In Asia, prostrating is a familiar expression of deep respect. In India, it is customary to honor one’s parents by prostrating at their feet. Tibetans wouldn’t consider approaching a major teacher without prostrating. In turn, teachers often begin their instructions with a bow. However, as Westerners we tend to think of prostrating as a gesture of defeat or abasement. We think that to show someone else respect is to make ourselves less. Prostrating irritates our sense of democracy, that everyone is equal. On the one hand, we want to receive teachings, but on the other we don’t really want to bow down to anyone or anything. We are incredibly impatient and would like to “get the goods,” the sooner the better. But the traditional Vajrayana (diamond path) approach simply doesn’t work that way.
Before entering the Vajrayana, we must satisfy the Four Preliminaries: 100,000 refuge vows, 100,000 prostrations, 100,000 Vajrasattva mantra recitations, and 100,000 mandala offerings. We must complete all four of these preliminaries before requesting the empowerment to begin formal Vajrayana practice.
We complete the refuge and prostration requirements simultaneously, reciting the refuge vow while prostrating, until we have completed 100,000 of each. In this case, refuge is fourfold: in the guru, the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. The guru comes first, for it is through our encounter with a teacher that the world of the Buddha is opened to us. The guru is a living manifestation of awakened mind (Buddha) who transmits the teachings of Buddha to us (dharma) and serves as a guide and model (sangha). So we join our palms to the guru, top of the head; the Buddha, forehead; the dharma, throat; and the sangha, heart.
In prostration practice, we visualize everything as included in one vast world. The lineage is before us, our natural world surrounds us, our friends and family are at our side, and our enemies are behind us. Animals, crowds of people, and supernatural beings all join in. Nothing is excluded.
Physically we throw our bodies on the ground; mentally we visualize a lush world of devotion; verbally we recite the refuge. In the process we deal with our fear: fear of surrendering, fear of awakening, and fear of our own mind. We can’t be too uppity or refined. This practice is very basic. We stink, we sweat, we have aches and pains.
It may take us several months to complete our prostration practice, or it may take several years—but it is something that all Vajrayana practitioners do. On the way, we learn things about ourselves, cultivate our heart of devotion, and encounter many deep layers of resistance. It is hard work, like plowing a field.
Having completed the preliminaries, we never stop prostrating. We take the mental attitude of prostrating ourselves over and over again: to our teacher, to basic wakefulness, to the profound teachings of the Buddha, to our companions and fellow beings. And rather than being diminished, we are purified and enriched.
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