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The Psychology of Buddhist Prostrations: The Humble Bow, a Meaningful Method to Connect with Buddha Nature

The Psychology of Buddhist Prostrations: The Humble Bow, a Meaningful Method to Connect with Buddha Nature

Many modern Buddhists are hesitant to practice ancient physical methods—prostrations, mudras, physical offerings—and can often only be convinced if they can somehow psychologically rationalize it. For example, deity practice is often “psychologically” categorized as “making a connection with your inner Self”—Buddha Nature in Buddhism, “Self” in Jungian psychology.

 

Monks prostrating.
Monks prostrating.

 

“Prostrations are a wonderful way of supporting the process of surrender,” writes teacher Rob Preece in Preparing for Tantra: Creating the Psychological Ground for Practice. “As we prostrate to the symbol of the Self, in Jung’s terms, or to our Buddha Nature, we are letting go.” Later in the book, he writes, “The prostration practice does not eliminate the ego, but it does place it into relationship with the clear knowledge that it is secondary to the Self or the deity.”

Note: How to: at end of this feature.

Psychological Rationalization

For a modern western practitioner, prostrations can be even more difficult to rationalize than offerings and mudras. It’s easy to understand that prostrations “cut the ego.” Intellectually it’s not difficult to accept the teaching that attachment and ego cause suffering. In the case of prostrations, however, it feels like we’re giving up control, a concept modern society has trouble with.

How can modern people, brought up in a ego-centered culture, relate to an ancient show of pride-destroying deference? Whether bowing to the Buddha or the respected teacher, it is difficult for many people who grew up in western-influenced culture to show such humble devotion—particularly in public.

 

The Dalai Lama prostrates.
The Dalai Lama prostrates.

 

Prostrations to a Teacher

I recently attended a Lojong event, taught by Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, hosted by Gaden Choling in Toronto. When Rinpoche entered, even though we had been “coached” to bow—with a lengthy explanation of why—the majority of guests in the very full audience gave slight bows at best, a nod at worst. Without any hesitation, his formal students fell to the floor—but with a joyful feeling of celebration rather than subservience. They were grateful for the opportunity to listen to this teacher, who had fled Tibet during the occupation, had spent his long life teaching western students the Dharma, who had been himself taught by an illustrious line of very famous gurus. (Buddha Weekly feature on Zasep Tulku Rinpoche>>)

During Tibetan Buddhist formal teachings, when a teacher enters, we bow. If we are a student we would perform full prostrations to our guru. Floor-bound prostrations to a living being—even someone as well respected as the Dalai Lama—can present even more issues for modern Buddhists. We’re now appearing to surrender our control to a human being. Then, if we are watchful, we begin to intuitively understand, when we see that same teacher we just bowed to fall to the floor and prostrate to the Buddha and his own teachers. It goes beyond simple respect and etiquette.

 

Prostrations can be full or partial, physical or visualized, a slight bow or a full body prostration.
Prostrations can be full or partial, physical or visualized, a slight bow or a full body prostration.

 

Physical Yoga?

Some of my Buddhist friends, who have difficulty with full prostrations—especially in public venues—try to rationalize the action as “tradition” and sometimes even as a physical yoga, and a healthy exercise.

In a recent teaching on Lojong and the preliminary practices, Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche spoke at length about the traditional, psychological, and even physical reasons for prostrations: “Doing 100,000 full-body-to-floor prostrations sounds difficult, but it’s very good yoga. You will be very healthy after you finish,” he joked. (Buddha Weekly’s coverage of Lojong teaching with Zasep Rinpoche>>)

Of course, Rinpoche explained, physical yoga is not its purpose. It is meant to ruthlessly cut, cut, cut the ego. In the same way Manjushri’s great sword cuts ego and duality, prostrations can be a powerful way to connect to our egoless Buddha Nature.

“As we embark on the spiritual journey, we need to challenge the central status of the ego so that the solidity of its grip can gradually be softened,” writes Rob Preece inPreparing for Tantra: Creating the Psychological Ground for Practice. “The solidity of the self brings with it ego inflation and a loss of relationship to a deeper spiritual core, whether we call it Self or Buddha Nature.”

 

Pilgrims by the tens of thousands visit sacred historical places to prostrate for blessings.
Pilgrims by the tens of thousands visit sacred historical places to prostrate for blessings.

