What attracted me to Buddhism was how everything can be explained logically. Sometimes it is so clear that it can be hard to understand. It required me to cut through my ordinary experience and existing knowledge of the world. Sometimes I found this uncomfortable. If given other options, I probably would have never ventured into the Buddhist territory of thinking because it is much easier to believe that my problems can be solved with something, someone, someplace or sometime. However after having a glimpse of what was going on in my head, I knew that uncovering the mystery of my mind was the only way to real understanding and happiness.
I began to go to a Buddhist monastery, meditate and read books dealing with how our mind and the world interact. Most importantly I want to imbue my daily life with Buddhist principles. What Buddhism offered me was not just theories, but a wealth of practices and traditions that had been reaffirmed by practitioners before. From the teachings of Buddhist masters, I saw the urgency to practice. Learning Buddhism without practice is like reading the doctor’s prescription without taking the medicine.
At first, I didn’t value the practices much because I thought what matters is what you know. However, I soon realized that although I can logically and intellectually understand the theories, it did not mean I could embody them in my daily life. Although I learned that I already have all that I needed to be happy, I still got irritated when I was not aware of myself. There were habitual thinking patterns that I slipped into when I was not alert. Though on the surface the practices seemed rigid and dreary, they allowed me to break the existing habitual patterns I had created in the past. The practices forced me to confront my hidden attachments. If I am holding onto a notion that I “need” something, then I cannot practice joyfully. Plus the practices deepened my understanding. It was like doing problem sets in school, which really helped to bring my knowledge to a deeper level.
I began to make changes in my life and break bad habits. I also tried to be more tolerant, knowing that other people were never the real problem. As I practiced more, I began to experience a random rush of flashbacks. They usually involved hidden memories mixed with strong emotions. For example, many memories of my early adolescence in America which I was never conscious of before began to resurface. Things like how reluctant we were about immigrating, how other kids had mistreated me, and how I had mistreated others in return. The emotions that accompanied these memories were usually very strong and I often had to stop practicing and let my feelings cool down. I reflected on these memories and emotions and reasoned that I had merely suppressed them before.
Before I realized that our mind was so powerful and that experiences were interpreted, I was very entrenched in the objectivity of self and others. Hence I always tried to obtain more by manipulating the world around me. Within this mode, I saw people and things in terms of my “needs”. Most importantly, I myself must be somebody. There is the desire for a satisfactory self-image. Thus memories were suppressed and/or distorted for whatever self-image I needed. Sometimes I needed to be a victim so I could feel blameless. Sometimes I needed to be a winner so I could feel superior. Now that I knew that everything was fine and that I did not need to be anything, I could just accept myself and others. As a result, all the memories that were suppressed or distorted resurfaced.
Among the memories, the most prominent was a feeling of shame on how I had mistreated my mother, my brother and others when I felt bad myself. The way I saw the world and other people was so heavily shaded by my internal condition that I usually just saw others according to my needs. Another prominent feeling that I began having was a deep sense of gratitude. I was even thankful to the people who had mistreated me, because they were all part of my past, and the past is always present. And I saw the present happiness as a result that had culminated from all my previous experiences.
My sister also began to explore Buddhism at the same time. She suggested that we bow to our parents. We were inspired by Master Hsuan Hua, a Buddhist monk who came from Asia to America to teach Buddhism, who bowed to his parents when he was a young boy. One day he reflected on himself and thought about how he had caused his parents a great deal of worry. And out of a wish to show his resolve to change his ways and his respect for them, he took up the practice of bowing to them.
Of all the people in my life, my parents affected me the most. When my heart is filled with gratitude and appreciation, naturally the feeling is strongest towards them. My sister and I began bowing to our mother. Personally I also bowed to my brother. I had been very mean to him growing up so I needed to repent. He cried when I bowed to him and told me how I wronged him. I was surprised by the things he said. I do not even remember most of them. It’s shocking to know that others took a lot of abuse when I was living in my little world.
