Raihai – prostration

Nine talks on Shōbōgenzō Raihai Tokuzui
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The title of Raihai Tokuzui, an early fascicle in Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, has been translated as “receiving the marrow by bowing.” Raihai by itself, you’ve explained, means to pay homage or to bow or to make prostration or to do obeisance. Are these the same? I still don’t think I understand.

Okumura Rōshi:
Raihai (礼拝) is an important practice even from the time of Shakyamuni, not only in Buddhism but in Indian culture. There are various forms of raihai; two of them are commonly practiced in America. One is doing gassho, and lowering your head. Another is making prostration as we did before this lecture: we put five parts of our body, that means both knees and both elbows and head on the ground.

I think the original meaning of doing gassho is that in this posture, bringing our hands together palm to palm, we cannot hide a weapon, we cannot grasp anything, and from this posture we cannot attack. So taking the posture of gassho is an expression of our intention to have no desire to attack. And lowering our head means I respect you. This form, doing gassho and lowering our head is an expression that we are a friend. In this case we both stand and bow to show our friendship and our respect. This is the meaning of this physical posture.

Prostration is a more thorough expression of the same thing. This posture of prostration in India was originally the form that slaves took to the lord or ministers to the king or emperor. This is a most vulnerable posture. When we put both knees and elbows and head on the ground and hold our hands like this, above our head, we cannot hide anything. We have no weapons. And the person standing in front of the prostrating person can do anything. That means this posture expresses complete obeisance. There’s no argument. “I accept everything and the person can do anything to me.” When we do this prostration to the Buddha, it does not mean obeisance to political power. We make obeisance or give up ourselves completely to Buddha’s teaching: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. That is the meaning.

Our head is the highest point of our body, and in Buddhism when we make this posture, we are taught we receive Buddha’s feet on our hand. That means we put the lowest part of Buddha’s body above the highest point of our body. That means I completely give up and surrender to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. That is the meaning of this raihai. That is the meaning of this practice in Buddhism. From the time of Shakyamuni, all Buddhists practice this raihai.

Dōgen, however, reveals another expression of raihai, “making prostration,” in his waka poem called “Raihai.”

Even lying-down grasses
cannot be seen
in the snowy field—
a white heron is hiding itself
within its own form.[1]

In this poem, the grasses are making a prostration which cannot be seen, since they are under the snow. It means first there is oneness. Everything is the same, all white, no distinction, but when we carefully look, all things are there, not only the white heron. To me this is important.

Our practice of prostration means we are living together with all beings. We are part of this net. We think, “I’m different from all other things” because the thread is not seen—but there is no such thing as a fixed “me.” Without the thread there is no such thing as a knot, e.g., an independent fixed entity. Raihai is something happening, not a fixed thing. We are the same.

When we make prostration, the knot disappears within the net. This is the meaning of making prostration in Dōgen’s teaching. And this disappearing is exactly the same as zazen, e.g., letting go of grasping to me as a fixed entity. Instead, we open our hand. There is no separation between our five skandhas and the rest of the whole world. Like the heron, we simply become one with the snowy field. Within prostration and zazen there is no border between self and universe. When we make buddha mudra, the whole dharma world becomes its own reality.


[1] Okumura’s translation.

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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Rōshi

The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Rōshi about practice and study. These questions and responses are taken from Okumura Rōshi’s recorded lectures, and are edited to provide continuity and context.

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For further study:


> Other Questions and responses

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