 

Prostrations Common to Most Buddhist Paths

Most Buddhist paths include some form of prostrations in daily practice. Traditionally, prostrations are more than a show of respect for Buddha, Dharma and Sangha; they are a method to purify the mind, or the “antidote” for ego-clinging. Cutting the ego down to size is at least somewhat important to helping us understand the wisdom of emptiness. Additionally, in terms of the “five faults” you could also say that prostrations can be an antidote for the fault of “laziness.”

Lama Zopa Rinpoche put it this way: “Making prostrations is an excellent antidote for slicing through false pride.” [1] Prostrations are often encouraged in the context of showing respect for all living beings. Since every sentient being has Buddha Nature (in Mahayana traditions), bowing to any person can be thought of as bowing to the Buddha Nature in all of us.

In Lojong training, cutting the ego through preliminary practices such as prostration is “point one”, while Bodhichitta, is “point two.” Both are critical. The Lojong root text teaches: “Contemplate that as long as you are too focused on self-importance and too caught up in thinking about how you are good or bad, you will experience suffering. Obsessing about getting what you want and avoiding what you don’t want does not result in happiness.” The main preliminary practice focused on cutting the ego is prostrations.

 

monks-2000

 

Purification of Body, Speech and Mind

In Tibetan, the word prostration is translated as chak tsal. Chak means to “sweep away” harmful actions and obscurations. Tsal means we receive the blessings of an enlightened body, speech and mind.

“When we do prostrations we act on the level of body, speech, and mind,” wrote Lama Gendyn Rinpoche. “The result of doing them is a very powerful and thorough purification. This practice dissolves all impurities, regardless of their kind, because they were all accumulated through our body, speech, and mind. Prostrations purify on all three levels.”

 

Respectful full-prostration bows are important to devout Korean Buddhists, one of the six essential practices.
Respectful full-prostration bows are important to devout Korean Buddhists, one of the six essential practices.

 

 

A Tantric Goal: Working our “Energy Wind Body”

To advanced tantric practitioners, prostrations help us work our subtle bodies—”energy-wind body” as it’s sometimes translated. The energy of the subtle body—known variously as Chi, Prana, Winds—is visualized in this practice.

Author and teacher Rob Preece described his own early work with prostrations: “When I was doing these prostrations in Bodhgaya, there were a number of other Westerners going through the same process nearby, and I could see this emotional upheaval happening in them as well. Some days I was in excruciating pain, while the person next to me was ecstatic, and the next day she was in a flood of tears, and it was my turn to feel ecstatic.” What he was describing was the process of the energy-wind body releasing blocked “toxic energy that had been held so long.” He added, “I could really feel purification was taking place.”

Energy Wind Body, or subtle body, is well accepted in most Eastern traditions, and to some extent by science in the west, via the success of Acupuncture in controlling pain. Rob Preece, who is a working psychologist, also describes Energy Wind Bodies as analogous to emotions, with wind connoting emotion. In my very basic layman’s understanding, for example, guilt or repressed emotional memories might be imprinted on our psyche, sometimes without our explicit knowledge. The famous psychologist, Carl Jung, described this bundle of repressed, unpleasant memories and guilt trips as the “Shadow.” Just like karma seeds in Buddhism, the shadow can ripen and affect us tangibly in our lives, often with tragic consequences. Working with prostrations releases the trapped “winds” or emotions, the collected guilt, thus purifying our karma.

Another way of understanding winds or chi is as subtle energies in the body. Acupuncture, Tai Chi—and prostrations—can work to manipulate or enhance these energies.

Venerable Thubten Chodron physically demonstrates how to do prostrations:

 

 

How Many Prostrations?

In some formal preliminary practices, a student might be asked to perform one hundred thousand prostrations. This might be in a single months-long formal retreat at a sacred place. Other teachers, understanding our busy lives, simply ask students to work towards 100,000 through a daily practice of a few each day. The numbers are not significant. They symbolize that constant repetition is the goal to help us advance and subdue the ego.

The well known Feng Shui expert and author Lillian Too — based on teachings from her own guru, Lama Zopa Rinpoche — recommends morning and evening prostrations to help purify karma. She recommends 3 prostrations in the morning and evening at a minimum, and preferably three times 35 in the morning. She recommends the prostration mantra be recited while prostrating:

OM NAMO MANJUSHRIYE, NAMO SUSHRIYE, NAMO UTTAMA SHRIYE SOHA

In the evening, she suggests a further 28 dedicated to Guru Vajrasattava, with Vajrasattva’s mantra, OM VAJRASATTVA HUM.