Not long afterward, I got a chance to visit Taiwan where my father was living. Bowing to my mother was not hard since she sacrificed a lot for us, but bowing to my father was a bit difficult. Most of our troubles growing up were derived from his selfishness. However, Buddhism teaches:
Truly accept your own faults,
Do not discuss the faults of others.
Others’ faults are just my own
Being one with everyone is Great Compassion.
When I accept that I am responsible for my own circumstances, I am free. It means I have the power to change. Because I have control, I have confidence. My father’s wrongdoings didn’t matter anymore. I just appreciated all the good he did for us, so I bowed to him.
My father was surprised by my bowing. Deep down, he probably expected us all to hate him. He brushed it off and said, “You Buddhists are always so fixated on formality.” I was discouraged a bit, but I kept on bowing everyday to him. I had faith in the methodology. I believed that because we are all connected, if I changed myself, he would change as well. After a while, his attitude changed.
I started talking to him and said I really appreciated everything he did for us. Of course he made mistakes, but they didn’t matter anymore. Seeing that I was sincere, he started talking to me about his life, his struggles, his insecurities, his relationship with my mother and how his own childhood had shaped him. At that moment, my father ceased to be just my father. He became a person.
I saw many sides of my father that I did not know existed before. I saw how lonely he had been. I saw his remorse about the things he had done, and I saw how he was still attached to many things. He had his own moral struggles just like everyone else. After that exchange, we developed a lot of respect for each other.
I took the initiative to bow to my father, and it changed our relationship. It was at that moment that I grew up. When I was a kid I was really scared of my father. He was a successful lawyer, and I wanted to be successful too. I wanted to live up to his expectations. However, when I started bowing, I became the one who was taking responsibility for my own situation, and I was the one who appreciated his good points while forgiving his wrongs.
In a way, I had outgrown my parents. You know when you’re a child you think your parents have all the answers. They tell you what’s right and what’s wrong. However now, I found an internal compass based on Buddhist principles. Although my father was still not very enthusiastic about my study of Buddhism, he also saw the value and benefits from it. Consequently he began to question some of his own fundamental values about what was important. He still wants us kids to make money and be successful, but he also has a lot of respect for us and the path we are walking on. He knows that we love him. He appreciates that and there will always be a level of understanding and respect.
One thing I learned from my bowing experience is to practice and have faith in the methodology. In western culture, there is often a dichotomy between body and mind. People tend to believe that understanding is only a mental activity. Yet it is clearly not true. How many people can do well on exams by just reading textbooks without doing problem sets? Mentally understanding things is just a beginning. Practice deepens the knowledge until it becomes a part of us. Suppose someone explains to me the idea of non-judging, the interdependency of people and things, and all the Buddhist principles. I can say great; I agree. But to embody them, I need to practice.
Small rituals like bowing, when practiced, make a big difference. From a materialistic perspective, nothing happens when I bow to my parents. It’s just a waste of time. However, looking at the unseen dimension of things, bowing has a deep impact on our psyche. Bowing is an ancient ritual, and it has meaning deep within our minds. It is a way of practicing non-judgment. When I bow, I take a position of humility: I acknowledge that someone else is worthy of my respect. If I think of myself as the center of the world and judge others accordingly, I would have a difficult time bowing to others. Therefore, the practice helps me work on my ego and recognize others’ strengths and good points.
When there is resistance to bowing, it is my judgment at work. On occasions, I would find internal resistance to bowing. On deeper examination, it was always the judgmental mind at work behind the scene. Bowing only takes seconds, why not bow if I am not judging? In one action, it embodies many Buddhist principles and forces my attachments to the surface. Practice reaffirms the belief. It makes the belief stronger, and I gain more understanding of it.
I find bowing to parents especially valuable because my parents are big influences on my life. When I deeply accept them, respect them and appreciate them, I am accepting, respecting and appreciating myself. It was a really good practice for me. It helped the family come together and showed my parents that studying Buddhism did not make me become self-righteous. Rather, it is about changing myself, and if I’m sincere, others will change as well.