Putting our hands together in Buddhism is called “gassho.” Let’s examine what it means to gassho.
Firstly, there’s a proper way to do gassho. Hands are placed at the mid-chest level, palms together, fingers straight and pointed at a 45 degree angle upwards. The wrists should be close to the chest.
By contrast, other ways that people gassho may be to touch the elbows to the body, so the hands are away from the body. Or the elbows are held away from the body so the fingers are pointing straight up. Or the elbows jut out so the arms are parallel with the ground. A Chinese bow may have the left hand open and the right hand in a fist. In Shorinji kempo (a Buddhist martial art like karate), the fingers are spread apart. In certain parts of the world, such as in Sri Lanka and Thailand, people may greet each other with gassho.
When we gassho, we place our hands together and recite the Nembutsu, the words “Namu Amida Butsu.” Placing our hands together while reciting the Nembutsu is called “gassho” in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.
Gassho is more than a pose. It is symbolic of the Dharma, the truth about life. For instance, we place together our right and left hand, which are opposites. It represents other opposites as well: you and me, light and dark, ignorance and wisdom, life and death.
We also place a nenju (also called ojuzu) around both hands when we gassho. The nenju represents the Buddha’s teachings. Therefore, gassho means that through the Buddha’s teachings, we can see that these opposites are really one.
Gassho also symbolizes respect, the Buddhist teachings, and the Dharma. It also is an expression of our feelings of gratitude and our inter-connectedness with each other. It symbolizes the realization that our lives are supported by innumerable causes and conditions. Tradition has given us this symbol. I urge you to think deeply about why you gassho and to make it your own, so that it arises from your innermost being.
I heard of a group of American junior Youth Buddhist Association (Jr. YBA) students who visited Japan. One day they took a trip to Hiroshima to visit the Atomic bomb museum. If you’ve ever seen the memorial, you know that it can be a moving and emotional experience. The museum tells the story of how during World War II the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in Japan. In a flash, the entire city was destroyed and many thousands of people died, including many children.
As the teenagers looked at the memorial, tears started to well in their eyes. Then someone started to gassho. One by one, they put their hands together in gassho, quietly bowing their heads.
How else could they express their thoughts and feelings about what they saw and what they felt—sadness for those who perished, despair from knowing this was a real event and helplessness of knowing that wars continue to be fought, Those feelings meshed with hopes that such an event will never occur again and a wish for peace throughout the world. What more perfect way to express those conflicting feeling than to gassho?
Gassho is not an empty gesture. It is an expression of life and our innermost feelings. In Jodo Shinshu, it is said that it represents our deepest aspiration, symbolized by the vow made by Amida Buddha that we all will be awakened to the oneness of life, that we are all interdependent, and that we are all special because we share this life together. This is the meaning of gassho and this is the meaning of “Namu Amida Butsu.”