THE ART OF PROSTRATING
Prostration is a special Tibetan spiritual tradition. Many religions and Buddhist traditions use prostrations and I am going to teach on the Bön method. I will talk on what andwhy we do prostrations, when and where to prostrate, andhow to do prostrations.
Many western students cannot accept the idea of prostrating because they think they are giving something of themselves up to the teacher or the statue in front of them. Some people have told me, that no, they cannot bow down to anyone. They do not want to give "control" of themselves to someone or something else. They think of prostration as a sign of weakness. It is the ego who does not want to prostrate. It is the ego who does not want to let go, to give up its control or power. And, it is the ego that is our source of suffering.
First, let me say, prostration in the Tibetan spiritual sense is not a sign of weakness! When done with pure intentions and devotion, it becomes an act of respect; compassion for all sentient being; purifies your negative past and present karma; and, creates positive merit for yourself. When you practice prostrations, what are you losing? What do you give up? You loose nothing except your ego attachment! You give up your ego! The more or bigger the ego - the more suffering. The lesser or smaller the ego - the less suffering you have.
Why not give up the ego? If we can free ourselves or even lessen our suffering, why would we not want to give up the ego? That is the view of Buddhist teaching.
When you do prostrations in front of a teacher or master, you not only are giving up your ego, you are showing respect to his or her Buddha nature within. Every sentient being has Buddha nature. So the simple idea of prostration is to give up the ego and show respect to anothers Buddha nature.
The Tibetan word for prostration is "chag tsal". Literally,"chag tsal" means sweeping or cleaning all the dirt in your house, outside or inside. So prostration is the cleaning, purifying all the negative karma of past lives or your present life, from your physical, mental and spiritual home. Your body, speech and mind. That is why we call prostration"chag tsal" - it is to clean and purify.
Karma is created by the ego through what we Tibetan Buddhists call the three doors, "gosum" - which are, the body, the speech and the mind.
THERE ARE ALSO THREE TYPES OF NEGATIVE KARMA:
- killing, stealing, sexual misconduct
- gossiping, lies, harsh speech
- anger or hatred, greed or desire, delusion or ignorance
So, each door creates its own negative karma. The effect of negative karma, whether by body, speech, or mind, from this life or any past lives; comes back to us in the form of suffering. The act of prostration when done with compassionate intention, uses all three doors of body, speech and mind.
We are not just using the body in a physical exercise to purify, we use our minds to mentally visualize and we use our speech to say mantras. We are using our body, our speech and our mind to clean or sweep away all the negative karma they have created either now or in a past life. Prostration focuses on all three doors. And, most importantly, when we practice prostrations with a positive motivation or intention, we should have the intention to free all sentient beings from their sufferings, not only for ourselves.
This then is the reason for prostrations; to free others and ourselves from the sufferings of negative karma created by the ego through the three doors of body, speech and mind.
Now, where do we practice and who are we prostrating to? In the Tibetan language, it is called "konchog sum", the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Buddha is represented by the statues. The scriptures or any kind of dharma book represent the Dharma. Sangha is represented by any nuns, monks, teachers, masters and any spiritual community. And, as I said, when you prostrate in front of a teacher or master, you are also paying respect to their Buddha nature and to the knowledge of their lineage of teachers and masters. Their lineage means to all the teachers and masters who have taught your teacher. In the Bon tradition, monks and teachers can usually chant the names of all their teachers and their teachers - teachers, right back to the time of Buddha Shenrab.
Sometimes we prostrate in front of a Stupa, statues, in a temple or other holy paces, sacred mountains, caves, lakes; or anywhere in nature that we have a connection to. You may prostrate to all the directions. You do not necessarily have to only prostrate in the temple. Mainly, the prostrations are to the Three Jewels - Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Many Tibetans circumambulate sacred places performing full body prostrations. They circumambulate temples, the Potala, and sacred mountains. Think of the effort involved when they circumambulate a mountain in the Himalayas! It takes weeks or months even years, outside in all types of weather and conditions. A full prostration is laying flat with your body stretched out on the ground.
