness but also a joy about the place. Everyone who enters can feel it: there is something special here, people are learning about what they love, and they love what they are learning. There are no egos in this room, it is safe and warm, and we are a family.