If you have ever been among Tibetans, you know that making prostrations is a basic part of our lives. Average Tibetans don’t really know the Buddhist beliefs behind prostrating, but it is something that is commonly taught to us as children by our parents.
Video: Learn How to Prostrate
Why do we Prostrate?
When we prostrate, we seek to purify our delusions, negativities and our bad karma. His Holiness teaches us that as long as we humans suffer from delusions, we are making bad karma – intentionally and unintentionally – all the time, from morning to night. To counteract our bad actions, one thing we can do is to engage in wholesome spiritual practices, like reciting mantras, or making offerings or prostrations.
In the case of making prostrations, we can both purify some of our negativities and generate merit. We can multiply these benefits by doing more prostrations. This is why in Tibet there is a long history of pilgrims prostrating for long distances, sometimes for many hundreds of miles, usually with the final destination of a very holy site, like the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.
When and Where do we Make Prostrations?
We usually prostrate on entering a temple or the shrine room of a monastery, nunnery or dharma center. And when we attend a teaching, we prostrate when our teacher enters and leaves the room, especially if the teacher is a high lama such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It is not common, on the other hand, to prostrate before the shrine at a friend’s home if you are just visiting.
We have Tibetan friends who have a daily habit of a certain number of prostrations, such as 100, and they do these in their homes, usually in front of the shrine if there is room there. Serious Tibetan Buddhist practicioners may engage in a regular prostration practice, often as a preparation – ngondro – for a long retreat. She or he might, for example, undertake to do 100,000 prostrations in preparation for a lo sum da sum (three years and three months) retreat, and would commonly do this at home.
How to Make Prostrations
Like many Tibetan Buddhist practices, prostrations can be done in a variety of ways, and there is not really a “wrong” way to do it if you have in your heart and mind a sincere motivation to rid yourself of wrong-thinking and negativities.
There are three basic styles, which we show in the video that goes with this post.
- Gyangchag – Full body prostration. In Tibetan the gyang refers to “reaching out” and chag is prostration.
- Kumchag – Partial prostration, where we prostrate from our knees. In Tibetan, kum refers to contracting your body, as opposed to reaching out.
- Symbolic prostration, with just the hand motions, which we do standing or sitting, often if there is not room to do a full body prostration, or if it is simply not practical for any reason. (We don’t know a Tibetan word for this.)
Each style includes the same basic hand motions at the beginning, which you can see in the video, of joining your hands and touching them to three places:
- Ku – Crown of your head – Body
- Sung – Mouth or throat – Speech
- Thuk – Heart – Mind
In this sequence, we are seeking to:
- Purify the bad karma caused by actions of the body and aspiring to all the good qualities of Buddha’s body
- Purify the bad karma caused by our speech and aspiring to all the good qualities of Buddha’s speech
- Purify the bad karma caused by our minds and aspiring to all the good qualities of Buddha’s mind
It may be interesting for non-Tibetans to note that our hearts are associated with the mind, and the crown of our heads symbolizes the body!
Some Tibetans also touch their foreheads, which is also fine. Lama Zopa has offered a very rich teaching on the whole subject of prostrations, including this topic, at the FPMT Archives. As Lama Zopa notes, “In the teachings there is no specific advice to think such and such while prostrating…” but he offers some visualizations and prayers that would be good to do.
When I was a monk, every morning I used to do about a hundred prostrations while reciting the dungshag, which is a confessional prayer to the thirty-five buddhas. This prayer is too long to discuss here, but you can see Lama Zopa’s teachings on it at the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive site.