I am little confused about when we bow to the Buddha. When we bow to the Buddha, what are we bowing to?
“Buddha” has many meanings. Here is one way to think about it. There are three bodies of Buddha. The first is called Dharmakaya. Buddha as Dharmakaya means dharma itself is Buddha. The way things are, the network of interdependent origination, the reality of all beings is itself Buddha. In that sense, each and everything within that network is part of Buddha. When we understand Buddha in this way, making prostrations to the Buddha means we venerate and make prostrations to this entire network of interdependent origination, of which we are part. This is one meaning.
The second body of the Buddha is called Samboghakaya. In Mahayana Buddhism, besides the person Shakyamuni who was born in this world in India about twenty-five hundred years ago, there are many other buddhas who practiced life after life – and not only within this world, but in many other worlds within this universe. Buddhas such as Amitabha Buddha or Yakushinyorai (Medicine Master) also accomplished buddhahood. There are numberless buddhas who have accomplished Buddhahood through their practices. Understanding Buddha in this way means that when we make prostrations, we venerate all Buddhas who practiced and studied dharma and accomplished buddhahood and who are teaching in various Buddha lands in this universe, even though we don’t see them.
The third body of the Buddha is called Nirmanakaya. This refers to Shakyamuni, who was born in this world at a certain point in history, and who was the so-called founder of the religion Buddhism. Because we are Buddha’s student we venerate this particular Buddha. We express our gratitude that Shakyamuni awakened to and discovered this dharma and taught about how to live based on that awakening.
So depending upon our understanding of what is Buddha, the meaning of even one act of prostration can be different. We do not need to say which prostration we are doing. Actually, we do prostration to all those buddhas. Not only buddhas but buddhas, dharmas, and sanghas.
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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi