I’ve seen all sorts of cushions (lit. rush mats)—round and square, thick and thin, embroidered with lotuses, stuffed with soft rushes or sun-dried reeds.I knew these cushions were for kneeling and bowing, and later I found out they were also used for sitting in meditation. Someone once told me, “When a monk sits on his cushion and recollects the past, he starts with the present year and traces back year by year until he reaches the time when he was three, two, and one. Then he continues pushing his memory back to when he was in the womb, and then to his last life, the life before last, and so forth.” I was stunned by this account of what a monk can do while sitting on his cushion. Later I realized that this was only a kind of technique. Genuine Chan is a state of purity beyond words. Only common people like us need to rely on the method of thinking back year by year in order to discover our origins.
While the cushions can be used in the monastery for meditating as well as kneeling, they are used by amateurs primarily for kneeling. Kneeling is a simple movement that doesn’t take much skill—all you have to do is bend your knees till they touch the ground. Easy as this may be, it is extremely difficult for many people to do. In novels and on television, we always see the rebels and the cowards being made to kneel. It’s a form of debasement. That’s why many people are ashamed to kneel. Their knees represent their self-esteem, integrity, honor, and pride. They would never go down on their knees in public; it would be way too undignified. They would kneel neither to spirits nor to people. On the other hand, some people have knelt thousands of times in wholehearted submission to power, fame, and profit—and it shows in their faces. There are also the tough, macho guys who never kneel to anyone. Now, isn’t their scorn for everyone else an indication of their own sense of self-importance? How many times they bowed to themselves, I wonder?
Ever since I’ve had a cushion, I’ve learned that my knees and the things they represent are not that important. The simple act of kneeling wipes away our pride. Since we must cast aside everything when we die, how much could our knees be worth? In the instant of kneeling, the “self” that we ordinarily never can forget has no place to hide and the all-encompassing “true self” arises.
After Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment, his father, King Suddhodana, invited him back to his kingdom. When father and son met for the first time in six years, Suddhodana knelt and prostrated himself before his son. One was a dignified king, the other a mendicant monk. The king knelt before the monk; the father knelt before his son; the afflicted one knelt before the wise one: what a touching and yet spontaneous scene!
Why don’t we try kneeling? If we cast aside the mundane notion of bowing, we will certainly find ourselves in a new, carefree world that we never knew before. Kneeling is not in itself painful or shameful; the pain and shame come from people’s minds. After all, didn’t we, as children, kneel on the grass or on the beach or by the window, facing a mere grasshopper, a wildflower, or a kite flying in the sky?