Proper Motivation

Prostrations may work on pride and ego regardless of motivation, but to most Buddhists the motivation is key to success. Importantly, we set our motivation “to benefit all sentient beings.”

Without the motivation, the practice is purely physical, with some added benefits in taming the ego. When we set the motivation, it becomes a Mahayana Buddhist practice, focused on Bodhichitta—on kindness and regard for all sentient beings. The benefits then become as wide and expansive as the collective of sentient beings.

Lama Gendyn Rinpoche explains it this way: ” When we do prostrations we should understand that good actions are the source of happiness of all sentient beings. Prostrations are a good example of this fact. When we do the practice using our body, speech, and mind, we offer our energy to others wishing that it brings them happiness. We should be happy about this fact and do prostrations with joy.”

How to Prostrate

The body aspect of the practice is purely physical, involving the whole body, and pressing the entire body flat to the ground at the lowest point, in full contact with the earth. The speech aspect is normally the mantra or praise we chant as we prostrate (mentally, or aloud). This can be as simple as “I prostrate to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha,” or the mantra of a Buddha, deity or teacher you are visualizing. The mind aspect involves visualizing yourself prostrating fully. Mind, is also a result of prostration: diminishing the power of the ego over our mind.

A helpful video from Lobsang Wangdu of YoWangdu Tibetan Culture showing three different styles of prostration:

 

 

The steps (in one method for Vajrayana practice) are:

  1. Visualization: Even if we are bowing to a physical altar, some level of visualization is practiced to fully involve our minds in the practice. Normally, you visualize the Buddha, or your practice deity, or your root guru. In formal prostrations, you might also visualize the entire “merit tree” or “field of merit”—all of the enlightened beings gathered in front of you, surrounding your main practice deity, Buddha or guru.
  2. Involve All Sentient Beings: One valuable technique for developing Bodhichitta is to visualize all sentient beings around you (in front, beside and behind you), also prostrating. Most people can’t manage a detailed visualization of so many, but the key is to just understand that you are bowing on behalf of ALL sentient beings.
  3. Speak a mantra or praise: involving “speech” in the prostration. This is normally the OM NAMO MANJUSHRIYE, NAMO SUSHRIYE, NAMO UTTAMA SHRIYE SOHA prostration mantra (for Vajrayana practitioners), or a deity or Buddha mantra, such as the Chan Buddhist “Namo Amitabha” or “Amituofo” or a deity mantra such as OM MANI PADME HUM (Avalokiteshvara’s mantra). Many recite the all-important daily refuge as they do their prostrations: “Until I reach enlightenment I take refuge in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.”
  1. Clasp the hands together above the head. As we draw the hands down to touch our head we visualize light purifying our bodies of all its obscurations and negativities. (If you can’t visualize, simply understand that your body is symbolically purified by the action.)
  2. As we draw down our clasped hands to our throat level, we visualize light purifying our speech.
  3. As we draw down our clasped hands to our heart level, where traditionally our mind resides, we visualize or understand that our mind is purified.
  4. Five-Point-Prostration: We quickly kneel, and our head touches the floor, so that now our knees, hands and head are touching the earth in five places. We visualize or understand that our five negative or disturbing emotions—anger, attachment, ignorance, jealousy, and ignorance—are leaving our body and flowing into the earth. This final act symbolically completely purifies us.
  5. Some people stop at the Five-Point-Prostration, while many continue to the full body prone prostration, sliding forward until their entire body is in contact with the earth. This is the “big” purification” through the surrender of ego. In some Buddhist traditions, we turn up our hands, our fingers pointing skywards with our wrist still pressed to the ground. In other traditions, we turn over our hands, palm up, symbolically representing us “holding up the precious feet of the Buddha.”
  1. Without hesitation we rise up and begin the next prostration.

 

NOTES

[1] Making Prostration, Lillian Too

[2] Preparing For Tantra: Creating The Psychological Ground For Practice by Rob Preece Publisher: Snow Lion (Sept. 16 2011) ISBN-10: 1559393777 ISBN-13: 978-1559393775

[3] Lama Gendyn Rinpoche

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