How to Make Prostrations

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.

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.

You can always simply recite mantras while prostrating, or any of the common Tibetan prayers that you know: om mani padme hum, the Buddha Shakyamuni mantra, the Green Tara mantra, the refuge prayer.

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Updated on February 13, 2020. First published on September 22, 2013.

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Reader Interactions

Comments

    • Lobsang and Yolanda says

      Gyanchag is the full prostration. Chaktsel is the general name for prostration so it could be any type of prostration. Cheers.

    • yowangdu says

      Don’t worry! Do them as best you can — Tibetans are typically not so strict about this kind of thing. And if you have a health problem, clearly do them as well as you can. Your motivation is most important.

  1. Yeshe says

    Greetings,
    I recently was criticized for doing full prostrations when I entered the shrine room at a Buddhist center. Someone said that it’s not appropriate to do this around other people. I always feel good about prostrating before the holy altar. This person said I was being a show off, but I really wasn’t. He then proceeded to tell me that I should only do a 5 point prostration.
    I had learned differently from my old Tibetan woman friend. She has taught me to do full prostrations if I am able to.
    I do prostration three times a day and it feels great.
    I am just reaching out for some support.

  2. Michael Carter says

    Thank you, I have a spinal injury and I am unable to do prostration. Is it possible to do Ngondro? Or do I need to try another practice? Thanks for any advice you can give me. MC

    • yowangdu says

      Hi Michael,
      We’re not dharma teachers so we can’t give you correct advice. We think you should be able to do Ngondro, but you should consult a teacher. You can definitely do prostrations by visualizing yourself doing them in your mind. Your motivation and good intention is key here. Best wishes.

      • Paul Stevenson says

        Hi, Michael. I recently received a reply from FPMT that Lama Zopa Rinpoche advised those who could not do a full prostration (including me, with my bad back, in there, too) that (from the FPMT office):
        “Rinpoche said that if they physically can’t do prostrations then they can recite [for example, added by me] 35 Buddhas names 100,000 x with hands in mudra of prostration and must visualize many hundreds of bodies prostration, or their body as very large, prostrations to altar, all Buddha, Dharma Sangha, statue, stupa and scriptures in all directions and in this way recite the names.

        Rinpoche added that if they do visualization well it can be even more merit than physically prostration, because of doing visualization much better.”

        So, a really late reply, but I hope that helped.

        Take care, Paul

  3. Bas says

    further to my previous post: or can I do it like this. My mantra has four lines, two on refuge, and two on bodhichitta. I can recite two lines during one prostration. I thus recite the full mantra while doing two prostrations. Is this all right, or does this mean I am doing too few recitations?

    • yowangdu says

      Bas, you are doing it fine! If you have good motivation and you’re doing your best, you can’t be wrong. Don’t worry too much about how many mantras you are able to do or if you can visualize and recite the mantras at the same time. While you are prostrating, you can say mantras for a while then visualize for a while. That is fine. If it is hard to prostrate and visualize, just visualize while you are meditating another time. Cheers to you.

  4. Bas says

    When I prostrate I try to recitate a refuge and bodhichitta mantra. But I also want to visualize the Buddha tree with the Buddha, bodhisatvas, etcetera, while prostrating. I am not able to do these two things at the same time. Is it then better to recite the mantra first and then do a prostration? Or how should this be precisely done? Thank you.

      • Jill Gordom says

        Thank you for this very clear and helpful video. I would like to know what we should chant while doing prostrations and also what the Tibetan morning morning prayers or recitations are and where I could find them, please.

    • Randall says

      Wonderful explanation. I attend our local temple and I’ve been reluctant to prostrate because I didn’t understand how to do it correctly. Thank you Lobsang.

  5. Eugen says

    Good day, I have a question about the prostrations. I can not go to their knees due to health reasons. Is it enough to make the hand movements with deep bows? Does this also as a defeat?
    thank you very much and Tashi Delek to Losar

  6. Katherine says

    Thank you! I have been doing prostrations by sliding the hands forward, and because I have a spinal problem this makes one vertebrae slip against the next one. Very painful. Doing it this way, the back is always straight and the work is done with the thighs and the arms. Much better for me! Honestly I had despaired of completing ngondro without my Rinpoche granting an exception – now I have confidence.

  7. rahul nair says

    Thank you for demonstrating .Am very much interested in learning .I want a teacher also to guide me. How can I find.? Which type of prostration you should do 100000 times.

  8. Lingaraju D S says

    What is prostration of body called in Tibetan language which is required urgently as I am writing a book in Kannada language (India) about my visit to kailasa manasa sarovara. Please reply
    Lingaraju D S
    Bangalore

  9. Dadrön says

    Thank you. I just learned how to do the partial prostration recently when I took refuge. It’s so nice to read this. When do you do the full prostrations? Will I be expected to do them when I take the Bodhisattva Vows?

    • Yolanda says

      Hi Dadron,
      You are very welcome. We don’t really know of rules about this. Generally, we do full prostrations if there is space and time to do them. All the best to you on the path!

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