What is the concept of kowtow in Christianity?
First of all what is kowtow?
Kowtow, which is borrowed from kau tau in Cantonese Chinese (koutou in Mandarin), is the act of deep respect shown by prostration, that is, kneeling and bowing so low as to have one's head touching the ground.
Modern Chinese Usage
The kowtow, and other traditional forms of reverence, were much maligned after the May Fourth Movement. Today, only vestiges of the traditional usage of the kowtow remain. In many situations, the standing bow has replaced the kowtow. For example, some, but not all, people would choose to kowtow before the grave of an ancestor, or while making traditional offerings to an ancestor. Direct descendants may also kowtow at the funeral of an ancestor, while others would simply bow. During a wedding, some couples may kowtow to their respective parents, though the standing bow is today more common. In extreme cases, the kowtow can be used to express profound gratitude, apology, or to beg for forgiveness.
The kowtow remains alive as part of a formal induction ceremony in certain traditional trades that involve apprenticeship or discipleship. For example, Chinese martial arts schools often require a student to kowtow to a master. Likewise, traditional performing arts often also require the kowtow.
Prostration is a general practice in Buddhism, and not restricted to China. The kowtow is often performed in groups of three before Buddhist statues and images or tombs of the dead. In Buddhism it is more commonly termed either "worship with the crown (of the head)" (頂禮 ding li) or "casting the five limbs to the earth" (五體投地 wuti tou di)—referring to the two arms, two legs and forehead. For example, in certain ceremonies, a person would perform a sequence of three sets of three kowtows—stand up and kneel down again between each set—as an extreme gesture of respect; hence the term three kneelings and nine head knockings (三跪九叩之禮 [zh]). Also, some Buddhist pilgrims would kowtow once for every three steps made during their long journeys, the number three referring to the Triple Gem of Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Prostration is widely practiced in India by Hindus to give utmost respect to their deities in temples and to parents and elders. Nowadays in modern times people show the regards to elders by bowing down and touching their feet.
The key factor in all this what the word worship truly means or expresses in the minds of the average Chinese person who employs the kowtow as is traditionally thought in Chinese culture.
What does worship mean in different cultures?
Definition of worship
1 : reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power
also : an act of expressing such reverence
2 : a form of religious practice with its creed and ritual
3 : extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem
worship of the dollar
4 chiefly British : a person of importance —used as a title for various officials (such as magistrates and some mayors)
Bowing to statues is not an unique traditional practice confined to Buddhism or Chinese culture. As such Chinese Buddhists do not worship statues, but they are honouring the person they represent. This is quite similar to the Catholic practice of having statues in their churches.
There is a tradition that when the Buddha went to Heaven to preach to his late mother, the king so missed his presence that he had artisans create a replica in sandalwood.
The statue was put in the place where he had sat and, when the Buddha returned, it stood and saluted him. "Sit back down, take your place," the Buddha was said to have told the statue. "After my departure from this world, you will serve as a guide to my followers."
Buddhist teachers point out that despite the images' importance, Buddhists do not worship them. "There is a misunderstanding that Buddhists try to worship idols," said Guoyuan Fashi, abbot at the Chan Meditation Center in New York City. "The main thing is that we respect the Buddha because we understand his teachings."
But there's a special hurt because Buddhists use such images to help put the Buddha's teachings at the center of their lives.
"The Buddhist tradition, in its canonical texts, greatly reveres and sees it as an important religious practice to create and respect and venerate and make offerings to images of the Buddha," Moerman said. "They would see this [destruction] as more than an act of sacrilege. According to the Buddhist scriptures themselves, this is one of the things that sends you into the deepest hell." - Buddha Statue Called Guide, Not Idol
As for kowtowing one’s ancestors that may or may not be a more difficult area to determine what worship in this regard truly means?
You state that ”Christianity prohibits kowtow to ancestors, which means disrespect for ancestors in the Chinese concept! However, I am not a 100% sold on that thought.
Acts of reverence may take on various forms in different cultures, even within Christian denominations. For example Catholics employ incense at funerals both in the church and occasionally at the grave site, but such act of reverence is done as a symbolic gesture to demonstrate the prayers of the faithful going up to heaven on behave of the deceased.
In the kowtow tradition, some bow according to their cultural usage. If in the mind of the one’s performing this usage they are genuinely worshipping (as in worshipping God) their ancestors, then such a tradition is morally wrong and forbidden within all branches of Christianity.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. - Exodus 20:3-6
If however, what is called “worshipping” their ancestors is actually a simple external act of reverence or act of respect for who the deceased meant to the kowtowers in question is a different matter all together.
Without an in-depth serious study on these issues I would hesitate to declare them objectively immoral or not in the eyes of global Christianity.
Christians can honour their deceased parents in many ways, but I would not consider that worshipping an ancestor.
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