The prostration is a special Tibetan spiritual tradition. Many religions and Buddhist traditions use prostrations and I will teach the Bön method. I will talk about what prostrations we do and why we do them, when and where to prostrate and how to make those prostrations.
Many Western students cannot accept the idea of prostration because they think they are giving something of themselves to the teacher or statue in front of them. Some people have told me that they cannot bow to someone. They do not want to give someone or anything else «control» over themselves. They think about prostration as a sign of weakness. It is the ego that does not want to prostrate. It is the ego that does not want to let go of its control or give up its power. And it is the ego that is our source of suffering.
Let me say first of all that 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; generates compassion for all sentient beings; cleanse your negative past and your present Karma and create positive merit for yourself. When you practice prostrations, what do you lose? What do you give up? You lose nothing but your ego attachment! You give up your ego! The more or greater the ego, the more suffering it creates. The less or little the ego is, the less suffering you have.
So why not give up the ego? If we can liberate ourselves or even reduce our suffering, why do not we give up the ego? That is the view of the Buddhist teaching.
When you prostrate before a teacher or master, not only will you give up your ego, but you will also show respect for his Buddha-nature. Every sentient being has the Buddha-nature. So, the simple idea of a prostration is that you give up the ego and show respect for the Buddha-nature of another.
The Tibetan word for prostration is chag tsal. Literally, chag tsal means sweeping or cleaning all the dirt in your home, outside or inside. So prostration is the cleansing, purification of the whole negative Karma of past lives or your present life, of your physical, mental and spiritual home. Your body, your speech and your mind. That is why we call the prostration chag tsal: it is to cleanse and purify.
Karma is created by the ego through what we Tibetans call the three gates, gosum: these are the body, the speech and the mind.
THERE ARE ALSO THREE TYPES OF NEGATIVE KARMA:
Killing, stealing, sexual misconduct
Gossip, lie, harsh words
Anger or hatred, greed or lust, deception or ignorance
So every gate creates its own negative Karma. The effect of negative Karma, be it through body, speech or mind, from this life or past lives, comes back to us in the form of suffering. The act of prostration, when done with compassionate intent, uses all three gates of body, speech and mind.
Not only do we purify the body in a physical exercise, we also use our mind to visualize this mentally, and we use our speech to say Mantras. We use our body, speech and mind to cleanse or sweep away the negative Karma we have created, either now or in a past life. The prostration focuses on all three doors. And above all, if we practice the prostrations with a positive motivation or intention, we should have the intention to liberate all sentient beings from their suffering, and this not do only for ourselves.
This is the reason for the prostrations: to liberate others and ourselves from the sufferings of the negative Karma that the ego created through the three gates of body, speech and mind.
In the Tibetan language these are called konchog sum, the three jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Buddha is represented by statues. The scriptures or any kind of Dharma book represent the Dharma. The Sangha is represented by all nuns, monks, teachers, masters and every kind of spiritual community. And, as I said, when you prostrate yourself to a teacher or master, you also show respect for their Buddha-nature and the knowledge of their line of teachers and masters. Their line means all teachers and masters who have taught their teachers. In the Bön tradition, monks and teachers usually sing the names of all their teachers and their teachers ꟷ the teachers go back to the time of Buddha Shenrab.
Sometimes we prostrate before a Stupa, sometimes in front of statues, in a temple, or in other sacred places, holy mountains, caves, lakes; or somewhere in nature to which we also have a connection. You can prostrate yourself in all directions. You do not just have to prostrate yourself in the temple. Mainly the prostrations to the three jewels: the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Many Tibetans performing full-body prostrations encircle sacred places. They circle temples, the Potala and the sacred mountains. Think of the effort of going around a mountain in the Himalayas! This takes weeks or months and even years out in the wild with all kinds of weather and conditions. A complete prostration is lying flat on your stomach with your body outstretched.
In the Tibetan Bön tradition, we also prostrate ourselves before a refuge tree or merit field. Both are images, mental or actual images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, masters, deities, teachers and living beings. We visualize the Refuge Tree or the merit field with a good heart and an intent to purify all negative energies and negative Karma. We bless ourselves during the prostration and in turn receive all their blessings.
Any time is a good time to prostrate, but most Bön practitioners practice practicing prior before receiving a lesson, before meditating or reciting, when entering a temple or holy place. Because it is an act of letting go of the ego, if we practice this practice before meditation or instruction, it will help us to become open and ready to receive knowledge or wisdom. When we have done this with a positive intention and an attentive awareness, our mind is in the present moment without judgment, open and ready to receive something.
It is also a very good thing to make at least three prostrations in the morning when we have just got up. Then we can start the day by remembering the letting go of the ego with all its attachments of greed and desire, gossip and hard talk, jealousy and ignorance. We cannot always succeed or be successful all day, but at least we have tried to start the day in a positive way.
There are two kinds of prostrations here, both of which involve touching the floor with hands, knees and forehead.
In the first way, just kneel down with your palms touching the floor and lower your forehead to the floor.
