THE ART OF PROSTRATING
Prostration is a special Tibetan spiritual tradition. Many religions and Buddhist traditions use prostrations and I am going to teach on the Bön method. I will talk on what andwhy we do prostrations, when and where to prostrate, and how to do prostrations.
Many western students cannot accept the idea of prostrating because they think they are giving something of themselves up to the teacher or the statue in front of them. Some people have told me, that no, they cannot bow down to anyone. They do not want to give “control” of themselves to someone or something else. They think of prostration as a sign of weakness. It is the ego who does not want to prostrate. It is the ego who does not want to let go, to give up its control or power. And, it is the ego that is our source of suffering.
First, let me say, prostration in the Tibetan spiritual sense is not a sign of weakness! When done with pure intentions and devotion, it becomes an act of respect; compassion for all sentient being; purifies your negative past and present karma; and, creates positive merit for yourself. When you practice prostrations, what are you losing? What do you give up? You lose nothing except your ego attachment! You give up your ego! The more or bigger the ego – the more suffering. The lesser or smaller the ego – the less suffering you have.
Why not give up the ego? If we can free ourselves or even lessen our suffering, why would we not want to give up the ego? That is the view of Buddhist teaching.
When you do prostrations in front of a teacher or master, you not only are giving up your ego, you are showing respect to his or her Buddha nature within. Every sentient being has Buddha nature. So the simple idea of prostration is to give up the ego and show respect to anothers Buddha nature.
The Tibetan word for prostration is “chag tsal”. Literally,“chag tsal” means sweeping or cleaning all the dirt in your house, outside or inside. So prostration is the cleaning, purifying all the negative karma of past lives or your present life, from your physical, mental and spiritual home. Your body, speech and mind. That is why we call prostration“chag tsal” – it is to clean and purify.
Karma is created by the ego through what we Tibetan Buddhists call the three doors, “gosum” – which are, the body, the speech and the mind.
THERE ARE ALSO THREE TYPES OF NEGATIVE KARMA:
killing, stealing, sexual misconduct
gossiping, lies, harsh speech
anger or hatred, greed or desire, delusion or ignorance
So, each door creates its own negative karma. The effect of negative karma, whether by body, speech, or mind, from this life or any past lives; comes back to us in the form of suffering. The act of prostration when done with compassionate intention, uses all three doors of body, speech and mind.
We are not just using the body in a physical exercise to purify, we use our minds to mentally visualize and we use our speech to say mantras. We are using our body, our speech and our mind to clean or sweep away all the negative karma they have created either now or in a past life. Prostration focuses on all three doors. And, most importantly, when we practice prostrations with a positive motivation or intention, we should have the intention to free all sentient beings from their sufferings, not only for ourselves.
This then is the reason for prostrations; to free others and ourselves from the sufferings of negative karma created by the ego through the three doors of body, speech and mind.
Now, where do we practice and who are we prostrating to? In the Tibetan language, it is called “konchog sum”, the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Buddha is represented by the statues. The scriptures or any kind of dharma book represent the Dharma. Sangha is represented by any nuns, monks, teachers, masters and any spiritual community. And, as I said, when you prostrate in front of a teacher or master, you are also paying respect to their Buddha nature and to the knowledge of their lineage of teachers and masters. Their lineage means to all the teachers and masters who have taught your teacher. In the Bon tradition, monks and teachers can usually chant the names of all their teachers and their teachers – teachers, right back to the time of Buddha Shenrab.
Sometimes we prostrate in front of a Stupa, statues, in a temple or other holy paces, sacred mountains, caves, lakes; or anywhere in nature that we have a connection to. You may prostrate to all the directions. You do not necessarily have to only prostrate in the temple. Mainly, the prostrations are to the Three Jewels – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Many Tibetans circumambulate sacred places performing full body prostrations. They circumambulate temples, the Potala, and sacred mountains. Think of the effort involved when they circumambulate a mountain in the Himalayas! It takes weeks or months even years, outside in all types of weather and conditions. A full prostration is laying flat with your body stretched out on the ground.
In the Tibetan Bön tradition, we also prostrate in front of a Refuge Tree or a merit field. Both of these are pictures, mental or actual pictures, of Buddhas, Boddhisatvas, Masters, Deities, Teachers, and sentient beings. We visualize the refuge tree or merit field with a good heart and intention, to purify all the negative energies and negative karma. We bless ourselves during prostration and in turn receive all their blessings.