In the Tibetan Bön tradition, we also prostrate in front of a Refuge Tree or a merit field. Both of these are pictures, mental or actual pictures, of Buddhas, Boddhisatvas, Masters, Deities, Teachers, and sentient beings. We visualize the refuge tree or merit field with a good heart and intention, to purify all the negative energies and negative karma. We bless ourselves during prostration and in turn receive all their blessings.
Anytime is a good time to prostrate, but most Bön practitioners practice before receiving a teaching, before meditation or chanting, upon entering a temple or holy place. Because it is an act of letting go of the ego, doing this practice before meditation or a teaching, will help us to become open and ready to receive knowledge or wisdom. When done with positive intention and mindful awareness our minds are in the present moment, without judgments, we are open and ready to receive.
It is also a very good thing to do at least three prostrations when you first get up in the morning. Then we can start off our day remembering to let go of the ego and all its attachments to greed and desire, to the gossiping and harsh speech and the jealousies and ignorance. We may not always succeed or be successful for the whole day, but at least we tried to start the day in a positive way.
So now, how to prostrate? Before beginning, remember to take your time - do not hurry. Do each thing slowly and mindfully, taking as much time as you need to try to visualize. You do not have to be perfect or have everything at once or complete in your visualizations. But when you go slowly, mindfully, the act of prostration becomes a wonderful spiritual practice in itself.
While making prostrations, the Bön practitioner recites the Refuge Mantra in Tibetan or English, feeling that all sentient beings are performing them together with you. The short Bön Refuge mantra is: Lama, Yidam, Khandro, Sumla, Chap-Su, Chi-Wo
In English the translation is: I am taking refuge in my teachers, male and female deities.
Going to refuge is not just repeating some formula or reading some pious words. Refuge means having total and absolute trust in the Buddhas, the Teachings, and the Spiritual Community. This going for refuge and the practice of prostration depends on our devotion. If we have a strong and genuine devotion, then our refuge will be very strong.
When you stand up, place both feet together, stand straight like a tree! Visualize that you are in a beautiful, peaceful place. Right under your two feet is a small hole going down to the three lower realms; hell realm, animal realm and the hungry ghost realms. There are many sentient beings falling down this hole to the lower realms. So right now, while you are standing here, you are covering that hole with your feet, no one can fall down right now.
In the sky directly in front of you visualize all the enlightened beings looking at you; smiling with compassion at you. This is your merit field. They are all the Buddhas, Boddhisatvas, lineage of your Masters and teachers, living or dead. There are dakinis, yidams. Do not worry if you cannot visualize all of them or if they are not clear. If easier, visualize only one Buddha or Yidam, or however many you can.
With your hands together, palms up, slowly bring your arms and hands up - you are offering the most beautiful and desirable gifts that you can imagine, to all the enlightened beings. The offering can be flowers, food, jewels, music, incense; whatever you can visualize and that is beautiful to you. You are offering to them all the desirable things in the universe, in abundance, as large as a mountain! And all enlightened beings in your merit field, accept these gifts from you with smiles.
They then give to you, their blessings in the form of a white light arising from their hearts. Form your two hands into a crystal like shape or cup with the two thumbs touching; and into your cupped hands they place all their blessings. Then slowly bring your palms back to touch your forehead - which represents your body, receive their blessings in the form of a white light into your forehead and purify all negative karma of your body. Now slowly move your hands with the light to your lips and accept all their blessings into your mouth, purifying all negative karma from your speech. Then again, slowly move your hands with the light to your heart and receive all their blessings into your mind, purifying all negative karma of your mind. You have now become a Buddha. You have received Buddhas body, speech and mind into you.
I should also explain now, that we Tibetans believe the mind is in the heart, not the head as most western people think. So when I say mind, I am always pointing to my heart, and when we say body, we point to the head!
