Tag Archives: prostration

When we bow to the Buddha, what are we bowing to?


I am a little confused about when we bow to the Buddha. When we bow to the Buddha, what are we bowing to?

 “Buddha” has many meanings. Here is one way to think about it. There are three bodies of Buddha. The first is called Dharmakaya. Buddha as Dharmakaya means dharma itself is Buddha. The way things are, the network of interdependent origination, the reality of all beings is itself Buddha. In that sense, each and everything within that network is part of Buddha. When we understand Buddha in this way, making prostrations to the Buddha means we venerate and make prostrations to this entire network of interdependent origination, of which we are part. This is one meaning.

The second body of the Buddha is called Samboghakaya. In Mahayana Buddhism, besides the person Shakyamuni who was born in this world in India about twenty-five hundred years ago, there are many other buddhas who practiced life after life – and not only within this world, but in many other worlds within this universe. Buddhas such as Amitabha Buddha or Yakushinyorai (Medicine Master) also accomplished buddhahood. There are numberless buddhas who have accomplished Buddhahood through their practices. Understanding Buddha in this way means that when we make prostrations, we venerate all Buddhas who practiced and studied dharma and accomplished buddhahood and who are teaching in various Buddha lands in this universe, even though we don’t see them.

The third body of the Buddha is called Nirmanakaya. This refers to Shakyamuni, who was born in this world at a certain point in history, and who was the so-called founder of the religion Buddhism. Because we are Buddha’s student we venerate this particular Buddha. We express our gratitude that Shakyamuni awakened to and discovered this dharma and taught about how to live based on that awakening.

So depending upon our understanding of what is Buddha, the meaning of even one act of prostration can be different. We do not need to say which prostration we are doing. Actually, we do prostration to all those buddhas. Not only buddhas but buddhas, dharmas, and sanghas.

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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

Beginning with this post, the Dōgen Institute hopes to offer an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Roshi  about practice and study. These questions and responses are from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.

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For further study:


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As Though Hiding One’s Body

Poem on raihai, 礼拝, “making prostration”

ふし草も Fushikusa mo
みえぬ雪のの mienu yukino no Grasses lie unseen
白さぎは sirasagi wa in the field under the snow
おのがすがたに ono ga sugatani the white heron hides itself
身をかくしけり mi wo kakusi keri in its own appearance.

I’d like to introduce this expression by Dōgen on the meaning of making prostration. There is a translation of this poem in Steven Heine’s book entitled Zen Poetry of Dōgen; in that translation the poem is as follows: A white heron / hiding itself / in the snowy field / where even the winter grass / cannot be seen.

White heron in the snow.People can imagine the scenery. In the snowy field in the winter everything is white, and this bird is completely white. So we cannot see the border between the bird and the rest of the world. So this is a description of the scenery of snowy field in the winter. There’s nothing difficult to understand I think. I’m not sure if this is Dōgen’s title or not, but the title of this poem is “making prostration” raihai. In Mr. Heine’s translation, a white heron hides itself in the snowy field where even the winter grass (fuyu “winter” and kusa “grass”) cannot be seen.

But there is another version of the same poem. Only one character is different, fuyu. In this other version the character is fushi, creating the expression fushikusa. Fusu means “to lie down.” So this is same as “lie down,” “face down,” or bend our body — in the winter, withered grass lies down. And on those grasses the snow falls. It’s like the grasses are making prostration. But the snow falls on those grasses, so even the grasses that are making prostration are hidden by the snow. And there is a white heron. So the grass is not seen. That means the prostration is not seen. I like this version better than fuyukusa, winter grass.

This word mi wo kakusu, “hide one’s body” is most important expression in this poem. Kakusu is “to store” or “to hide.” This is really important and meaningful expression. The bird is white and the entire world is white so we cannot see the border between the bird and rest of the world. It seems like the bird hides itself within itself.

In the poem, first Dōgen describes the entire white world, then he zooms in to the bird. First oneness, everything is the same, all white, no discrimination, no distinction. But when we carefully see it, not only the white heron but all things are there. To me this is important.

The reason why this poem can be description of our practice of prostration . . . you know we are living together with all beings. I always draw this network of interdependent origination as the Indra’s net, and we are part of this net. But we think, “I’m different than all other things and I’m independent,” because the thread is not seen. Yet there’s no such thing called “me” as a fixed independent being. This is just a knot. “Knot” means a connection or relation of the thread. Without those threads, if we take those threads out, there’s no such thing called a knot.

When we make prostrations this knot disappears within this network. This is the meaning of making prostration in Dōgen’s teaching. This is Dōgen’s idea or insight.

If we understand raihai in this way, the practice of prostration is exactly the same as zazen. When we sit in this posture and let go, this letting go means letting go of my grasping of me as a fixed entity called Shohaku. We open our hand. Then there’s no separation between this person, this one set of five skandhas and rest of the world. This simply becomes one snowy field. Nothing else.

When Dōgen described his zazen practice he said, when a person sits displaying buddha-mudra, this entire universe becomes enlightenment, and each and every being within this universe reveals its own enlightenment. Well, enlightenment is not the right word. Perhaps, its own reality. So within zazen, or within making prostration, this person and the entire dharma world become really one, there’s no border. That is the meaning of this making prostration. So please keep this in your mind when you read this text.

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

Nine talks on Shōbōgenzō Raihai TokuzuiNotes:
This is an edited extract from the new recording, “The White Heron: nine talks on Shōbōgenzō Raihai Tokuzui,” available for sale on the Dōgen Institute’s audio page. Click on the image to the left to listen to this extract and purchase.

This printed extract also includes Okumura Roshi’s latest version of the poem in the header.

The photograph of the heron is copyright Stuart Price, hakodatebirding.com. We express our appreciation to Mr. Price for his generosity in allowing us to use this photo.

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