Bad Buddhist: I don’t like prostration

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Published on: July 23, 2015

I was looking at some photos taken at a recent festival at Bodghaya and one of them were of the boards used by people making multiple prostrations. I’ve meditated with people who similarly, although less frequently, prostrate themselves. I never prostrate myself.

I understand many of the reasons for prostration but it never feels like anything other than an ostentatious display when public and a meaningless gesture when private. I’m sure that’s part of my western upbringing. Looking at the common rationals for prostration, it isn’t surprising that I’m not inclined to bow my head and bend my back: accumulation of merit, veneration of the Buddha, cultivating humility / negating pride.

The accumulation of merit has always struck me as a very simplistic way to get people to do good things when they might not otherwise be disposed to it. The performance of good deeds in the hopes of a better reincarnation smacks of the belief in something that is actually reincarnated. This runs counter to my own belief that I’m simply a temporary confluence of flesh, mind, thought and experience; that what lives on after I die are simply the echos and ripples of my thoughts and actions, not me. Good deeds aren’t for me, they’re for other people and if that moves the needle on the cosmic balance enough that I benefit indirectly, that’s my better life. Not the next life, this one.

Venerating the Buddha is similarly not a strong motivation to bow. Bowing before someone or some thing to venerate it just isn’t a big part of my cultural experience. My view of Siddhartha Gautama is closer to how a basketball fan might view Michael Jordan. I recognize the accomplishment and feel the desire to emulate it but, just as most basketball fans don’t bow to effigies of Jordan. My veneration takes the form of reaffirming my commitment and taking refuge.

Finally, the real reason I don’t want to prostrate myself is that I don’t want to bow my head or bend my back for anyone. I’m not vain but I am prideful. I should bow for no other reason than to cultivate humility. The trap there is when does prostration stop being an exercise in humility and become a display.

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