I have been a Buddhist since young, and know some formalities at the monastery as a devotee, such as bowing to the Buddha when one enters or leaves the monastery, or greeting the monastics, other devotees, or dining etiquette. From young, I just followed the elders in doing it. As I grew older, I kind of knew we are prostrating to the Triple Gem, or showing our respect to the Triple Gem every time we bow to them. But who exactly are we bowing to? What are we bowing to? How do we bow?
It was only after 20 years, when I started to take interest in the Avatamsaka Sutra, that I realize there are so many ways to bow to the Buddha. In the midst of understanding the practice, I realize bowing to the Buddha is more than bowing to the Buddha Statue in front of us. Also it is more than bowing to the Triple Gem within us. It is also bowing to the Triple Gem within everyone. I then realize that is how I should bow to the Buddha. Not only should I physically bow to them, but also spiritually bow to them.
There is a chapter which I find very wonderful in the Avatamsaka Sutra, which is the Samantabhadra Bodhisattva's Conduct and Vows, or the final chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Samantabhadra Bodhisattva gave all Bodhisattvas 10 conducts and vows if he or she wants to enter the inconceivable Dharma Realm. The first one detailed that we should revere all Buddhas. I will not go into detail on the Sutra here, but to summarize, this conduct means to show us how we can deepen our practice on bowing to the Buddhas. To put it in terms that fit today's society, to show reverence to all Buddhas means to show deep respect to every person you meet. Since every person has the Triple Gem within them, we should deeply show respect to them. Who knows they could already be transformed Buddhas trying to teach us?
Because of respect towards others, I realized that I did cultivate well. All that 20 years of bowing had no substance in them. They were all done with arrogance, with ignorance, with no wisdom at all. Only now do I realize that there are so many ways to improve on bowing. Not only physical bowing, but also how I carry myself in front of others, how I show respect towards others, and how I communicate with others. These are all lessons of bowing to the Buddha. Only having understood them, do I have to stat all over again and bow to the Buddhas.