Recently, I visited a certain Vietnamese Buddhist temple north of Seattle for the Buddha’s Birthday. Vietnamese Buddhism, along with Chinese Buddhism and such, celebrates the buddhist holidays according to the lunar calendar, so this year it was in May, rather than April 8th.
Anyhow, my family and I all went because we had toured the temple long ago and liked the atmosphere a lot.
Unfortunately, as we toured the temple, and paid respects to various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, we realized that we were a little bit like a fish out of water. Vietnamese Buddhism has its own customs which we were not familiar with, including subtle differences in how incense was offered, how bowing was done, etiquette, etc. We just weren’t sure what to do.
So, lately I’ve been doing some fact-finding and found this helpful video about doing Buddhist prostrations or “kowtow”.1
Prostrations are something that are frequently done in some Buddhist groups, but not necessarily others. For example, in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, we just never did it, but in Rinzai Zen services I attended, people did. It runs the gamut.
But it’s a good skill to get familiar with in case you go to a temple where people practice that.
Some folks, especially if you’re converting to Buddhism, may find the practicing a bit over the top, but like so many other things in Buddhism, there’s a reason for everything. The first real step in Buddhism for any one, regardless of Buddhist school, is to take refuge in the Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Buddha (i.e. the teacher) is a deeply humbling acknowledgement that you need help, and that you don’t have all the answers. Let’s face it, you don’t. If you did, why go do all the self-destructive and stupid things you do in life, even when you know better?
So, prostrations are one way to express that humility, to reaffirm one’s taking refuge in the Buddha, like a rock upon a stormy sea.
Further, in a practical sense, paying respects to the Buddha is a good karma, and good karma helps pave the way along the Buddhist path by avoiding and diminishing obstructions. Will power alone isn’t sufficient, you need to foster an environment conducive to the Buddhist path, and that isn’t just your immediate environment.
In any case, the video above is a good thing to watch and learn if you decide to learn prostrations. Typically they’re done in groups of three, and after talking with one of the monks that the local Vietnamese temple, he confirmed that this is done in Vietnamese Buddhism as well, though people often just bow at the waist too, especially when you’re outside and it’s not feasible to kowtow there.
P.S. More on my efforts to learn Vietnamese Buddhist customs in a future post. I got in touch with a local monk there at the temple, and he offered a lot of good advice, but also suggested coming to the temple so he could explain in person. If you visit a similar temple in your area, don’t hesitate to contact them first and just ask about local temple etiquette. I’m sure they’ll appreciate you asking.
1 The term “kowtow” (or Kou-tou/Ke-tou in Mandarin) tends to have negative connotations in English, and Western culture, but in Chinese culture it simply refers to this act of prostration, whether that be to the Emperor as dictated by Confucian norms, or to the Buddha, or something else.