Prostration is a gesture to overtly proclaim, “A state of being vastly greater than my present self exists. I truly admire and seek that condition for myself. Here is a symbol of it before me. Thus do I signify utmost honor and respect, both for the goal itself and all those who precede me to it.”
Buddhism is more a practice than a faith, almost like a second career. We learn very specialized skills, including the use of many tools. The largest class of these we lump together under the term meditation. For the most part these tools are rather subtle, delicate and specific of purpose, like an array of surgical instruments. We have introspective methods to scope out certain problem areas of the mind. Skillfully employed these can map out every tiniest grain and sliver of delusion yet remaining. Then we have only to deal with them, each according to its kind. Some might have to be rooted out by use of one tool or another. Others we might choose to cauterize in place. The more skillful operator even has a few rare and wonderful tools to transform them into something beneficial. All these many tools we have, each just right for a certain task.
But what if the problem is really big? What if instead of instead of a minor negative karmic propensity, the problem we are needing to address is an iron-hard knot of ego? Sure, we could carve away at it with scalpel and a magnifying glass. But that might take a rather long time. And all the while it might be growing... In such a case, why not go at it with hammer and tongs: lock it down where it can’t escape, take very deliberate aim and pound away with a measured cadence until it is softened into a state of useful malleability? Do we have a tool for that? Of course we do.
And as with many excellent tools, this one has a secondary function also. Ego is pretty clever at hiding when it doesn’t want to be seen. Prostration helps us flush it out. All I ever have to do is barely two or three and up it pops, virtually shouting at me. “Hey, hey, hey!” says Ego, “What’s all this? It’s humiliating. Don’t do this. People are watching... Stop it right now!” And at that instant I know right where Ego is. I can see a really big chunk of it. How many hours would I have to sit for this kind full report? Having lured Ego from his lair, hopefully I am now a shade or two less vulnerable to assault from this deceptive and oh-so-powerful enemy.
Ego would rather that I not know he exist. He much prefers to masquerade as me instead. When I make him show himself the veil is lifted. I can stare him in the face. We are by no means one and the same. This is very good to know. Prostration is bait that Ego simply can’t resist. It is one of his weakest points. And so, of course, that is where to best attack him, over and over and over again.
Please be informed: there are really no such things as full and semi prostration techniques. This is a Western misnomer. The one is not an abbreviation of the other. Both are equal as regards their spiritual significance. Rather, there are two traditions: Nalanda and Vikramashila, two of the most highly regarded institutions of the ancient Buddhist world.
It is from Nalanda (the larger and more enduring of these two) that the improperly called semi prostration method hails. By this technique, one touches the ground in five places: with the forehead, hands and knees. (The feet still also touch, but aren’t mentioned for obvious reasons.) This is no less a full prostration than the Vikramashila method. It is simply a different tradition for the same exact practice. That is all, nothing more, nothing less. And this is the method which is most frequently observed in our own lineage, the Gaden tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. There is no fixed rule, you may choose to do either way, depending upon preference and space available.
You will find a more exacting explanation in our recommended study manual, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand by Pabonkha Rinpoche, available from Wisdom Publications. The page number is in the index. But for those without this valuable aid, here is a brief outline. Here I’ll describe the classic gesture with an almost military precision, like the sixteen-count manual of arms. If we were in the Marines, this is exactly, precisely how we would do it. And no doubt but that true Marines could crank them out, nice and snappy, for at least a hundred or so. But we are not Marines. And a hundred are far too few. So it is that everyone abbreviates this procedure to some degree. That’s okay since there are no active-duty drill sergeants (that I’m aware of) among the Enlightened. Just perform as well as you can with the proper attitude. You’ll know that you’re doing something right if Ego tries to make you quit. The best result of all would be if at the end you truly felt more inspired and reverent.
Start out standing with your feet somewhat apart. This is important for balance. A natural distance apart, even as much as shoulder width, but not wider. The toes point forward.
You start out with your hands together, prayer-like, but not pressed flat against each other. The gesture is as if you held the rarest of gems: a wish-fulfilling cittamani. The finger- and thumb-tips of each hand touch their opposite on the other, as in prayer. But leave a small open space in the center of the palms, at least enough for a ping-pong ball. And think that you hold a cittamani. Hold onto it nice and straight, with the fingers pointing up.
Start out with the hands together at the level of your heart. Then, still holding the cittamani, raise them slightly over your head and touch them to your crown. Next touch the cittamani to your brow, then your throat, then your heart
Now we must part our hands. Don’t think that the cittamani falls, or that it disappears. Don’t think about it doing anything. Just stop pretending that it is there. Part your hands and bend toward the floor. Bend very naturally. Don’t wither down slowly; but also don’t dive at the floor. Try to be a little brisk, quite as if you really like doing it. Enthusiasm breeds genuine respect.
Pick a place to put down your hands, not so close that you knees will land upon them, and not so far forward that you won’t be able to push yourself up from later. Your palms stay a little cupped, just like when you were holding the cittamani. Place them down upon the floor, fingertips forward. The palms remain slightly cupped even while upon the ground.
Your knees touch the ground very shortly after the palms. The knees end up pointing forward, just as the toes had done while you were standing.
Continuing with a smooth motion, touch the forehead to the ground.
Do not rest there even a moment. Just as soon as all five points have made contact with the ground, reverse yourself to a standing position. Push off with the hands so as to arise the more briskly. Finish with the palms together before the heart at the ready to begin again.
During the entirety of this process, think that you are bowing to the actual Buddha, the actual Dharma, the actual Sangha. Be glad of the opportunity to show respect toward them. Think to yourself, “Now and until Enlightenment, I prostrate to the Three Jewels.”
When sitting together as a group, especially in a crowded hall where there is not sufficient space for anything else, we can perform an abbreviated prostration. That is simply to remain in whatever posture we are, seated or standing, and bring the palms together before the heart just as described above. But no matter how abbreviated, our depth of feeling ought to be exactly the same.
Prostrate toward the images on the altar whenever you first enter a shrine room. Prostrate also to the teacher, whenever he or she first enters after having taken a seat. Prostrate again before you leave, or after he or she leaves...but not on the final session of the final day of instruction.) At certain points during sadhanas, the rite may call for you to prostrate. In sitting practice with a group, sometimes one is not quite sure when to rise for the unabbreviated version. If you are seated near the front look for a cue from the leader. Or else just do what everyone else does. When alone do as seems appropriate. In Lam Rim practice at home I arise at the designated limb of the Seven Limbs Prayer since the text which Geshe-la assigned me to study some years ago suggests to do so.
At any rate, always do at least a set of three prostrations. Beyond that set a firm goal. You might count to a certain number: five, seven, twenty-one, twenty-seven, fifty-four or one hundred eight. Or you might set your goal in time: five minutes, ten minutes or half an hour. Holding both an imaginary cittamani and a mala may disturb your concentration. Counting aloud or visualizing some kind of tally will surely do so. For more than seven, I usually go by time: this at the recommendation of one of my early teachers, the Ven. Geshe Ngawang Jangchup. Rinpoche has not suggested otherwise, nor do I suspect that he might, else I would have sought clarification. Whenever there’s been opportunity for guidance, other, more vexing uncertainties have been at the surface of my mind.
And this, I think, is an entirely proper way to engage in Dharma practice. We do just as well as we can according to the knowledge at hand. We cannot do it perfectly in any case. When we’re perfect there will be no need to practice. So if (or rather when) an error is uncovered, it doesn’t mean in any way that all before has gone for naught. We simply make yet another small adjustment and go on. Any journey of consequence will be marked by course corrections such as these.