I think people living as we do in a commercial society find the idea of not being subordinate both appealing and at times unworkable.
(Currently I feel subordinate to my web hosting service and my ISP which are never able to solve all the weird intermittent and indeterminate problems I have in my daily struggle/walk-in-the-sun to publish my blog. 2 hours on the phone, zero results. If you occasionally get a â€œYahoo 404 Errorâ€� or a "500 error" when you try to read my blog, Iâ€™d love to hear from you.)
What is the purpose of bowing? A traditional class has at least three bows. The first bow is done upon entering the space. Why bow to the space? This tradition comes out of the shamanic practice of subordinating oneself to allies (gods, spirits, ancestors) in exchange for power. The power one gets through subordination is then used to exorcise, scare away, or subordinate all other beings in a given space. It is often called "purification." (Today at the farmerâ€™s market I watched a large man attempt a rather weak version of purification while swinging a bible and shouting in a horse voice about revelation.)
The Japanese term Dojo means Hall of the Dao. It most likely comes from Sung Dynasty (900-1200 CE) Daoism. Clan halls, trade halls, and halls associated with the mega-deity-category "Earth," were used as community centers, places for everything (Dao). When you entered one of these halls to practice gongfu (meritorious martial training) it was important to clear the space of spirits that might try to possess you--dangerous spirits are particularly attracted to weapons and those who wield them.
When a shaman purifies a space, she uses her acquired strength to forcibly evict all the ghosts and spirits that have taken up residence there. Since Daoists did not practice subordination to other entities and they were weak by precept and commitment, they didnâ€™t actually purify the space immediately. Instead they bowed. The act of bowing is a declaration that human beings are going to temporarily use the space for meritorious actions. Bowing doesnâ€™t scare away ghosts, or banish them. Bowing is a way of asking spirits to temporarily clear out. It is a declaration that the practice about to be performed will not be of any interest to ghosts. A ghost is an entity defined by weak, deficient, or lingering commitments.
The second bow is usually to the teacher. The teacher joins this bow because the bow is not to the person but to the teaching itself. It is as if all the teacherâ€™s teachers are standing behind him and he ducks so that the bow of the students will fly over his head to be received by all of the ancestors of the teaching itself.
(In many schools, before and after working with a partner people will bow to each other as equals. This bow again represents a declaration to practice only acts of merit.)
The third bow is to give up the space to who ever or what ever is going to use it next. It cautiously invites the spirits back. After doing this ritual in a space for several years the spirits attracted to dangerous behavior or people with weak commitments will have had time to find another place and will have moved on. Through this continual demonstration of acts of merit (gongfu) some spirits will have found the strength to complete themselves and become one with Dao. Thus we call this place a Dojo, a hall of the Dao.