Since time immemorial, it has been customary in Asian temples to place donations on the central altar for several days. The donation is arranged carefully on the altar, with the donor’s name inscribed on a card. The candles are lit, and a stick of incense is mindfully offered in the incense burner. The Housemaster or Kitchenmaster, Head Dharma Teacher or Abbot will then bow three full prostrations towards the altar, bowing the forehead to touch the floor.
When newcomers to the Zen Center see this simple “ceremony“ being carried out, they sometimes cock their head or knit their brow in curious consternation. “Why would you bow to these objects?“ is a typical kind of question we receive. And since the “objects“ remain on the altar for a minimum of three days, there is also a further wondering if we are not overly valorizing the objects, or the receipt of them. These are natural reactions, and very understandable.
When we publicly situate the donations so, and when we bow three times before a smoking stick of incense situated amongst the donations, we are not bowing to the “objects”. We are not really even bowing to the donation, in a material way.
This simple, wordless ceremony allows the spiritual community to fully bow to the mind of generosity. It is an expression of profoundest gratitude not for the getting of “things,” but gratitude to the mind of giving. In a world always threatened with the forces of ignorance and an acquired “me-first” selfishness that often navigates our movement through competitive social spaces, it is a jewel worthy of reverence when a human being gives some part of their limited resources for other people to wake up to themselves, to realize their nature, and possibly to add some light and goodness to the world thereby. It is not the “objectness” that we bow to on the altar. We are bowing to kindness, to openness, to the pure wishes of people who make efforts to support any of the work of waking up. And since the donations remain on the altar for three days, we practitioners encounter them again and again before using them for our nutrition or warmth or health or whatever. When we do multiple sittings, as during a retreat, every practitioner brushes past the donation multiple times during the day, circling the room again and again and again. In this, we are silently reminded to maintain a spirit of profound gratitude and humility. This inspires in us — again, completely without words — the subtle yet strong ambition to “give back“. We increase our own gratitude for having received the greatest gift of all, which is the gift of dharma, which is the gift of a neutral technology, honed over thousands of years, using not fear or coercion to affect its sublime ends, to become better friends of Reality.