After you have received the blessings into your mind, speech and body, you go down and touch the earth with the five limbs of your forehead, two hands and two knees. The five limbs represent the five negative emotions of anger, greed, jealousy, pride and ignorance. As you touch the earth with your five limbs, visualize all the negative karma dropping down from your five limbs into the earth. When you stand up, you are free from all the negativities, you are free from their sufferings. Then, you can proceed to do two more prostrations, using the same visualization and Refuge Mantra for each one.
Take as long as you like, as long as necessary to do the visualizations for each part of the prostration. If you like, you may do as many as 7, 21, 108 or even a thousand prostrations. It is not only good for spiritual, but it is a very good physical exercise!
So now, I hope you understand a little more about how and why we Tibetan Bön practitioners perform prostrations. We keep practicing giving up the ego and clearing away all the negative karma from both our present and past lives, for ourselves and especially for other sentient beings.
The visualization purifies all the negative karma of the mind. The mantras purify all the negative karma of the speech. The physical act of prostration purifies all negative karma of the body. The creator of negative karma is the ego and the ego works through the thoughts and actions of the body, speech and mind. Practicing prostrations is a way to purify the three doors of body, speech and mind.
It is a wonderful and successful method to not only purify negative karma, but also to create so much positive merit for ourselves and others. Try it. Start out slowly by doing only three prostrations in the morning. See if it makes a difference to your day.
THE YUNGDRUNG BÖN SYMBOL
Some students unfamiliar with the Bön tradition, are very surprised and confused about the YungDrung symbol we use. Many western people only know the symbol as evil or negative because of World War II. Recently, one of our Sangha members brought her young son to meditation practice at Sherab Chamma Ling. When he saw the YungDrung symbol he was quite upset and told his mother that the symbol was very bad. At the request of his Mother, I talked to him and explained about the Bön YungDrung and why we use this symbol.
I know there are many translations and ideas of how the YungDrung came into being and many different meanings depending on which religion or organization or person you listen to. Some say it came from Greece, others that it began in India at the time of Buddha Shakamuni, and still many others believe it is the symbol of the Nazi Party from World War II. I would like to share with you a little of what the Tibetan YungDrung Bön tradition teaches and why the symbol is so important to us.
The YungDrung symbol is over 18 thousand years old from the time of Tonpa (Buddha) Shenrab. Tonpa Shenrab was born in the ancient Zhang Zhung kingdom to the west of Tibet, called Olmo-lungring, in 16017 BCE. In the center of Zhang Zhung there is a great mountain which Tonpa Shenrab, using the Zhang Zhung language, named Ribo YungDrung Gutseg. In English it means, the Nine Stacked YungDrung Mountain. It was called "Nine Stacked" because the mountain has what appears like nine stacks or "step-like" formations with a flat or level top to each stack or step.
The English meaning of the Zhang Zhung word YungDrung, is"eternal", or "everlasting", or "original". It means without conception, without judgment. It is the pure, primordial, original mind, body, speech and spirit, which is the origin of the universe, which in turn, is the neutral state. There are two syllables - Yung: means no beginning and Drung: which means no end. That is the literal meaning of the word YungDrung according to the commentary of the textbooks about Bön. It is also the original and pure teachings of Tonpa Shenrab.
In Tibetan culture, various types of energies or Feng Shui, are consulted and used to help determine where and how to build houses, temples, stupas, monasteries, meditation or retreat centers. Tonpa Shenrab, used the energies of the mountain Ribo YungDrung Gutseg, as an inspiration to plan and design all of his teachings around the idea that they would be "eternal" or "everlasting". In the Bön teachings of Tonpa Shenrab, the numbers of three, five and nine are very important as you will see as I explain further.
