2016-06-30

If three cycles of ngondro sounds like a lot, the 14th-century Tibetan saint Tsongkhapa is known to have performed over a million prostrations during his four-year meditation retreat in a cave; and the aged wife of a lama I know in Sikkhim has completed the ngondro practices 16 times!

Zen practitioners likewise offer large numbers of full prostrations to the Three Jewels--the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha--in their meditation centers and monasteries. My Zen teacher used to offer 108 bows each morning before the large Buddha statue on the altar of his temple, even at an advanced age. And in all Buddhist traditions, three bows are offered when entering the presence of spiritual masters and teachers, acknowledging the presence of an embodiment of the principle of enlightenment.

Buddhist scripture tells us that the Buddha realized his great awakening while sitting beneath a tree in the wilderness of northern India at Bodh Gaya. According to the sutras, when he awoke on that auspicious day, the entire natural world bowed to him in gladness, recognition, and veneration. The earth trembled, and trees, flowers, and tall blades of elephant grass bent down in respect. We join in reverence and enter into that moment each time we bow.

The best bowing practice I know--and one I find eminently doable on a daily basis--is to simply raise joined palms before the heart and lower my head in a gesture of surrender and letting go. This silent bow is my favorite form of contemplative, wordless prayer.