Why do people bow and make prostrations to shrines?

“Every effort to make the shrine beautiful is an offering to the Buddha, who is the central principle of the mandala [read more about mandala principle here]. As you express your love, appreciation and gratitude in this way, the centre of the mandala is empowered to empower you further. You are expressing your openness, clarity and sensitivity [the three inseparable qualities of our true nature – read more here] and intensifying your experience of it.

At the same time you are opening yourself to the adhistana (powerful blessing) of the Buddhas and the teachers of the lineage. Approaching a shrine or sacred place is an opportunity to acknowledge and honour the central principle.

Taking your shoes off at the door or as you approach your shrine gives you the opportunity to remember you are entering a sacred space. It is good to stop for a moment on the threshold as you enter and bow to that central principle, and you could also do that as you leave.

In the Awakened Heart Sangha we keep to the Eastern custom of respectful greeting by means of placing our joined hands over our heart as we bow. There is a lot of symbolism associated with this gesture, not simply the idea of prayer (as is the case in the West).

You can think of the hands as forming a lotus bud that you are offering as you make your salutation. The main point of the gesture is to open yourself to receive the adhistana and express your appreciation and gratitude for it. As you leave, you can think that you are taking the adhistana of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha out into the world to help others.

The meaning of the prostration is to offer one’s whole life, body, speech and mind to the service of the Truth, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha for the sake of liberating all beings. It is a way of making a strong connection and of acknowledging, aligning, honouring and celebrating one’s commitment to the path of Awakening.

The prostration is done by raising the joined palms to the head to represent the offering of one’s body, to the throat to represent the offering of one’s speech and to the heart to represent the offering of one’s heart and mind. Then one kneels and puts one’s forehead on the ground in an action of surrender and humility – it symbolises our wish to give up our ego and selfish pride and attachment. In the Tibetan tradition the hands are put palms down.

Sometimes you will see people making prostrations like this as they enter the shrine room. There is no need to do this at public events. I do not encourage it because for some people it looks very strange and somewhat idolatrous. In other words, it might make some people, especially if they are new to Buddhism, feel uncomfortable. Nonetheless, we tend to do this at the Hermitage, and if it’s a practice you like the feel of, then it’s quite appropriate to do it as you approach your shrine. One or three simple bows would do just as well or even a momentary pause in order to gather your thoughts, as you enter the sacred space.”

Lama Shenpen Hookham

This is an excerpt from Lama Shenpen Hookham’s book Mandala of Sacred Space: Setting up your Practice at Home’Available here or direct from the Sangha for members of the AHS.