So, the YungDrung is a very ancient and important symbol in the Bön tradition. It is the symbol of Tonpa Shenrab, his energy and his teachings. All Bön images, both ancient and present day, use the YungDrung symbol. In Tibetan thankas, paintings and statues of Tonpa Shenrab, he is shown with his right hand touching the ground, and in his hand is the Bön sceptre which depicts two YungDrungs joined by a short column. In the Zhang Zhung language, the sceptre is known as a "chagshing" and represents the three methods of teachings. One YungDrung symbolized the Sutra or outer teachings, the other symbolizes the Tantra or inner teachings, and the middle bar represents the Dzogchen or secret teachings. The YungDrung sceptre is held in the right hand of teachers and Masters. Bön Yidams (meditational deities) use the symbol of the YungDrung sceptre as a protection against all negative energies. Many Bön teachers and Masters may hold the YungDrung sceptre when teaching or in rituals, to liberate the negativities and misconceptions of others.
In Indian Buddhism and the Sanskrit language, Bodhisattva is the name for an elightened Buddha figure who serves all beings, or one who is committed to the path of awakening, or a buddha-to-be. In the Bön language of Zhang Zhung, the word YungDrungsemba is used to describe the same kind of being. The actual translation is "courage of the mind".YungDrungsachu means the "path of enlightenment".
YungDrung is also used in the names of monasteries such as:YungDrung Ling and Tashi YungDrung Ling. YungDrung is used as a person's name. My name is YungDrung! Very often the translation and spelling of Tibetan words and names is done incorrectly and that is why we see so many variations of Tibetan words. Everyone spells a little differently. My name has been translated and spelled in several different ways: YongDong, YungDrung, Yongzhong, and so on. But in fact, my name is YungDrung, my lineage is YungDrung Bön, and I was given my name by a YungDrung Bön Master.
In the Bön tradition there are two types of meditation concentrations; one is called the YungDrung or eternal concentration, and the other is called the Namkha or sky concentration. YungDrung is also used in names of Bön deities. YungDrung can also mean the state or realm of enlightenment.
The word is used to mean good luck or good fortune. Tibetans often talk about "auspicious" days to do certain things, or "auspicious" acts to create positive karma or merit. Auspicious just means a favorable time or date. And the word YungDrung also means auspicious. When Tibetans build a new house, they draw a YungDrung symbol for good luck and protection from fires, floods or destruction by any negative spirits. Also, when a Master or high Lama visits a new home or temple, Tibetans draw the YungDrung symbol using rice on the cushion where the Master sat or in front of his table. We believe this again is an auspicious symbol and protects the energy between the teacher and the student. Before the Master or teacher arrives, we draw on the ground in front of the entrace door with rice, or paint the YungDrung - which means welcome.
In a wedding ceremony if the wife is riding a horse, there is a special chair or saddle for her to sit on. On the chair, a YungDrung is drawn which means good luck for the wife. So again, the YungDrung is very auspicious and means very good luck or good intentions and protection from all negative energies. Simply, all positive and good things are represented by the YungDrung.
The YungDrung symbolizes the five directions of the universe. The corners of the symbol are the four directions and the middle or center indicates the structure of the universe (all the energies of the universe).
Many spiritual traditions are based on an understanding of the five elements. In the Tibetan Bön tradition, these are known as space, air, fire, water and earth, and are understood as the underlying energies from which the physical world, our bodies, our emotions and our minds arise. The elements are used in all nine levels of teachings of Bön including Shamanism, Tantra and Dzogchen. The YungDrung also represents the five energies and the five seed symbols and is also a symbol of the antidote to the five emotions.
Buddha Shenrab presented Bön in three successive cycles of teachings:
- First Cycle
- Nine ways (stages or steps) of practice
- Second Cycle
- Four Bon Portals & Fifth, the Treasury
- Third Cycle
- Outer, Inner & Secret Precepts
The YungDrung symbol represents the second cycle of teachings: the Four Bön Portals (doors), and Fifth, the Treasury. The four corners signify the four portals, and the center stands for the fifth - the Treasury.
The first portal deals with esoteric Tantric practices, the second portal consists of various rituals for purification, the third relates rules for monastic discipline and lay people, the fourth portal instructs on psycho-spiritual exercises such as Dzogchen meditation; and the fifth teaching is called the Treasure and comprises the essential aspects of all four portals.
