Bowing is very beneficial. Even for those who are not Buddhists, you should bow because bowing is one of the best exercises you can do. Bowing is one of the Yoga techniques. Qi Gong and Tai Ji have bowing techniques too. It’s also one of the advanced martial arts techniques.
But it’s supposed to be a spiritual exercise. What happens is that you bow a lot: you bow until you break a sweat. This is not too bad: you’re so energized for the entire day. If you practice Tai Ji, they may have the tendency to teach you to bow slowly. There is nothing wrong with that either. What is the normal speed? When it feels natural. I advocate being natural. Someday, you are in a rush, therefore you bow a little bit faster because it’s more natural. Some other days, you are more relaxed, then you bow slower. Either way is acceptable. Just follow your mind, you have to learn to listen to yourself.
The bowing mechanics that we use at our temple is that you touch the ground at five spots: the forehead, the hands and the knees.
You start first by paying attention to your body. You want to go down, you’re aware of the fluid nature of your movement. Normally, your mind is constantly racing outside yourself after external sounds, images, scents, etc. When you start bowing, you go back inside yourself. You are no longer outside. How? By concentrating on your body motion. At first, it’s kind of stiff. Your motion is jerky. Perhaps, there is a strain in your shoulders, back, or your legs. But eventually if you bow long enough it becomes smooth and natural. Just don’t think about it, don’t worry about it. Keep at it and it naturally happens. You should bow effortlessly. Your motion should to be fluid: it’s not strained, there is no discontinuity whatsoever.
After you succeed in bowing smoothly then it is time to learn to empty your mind: stop thinking. That is the bowing dharma. The objective of bowing is stop thinking: to not think. At this point, as you bow down you empty your mind, when you get up you also empty your mind. When you’re down, you are supposed to contemplate. Your mind becomes focused. You have one thought, you try to become single-minded. You contemplate that you are bowing to this Buddha: you contemplate this Buddha being present in the universe, everywhere in the dharma realm, accepting your bow (he steps into your opened palms). If you’re sincere then you can feel that it is being accepted. When it is accepted then you get up. If you can’t feel that, stay there for a few seconds, you anchor your mind to the Buddha. That’s the contemplation. You don’t think about anything else but the Buddha you’re bowing to. That is Chan.
When you get up, you truly want to empty yourself and have no thoughts whatsoever. You’re done, there’s nothing left to do except get up. If your mind is not empty yet, then you concentrate on the Buddha.
You should follow along with the great assembly: learn to blend in.
Closing your eyes will result in having fewer distractions, because you can see things from the corners of your eyes, so closing your eyes can be beneficial.
This is a wonderful dharma, because it is a form of bowing meditation, a very high form of bowing practice. Do not think that meditation is only sitting, I am teaching you meditation through bowing as well.
I taught a lay person to bow to the Buddhas. She was interested in bowing as a form of repentance. Because of her great sincerity and vigor, she started from being rather scattered to reaching third dhyana within six months.
Others teach bowing as a physical exercise. We use bowing to train the mind.