Anytime is a good time to prostrate, but most Bön practitioners practice before receiving a teaching, before meditation or chanting, upon entering a temple or holy place. Because it is an act of letting go of the ego, doing this practice before meditation or a teaching, will help us to become open and ready to receive knowledge or wisdom. When done with positive intention and mindful awareness our minds are in the present moment, without judgments, we are open and ready to receive.
It is also a very good thing to do at least three prostrations when you first get up in the morning. Then we can start off our day remembering to let go of the ego and all its attachments to greed and desire, to the gossiping and harsh speech and the jealousies and ignorance. We may not always succeed or be successful for the whole day, but at least we tried to start the day in a positive way.
So now, how to prostrate? Before beginning, remember to take your time – do not hurry. Do each thing slowly and mindfully, taking as much time as you need to try to visualize. You do not have to be perfect or have everything at once or complete in your visualizations. But when you go slowly, mindfully, the act of prostration becomes a wonderful spiritual practice in itself.
While making prostrations, the Bön practitioner recites the Refuge Mantra in Tibetan or English, feeling that all sentient beings are performing them together with you. The short Bön Refuge mantra is: Lama, Yidam, Khandro, Sumla, Chap-Su, Chi-Wo
In English the translation is: I am taking refuge in my teachers, male and female deities.
Going to refuge is not just repeating some formula or reading some pious words. Refuge means having total and absolute trust in the Buddhas, the Teachings, and the Spiritual Community. This going for refuge and the practice of prostration depends on our devotion. If we have a strong and genuine devotion, then our refuge will be very strong.
When you stand up, place both feet together, stand straight like a tree! Visualize that you are in a beautiful, peaceful place. Right under your two feet is a small hole going down to the three lower realms; hell realm, animal realm and the hungry ghost realms. There are many sentient beings falling down this hole to the lower realms. So right now, while you are standing here, you are covering that hole with your feet, no one can fall down right now.
In the sky directly in front of you visualize all the enlightened beings looking at you; smiling with compassion at you. This is your merit field. They are all the Buddhas, Boddhisatvas, lineage of your Masters and teachers, living or dead. There are dakinis, yidams. Do not worry if you cannot visualize all of them or if they are not clear. If easier, visualize only one Buddha or Yidam, or however many you can.
With your hands together, palms up, slowly bring your arms and hands up – you are offering the most beautiful and desirable gifts that you can imagine, to all the enlightened beings. The offering can be flowers, food, jewels, music, incense; whatever you can visualize and that is beautiful to you. You are offering to them all the desirable things in the universe, in abundance, as large as a mountain! And all enlightened beings in your merit field, accept these gifts from you with smiles.
They then give to you, their blessings in the form of a white light arising from their hearts. Form your two hands into a crystal like shape or cup with the two thumbs touching; and into your cupped hands they place all their blessings. Then slowly bring your palms back to touch your forehead – which represents your body, receive their blessings in the form of a white light into your forehead and purify all negative karma of your body. Now slowly move your hands with the light to your lips and accept all their blessings into your mouth, purifying all negative karma from your speech. Then again, slowly move your hands with the light to your heart and receive all their blessings into your mind, purifying all negative karma of your mind. You have now become a Buddha. You have received Buddhas body, speech and mind into you.
I should also explain now, that we Tibetans believe the mind is in the heart, not the head as most western people think. So when I say mind, I am always pointing to my heart, and when we say body, we point to the head!
After you have received the blessings into your mind, speech and body, you go down and touch the earth with the five limbs of your forehead, two hands and two knees. The five limbs represent the five negative emotions of anger, greed, jealousy, pride and ignorance. As you touch the earth with your five limbs, visualize all the negative karma dropping down from your five limbs into the earth. When you stand up, you are free from all the negativities, you are free from their sufferings. Then, you can proceed to do two more prostrations, using the same visualization and Refuge Mantra for each one.
Take as long as you like, as long as necessary to do the visualizations for each part of the prostration. If you like, you may do as many as 7, 21, 108 or even a thousand prostrations. It is not only good for spiritual, but it is a very good physical exercise!
So now, I hope you understand a little more about how and why we Tibetan Bön practitioners perform prostrations. We keep practicing giving up the ego and clearing away all the negative karma from both our present and past lives, for ourselves and especially for other sentient beings.
The visualization purifies all the negative karma of the mind. The mantras purify all the negative karma of the speech. The physical act of prostration purifies all negative karma of the body. The creator of negative karma is the ego and the ego works through the thoughts and actions of the body, speech and mind. Practicing prostrations is a way to purify the three doors of body, speech and mind.
It is a wonderful and successful method to not only purify negative karma, but also to create so much positive merit for ourselves and others. Try it. Start out slowly by doing only three prostrations in the morning. See if it makes a difference to your day.