As the head of the meditation hall, I am often asked for the meaning of the various forms.
They don’t mean anything. They’re just a mirror.
We don’t generally come to spiritual places in order to do their (arcane) forms. We come because a part of us – usually that part that’s been ignored or pushed down inside us – is tired of suffering and is ready to find its (our) voice. We come because there is some dim, unarticulated sense that everything that is supposed to make us happy doesn’t. And we suspect that the problem isn’t all “other people” or “out there. " In short, we come to spiritual practice looking for a mirror. We’re ready for something that will show us in high relief both the kindness and meanness within us, that will allow their teaching to come forth, and that will sunder the veil of suffering that clouds our true nature.
A couple of mirrors (not unique to Buddhism):
Bowing shows us our reluctance to surrender, to be subservient, to not be able to see what’s ahead. Americans don’t physically bow easily. We do, of course, bow down (at least mentally) to electronic devices, self-improvement gurus, fund managers, 24/7 availability, and everything/everyone else we cede our power to. Most of these things don’t help us be happy, kind and spacious.
Chanting reflects not only our ability to find our voice, but also our willingness to harmonize. It takes courage to do both, exposed and personal, without the blogosphere’s easy anonymity that makes “right speech” so quaint.
But the biggest, brightest mirror is sangha, the company of other practitioners who unflinchingly reflect back to us who we are, in excruciating detail. We don't like those people who reflect too well a part of ourselves we'd rather not see; we fall in love with those who mirror the best parts of ourselves. Somewhere in between is community, dharma friendship, and the willingness to not turn away both from what we ourselves reflect, and from what we see.