FIVE DIRECTIONS & ENERGIES OF THE UNIVERSE
- Five Directions
- East | North | West | South | Centre
- Five Elements
- Space | Air | Fire | Water | Earth
- Third Cycle
- Outer, Inner & Secret Precepts
- Seed Syllables
- Yang | Ram | Kang | Srum | Om
- Primordial Deities
- Kalsai tsenpo | Godsai Khampa | SaijeMangpo | Namsai Yangrum | Shenlha Odkar
- Negative Emotions
- Ignorance | Greed | Hatred | Jealousy | Pride
- Five Wisdoms
- Mirror-like | Discrimination | Emptiness | Accomplishment | Equality
- Five Colors
- White | Green | Red | Blue | Yellow
- Five Organs
- Heart | Lung | Liver | Kidney | Spleen
- Five Senses
- Eyes | Nose | Tongue | Ears | Lips
- Five Limbs
- Right Leg | Left Leg | Right Arm | Left Arm | Head
- Types of Births
- miraculous birth | birth from an egg | birth from heat | birth from moisture | birth from womb
- Five Lokas
- Hell | Demi-Gods | Hungry Ghosts | Animals | Human Beings
- Five Aggregates
- Form | Feeling | Perception | Mental Formation | Consciousness
So, as you can begin to see, the Bön YungDrung symbol represents the teachings of Tonpa Shenrab and the energy of the universe. It is as important to the YungDrung Bon as the symbol of the Wheel of Dharma is to the Buddhist traditions from India.
The Bön tradition of the YungDrung symbol is left turning or anti-clockwise. This left turning symbol was designed to turn the same way that all the planets turn, which is left or anti-clockwise. The Bon tradition of circumambulating and turning of prayer wheels also coincides with the turning of the moon, earth and other planets - anti-clockwise. It was only after the teachings and the symbol travelled from Zhang Zhung and Tibet into West India and East China, that it was adopted by various religions and organizations and altered to change the arms to turn right or clockwise.
Right Turning YungDrung
Slowly over the centuries the YungDrung teachings and symbol spread throughout the world. Today in India and China, you can still see the YungDrung symbol on many Buddha statues, and stupas. On the Buddha statues, the YungDrung is in the heart area. Many of these symbols are the clockwise or right turning, the older ones have the Bön YungDrung left turning symbol. But whether it is right turning or left turning, the meaning and origin is always the same - YungDrung!
As the teachings and symbol moved in India and then into the western world, the meaning, method and use of The Bön YungDrung symbol was adapted and changed to suit other cultures and religions. One Master has said that the turning to the right indicates compassion and the turning to the left represents wisdom.
Then in the 19th century, Adolf Hitler found the symbol, and I believe so liked the idea of the meaning of "eternal" and "pure", that he took the symbol for his political party. Since then, the symbol has become known in the west as the swastika, a symbol of hate and fear. I believe the word swastika, was originally a Greek word. You can see the symbol in many ancient Green designs or drawings but the original design of the symbol was Tonpa Shenrab in 16017 BCE.
There has been so much confusion and misunderstanding of Buddhism, and especially the Tibetan Bön religion, by many westerners when they see a picture or statue or thangka with the YungDrung on it. I recently heard on a news program that some western mothers were so upset when they discovered a picture of the YungDrung symbol on a child's toy that was made in China. The whole community were angry and shocked by what they thought was an evil symbol. The company who made the toy was notified and all the toys were recalled and sent back. I am positive that the symbol was put on the toy as a sign of good luck or good fortune. This is another sad example of misunderstanding and suspicion between different cultures.
I am certain that many new students coming into our centre and in other Bön centres around the world are shocked when they see the YungDrung symbol. It is so unfortunate that many of the younger generation only know the symbol as one of racism or hatred.
And that is why, I am trying in a very small way, to help students understand the history and meaning of the YungDrung Bön symbol.