The second and better way, for example, if you practice 100,000 repetitions of prostrations, is as follows:
Well, first of all you need a smooth floor and a little space for the prostrations. For example, if you do not have a smooth floor, organize a used cabinet back panel. The painted part of such a back wall is optimal for carrying out the prostrations on it. All you need now are stockings, preferably made of cotton, for your hands and you're ready to go: you kneel down again, your palms touch the ground. Then slide on the stockings forward until you lie flat on your stomach. The hands still glide smoothly forward until you are completely outstretched, with the two forefingers touching. Here you release the negativity in the form of black light that disappears downwards from the five points (hands, knees and forehead). Then, at the same time, raise your hands and feet in your extended position, lifting your upper body slightly and folding your hands up over your head. The eyes look straight ahead, the neck is slightly tilted backwards. Then place your palms flat on the floor, slide back to the kneeling position and stand up.
Before you start, remember to take your time ꟷ do not be in a hurry. Make each thing slow and alert, take as much time as you need to try to visualize something. You do not need to be perfect or have everything at once or completely in your visualizations. As one proceeds slowly, the act of prostration becomes a wonderful spiritual practice in itself.
The Bön practitioner recites the refugee Mantra in Tibetan or English during prostration, and feels that all sentient beings perform the prostrations together with Him. The short refuge Mantra of the Bön is: Lama, Yidam, Khandro, Sumla, Chap-Su, Chi-Wo.
The English translation is: Ich nehme Zuflucht zu meinen Lehrern, den männlichen und weiblichen Gottheiten.
Taking refuge is not just repeating a formula or reading some religious words. Refuge means that you have absolute faith in the Buddhas, the teachings, and the spiritual community. This refuge and the practice of prostration depend on our devotion. If we have a strong and genuine devotion, then our refuge will be very strong.
When you get up from prostration, put both feet together and stand just like a tree! Visualize that you are in a beautiful, peaceful place. Just below your two feet is a small hole that goes down to the three lower areas: the Hell Realm, the Animal Kingdom and the Realm of Hungry Spirits. There are many sentient beings who fall into this hole to the lower realms. Right now, while you're standing here, cover the hole with your feet, so no one can fall down now.
In the sky directly in front of you, you visualize all enlightened beings how they look at you; smiling with compassion for you. This is your merit field. These are all Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, the lines of your masters and teachers, alive or dead. There are also Dakinis and Yidams here. Do not worry if you cannot visualize all of them or if the visualization is not clear. If it's easier, just visualize one Buddha or Yidam, or as many as you can.
With your hands folded, slowly bring your arms and hands up so the palms face up. You offer the most beautiful and desirable gifts that you can imagine for all enlightened beings. The offering can consist of flowers, food, jewels, music, incense; whatever you can visualize and what is beautiful for you. You bring them all the desirable things in the universe, in abundance, as big as a mountain! And all enlightened beings in your merit field accept these gifts from you with a smile.
Then they give you their blessings in the form of a white light that springs from their hearts. Shape your two hands like the shape of a crystal or a cup so that they touch each other's thumbs. And in your hollow hands they all lay their blessings. Then slowly bring your palms back to touch your forehead, which represents your body. You receive their blessings in the form of a white light in your forehead and thereby cleanse all the negative Karma of the body. Now slowly move your hands to the lips with the light, absorbing all their blessings with your mouth, thereby clearing away all the negative Karma of your speech. Then slowly move your hands back to your heart with the light and receive all of their blessings for the mind, thereby purifying all the negative Karma of your mind. You have now become a Buddha. You absorbed Buddha's body, language and mind.
I should now also explain that we Tibetans know that the mind is in the heart, not in the head, as most Westerners believe. So when I say mind, I always point to my heart, and when I say body, I point to the head!
After receiving the blessings in your mind, speech, and body, go down and touch the earth with the five limbs: your forehead, your two hands, and your two knees. The five members represent the five negative emotions of anger, greed, jealousy, pride and ignorance. As you touch the earth with your five limbs, you visualize how the negative Karma drips from your five limbs into the earth. When you get up, you are free of all negativities; you are free from your suffering. Then you can continue doing two more prostrations, each with the same visualization and the same sanctuary Mantra.
Take as much time as you want as long as necessary to make the visualizations for each part of the prostration. If you want, you can make 7, 21, 108, or even a thousand prostrations. These are not only good for the spiritual, but are also a very good physical exercise!
There are different possibilities here. For one thing, there are Hand-Malas with 27 pearls, but I do not find them ideal to count among the stockings with these. A better method is to use coins that you lay down and move to where you lie flat when stretched out. The method I use these days is to pick out 72 refuge aspects that I individually prostrate myself to.
So, now I hope you understand a little bit more about how and why we Tibetan Bön practitioners perform the prostrations. We continue to practice to give up the ego and remove the negative Karma of our present and our past lives, for ourselves and especially for other living beings.
The visualization cleanses the negative Karma of the mind. The Mantras purify all the negative Karma from the speech. The physical act of prostration cleanses all negative Karma from the body. The creator of the negative Karma is the ego and the ego works through the thoughts and actions of body, speech and mind. Practicing prostrations is one way to cleanse the three gates of body, speech and mind.
This is a wonderful and successful method, not only to cleanse negative Karma, but also to create a lot of positive merit for us and others. Try it. Start slowly by making only three prostrations in the morning. See if this makes a difference for your day.