Buddhist Philosophy

Prostration: Why and How?

Prostration: Not Just Custom

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, prostration, or full-body bowing, is an important element of practice, as it is in other Buddhist traditions. Each country and type of Buddhism may have specific ways in which prostrations are performed.  But, bottom line, we know that they date back to the time of the Buddha. The Pali canon, for example, mentions both monks and laypeople joyfully prostrating before the Buddha.

Prostration: A Profound Practice

In this video filmed at Rangjung Yeshe Gomde Cooperstown in 2015, Tulku Migmar discusses the purpose of prostration. Sometimes we may feel uncomfortable with this practice as we see it as merely a custom. Here, Tulku-la reminds us of the profound meaning and the purpose behind prostration. He speaks of the proper visualization as well as the proper motivation that should accompany the practice. We should also understand that our reaction to the practice may be a way of our tricky ego trying to assert itself–prostrations are designed to reduce pride and ego-clinging.

How To Prostrate?

For many of us beginners, it may feel unnatural to do prostrations and we may be unsure of how to correctly perform them. Tulku-la here demonstrates the correct form. He begins here with the traditional three prostrations that are made when entering a shrine hall.  Also, we can bow in this way when approaching an image of enlightenment, and when meeting a teacher.

The first type of prostration Tulku-la demonstrates is a short version:

For those who have physical difficulties or for the elderly, there is a way to adapt the practice. This still conveys the same intention and meaning. Here Tulku-la demonstrates how we may modify. We might also do these adapted prostrations in very large crowds where there is not space to do regular prostrations.

For Vajrayana practitioners doing the Four Foundations (ngöndro) practice, the full body is engaged. Here Tulku-la shows the form used in our tradition for the full prostration. Remember that Samye Institute features an online support program for those who engaged in the Tukdrub Barche Kunsel Ngöndro.

5 responses on "Prostration: Why and How?"

  1. This is wonderful. Thank you for providing this! I have a quick question: Is there a significance or importance to keeping the feet together during prostrations? I find having a bit of a gap between my feet takes a lot of strain off my knees and hips.

  2. Thank you Juri, for the question. Tulku-la kindly gave a very complete answer below:

    Having the feet together is actually very significant and the reasons are as follows:

    1. It is said that when doing prostrations the body should be very straight, like a tree and one should fall just as a tree falls when chopped down. Placing the feet together keeps the body tall and straight.

    2.In terms of the subtle body, keeping the feet together also keeps the central channel straight and therefore it is easier and faster to purify the negative emotions and obscurations.

    3. Feet together also is a mindfulness practice of the body. When we practice, we should be attentive to the movements of our body, speech, and mind. In this way, keeping the feet together is part of the practice of discipline. We are also told that we should not move the head from side to side, or look around when we are doing prostrations.

    Tulku-la also said that if it is very difficult for you to prostrate with your feet together, it is okay to separate them slightly–a few inches, for example. Try not to place the feet too far apart and remember that the straight posture is quite important!

    Thanks again for the excellent question!

  3. Thank you Hilary and Tulku-la! I felt a bit silly asking the question, but now I’m glad I did. The answer was more significant than I expected and so I greatly appreciate the clarification. Best to all!

  4. Dear All,
    I have trouble in accessing the video link. is the video already over due date?


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Suggested Reading

Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, trans. and ed. by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991), vol. 1, pages 468–474.

Ngawang Zangpo, Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times, Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2002.

Nyoshul Khenpo, A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage, trans. Richard Barron (Junction City: Padma Publishing, 2005), pages 41–48.

Padmasambhava, Legend of the Great Stupa, Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1973

Padmasambhava & Jamgön Kongtrul, The Light of Wisdom, trans. by Erik Pema Kunsang (Boudhanath: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1986-1999), pages 43-47 & Appendix 5.

Taranatha, The Life of Padmasambhava, Shang Shung Edizioni, 2005

Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles, Shambhala, 1996.

Yeshe Tsogyal, Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, translated by Kenneth Douglas and Gwendolyn Bays (Emeryville: Dharma Publishing, 1978, republished 2008).

Yeshe Tsogyal, Lotus Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2004.

‘The Life of Guru Padmasambhava’ in A Great Treasure of Blessings, The Tertön Sogyal Trust, 2004.