Three Steps, One Bow in Gujarat

Nov 30, 2005

Both my palms are held together in front of my chest, my eyes are closed, my heart releases a silent wish for well being of all those around me, and my knees give way such that my forehead kisses the ground.

I stand up, take three steps forward and do another bow. Three more steps and another bow, as the sun sets behind my back.

About thirty of us were seated in a circle, talking about values and the courage required to live by them. In a pumped-up tone, I say, "It takes a lot of guts to put down the old and bring in the new. A lot of guts. Take the story of two American Buddhist monks who went on a 900 mile, three-steps-one-bow pilgrimage along the California coastline."

By the end of the half-hour story telling session, I challenged them to think deeply about bowing: "Think about bowing. You bow at a mosque, you bow at a temple, you bow to your elders, you bow to mother earth, you bow as a sign of respect and in Japan, you even bow as a greeting. It's an integral part of all ancient traditions, this thing called bowing. Each bow can potentially be a complete offering to Life in front of you and until we can do that spontaneously in each moment, the act of bowing is an incredibly powerful reminder for us."

I stand up to do a demonstration bow. Instead of sitting back down, I announce, "Please feel free to join." I wasn't sure how many would actually accept the symbolic (and impromptu) invitation to let go of the negative and create space for the good.

Everyone joins (as I was later told).

Our circle of sharing, all of sudden, turns into a prayer bead of bows across this beautiful campus in a rural setting near Ahmedabad. No one, absolutely no one, in the group has ever done something like this.

As I am bowing, my first few thoughts are sporadic musings on how the group will reflect on this. For most organizational groups, this would be way over the top but these were, after all, Manav Sadhna leaders who were already deeply rooted in the spirit of service and eager to "take it to the next level".

A few more bows, and the sweat on my forehead dissolves some of my mundane thoughts. With reverence, I start thinking about the ground, the soil that nourishes all life, the land that I've taken for granted since I was a child. After some more bows, I remember a monk's statement about why he wants to visit India: "India is probably the only place where every square inch of its land has had a prayer done on it." Couple dozen bows later, my reflections turn into a palpable feeling of gratitude; first for my life circumstances, then for the positive influences in my life (like Rev. Heng Sure) and finally for the ground that is accepting my humble bows of resignation. In its most immediate form, this land -- labeled as Environmental Sanitation Institute (ESI) -- is Ishwar-kaka's labor of love and a legacy to his life long commitment to selfless service. Nestled in nature, amidst hand-planted trees named after different labels of "God", run in an environmentally sustainable way, gratitude just flows easily here.

Perhaps there were a couple of bows where I was still, in a unique sort of a way. And then my legs become jello. I don't know how much longer I can do this and I recall what I had told the whole group before we had started: "Think about the two monks who did this for 8 hours a day for almost three years and survived on offerings from strangers. Think about their commitment to unconditional compassion."

Three steps, one bow. Three steps, another bow.

I never quite turned around to see those behind me, but when I would kneel down, I could vaguely see streams of people in irregular patterns bowing and standing up with prayerful hands. An unforgettable image!

Incidentally, six of us were also fasting that day. Some children at the Gandhi Ashram were cited with stealing some pencils and paper supplies; so Jayeshbhai and I, in our "elder" role, visited them. "How many of you have stolen something from here?" we asked. Ninety percent of the hands went up! Both Jayeshbhai and I look to each other and silently say, "Look at that honesty. May we learn from them." Instead of punishing them to create fear, the coordinators opted to fast on the following day; perhaps some of the karmic consequences of these innocent kids would be offset, perhaps our love for them will motivate them to be honest next time.

So here I am: hungry, thirsty, and bowing. Nature's designs are really something sometimes. :)

After 30-45 minutes of bowing, and two rounds around the campus, I return to square one and take my seat in the original circle. In the cross legged posture, my eyelids close naturally. Within fifteen minutes, everyone reconvenes to end their mini bowing pilgrimage.

I open my eyes and notice a few tearful eyes. Everyone eagerly starts sharing their reflections.

"Honestly, I have no idea what compelled me to do this. It's not like me to do something like this. But I was so wrapped up in the stories of these amazing monks, that the next thing I knew I was standing up and bowing. It was amazing," Dimple says. (For the next two days, she wasn't able to move. :))

Practically everyone felt it to be a deeply humbling experience. Sunil notes that it made him realize why he bows down to his parents; Jagatbhai (one of the anchors of Manav Sadhna) uncharacteristically breaks down after just saying just one sentence: "I couldn't stop thinking about the kids." Anarben, a founder of Manav Sadhna, is also in tears as describes the "greatest peace she has felt in her life." For some people it was an exercise in determination, for some it was a test of patience, for some it was a reminder of the good in all life.

Sandeep, a youngster who has worked his way out of slum life, says, "I have always wanted to kiss Mother Earth but never did it. Today, with every bow, I kissed the ground that has carried me for so long." Raju notes, "You know, for the first time in my life I realized what it's like to be an ant on the ground! I would bow carefully so as to not step on them." Sureshbhai adds, "I took a vow with each bow to change one of my bad habits." Most everyone made silent, personal vows for themselves; one lady secretly told me that she decided that she won't shop for herself for the entire coming year.

Couple folks just did a dozen bows, most circum-ambulated the campus at least once, and many of us did two rounds. But every single person seems inspired in their own unique ways, in ways that words simply can't describe.

In perhaps the most awe-inspiring statement of the evening, Barot loudly announces, "Today, right now, I have decided that I am going to give up meat for the rest of my life. Never again, I publicly declare, that you will ever see me eating meat." A stunned silence follows Barot's bold declaration. No one can really grasp how eating meat and bowing were related, yet everyone intuitively knows that the simple act of bowing has created space for something deep to naturally arise in all of us.

Rumi once said, "Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground." Certainly, I saw thirty different ways to kneel and kiss the ground, and they were all beautiful.

May all keep bowing.

[ Two days later, 23 of us embarked on all-night, "three steps and a bow" pilgrimage. Along the 13 kilometer highway, we collectively offered 10,000 bows on the 13th wedding anniversary of Jayeshbhai and Anarben. ]

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