Prostration Practice During the Pandemic Lock-down: Do we prostrate ‘to’ or ‘for’ something?

A Student writes:

I am finding this ‘lock-down’ time very precious, I feel I am in a very welcome retreat and have a question about prostration as a practice.

I am not an instinctive ‘prostrator’. I may prostrate when a dharma community is together, but I think I do it largely out of a sense of wanting to belong to the group and there is often a whiff of rebellion there. By contrast, I readily bow to a teacher and have occasionally gasped and thrown myself on the floor in the presence of someone really special – Khenpo Rinpoche [Lama Shenpen’s teacher] for one.

Lama Shenpen responds:

I know what you mean – it really isn’t in our culture to prostrate, while in India it is more natural. They will touch the feet of elderly relatives as a sign of respect – so it’s natural to do that for spiritual practitioners. It is at once a greeting as well as a sense of honouring and receiving the blessing of those worthy of respect. As you say it is more natural for us simply to bow our heads.  For this reason when I am teaching beginners I try to remember not to prostrate to the shrine as I enter – if I forget it is almost certain someone will want to know why – even if they don’t ask – and more often than not somebody asks.

I was interested that you did sometimes instinctively feel like prostrating in the presence of someone of the calibre of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso. This suggests to me that there is after all something quite natural about wanting to lower oneself in the presence of someone we wish to honour and receive blessing from.  Or maybe its even more basic than that – maybe it is natural awe and reverence – pre-verbal.


But now in my ‘lock-down’ I am wondering again about prostration.  I have always thought of it as prostrating to… the shrine/the teacher/the Buddha. But perhaps there is an element that I have been missing? Could I prostrate for… people who are ill and suffering/the health workers, the delivery drivers, the lonely people all sentient beings?

Lama Shenpen:

We prostrate to the shrine to receive the blessing of the whole Mandala of Awakening – the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – the direction our path is heading – the way we want always to be going. By this means we draw our whole world – our whole personal mandala into the Mandala of Awakening and so we are doing for everyone.  So it makes sense then to dedicate all the benefit (punya) of that to whomsoever we want


I can see that prostrating to the shrine reflects the objects of Buddhist refuge while prostrating (for) the health workers might be interpreted as refuge in society’s response to suffering, which it can’t actually deliver on.

Lama Shenpen:

We take Refuge in what will protect us and prevent us from going astray – so we take Refuge in the Mandala of Awakening. We don’t take Refuge in society do we?  Society is suffering because we want to deliver something we cannot actually deliver on – society wants to create a safe world where everyone is happy but the world cannot deliver on that. It is not a Refuge – not ultimately. The Mandala of Awakening is the ultimate Refuge from all suffering.


Perhaps this just my ego hating my impotence in the present moment? Or just that I want some exercise! I think I have a few missing links!

Lama Shenpen:

Could be couldn’t it? Or maybe its your Buddha Nature of Openness Clarity Sensitivity wanting to contribute to the welfare of the world at this time of such upheaval and distress.

Like the rest of us its probably a mixture of both isn’t it?  It is good to try to understand more deeply – what else is there to do?


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