Question: I saw an elderly woman scolding a younger woman in a Buddhist temple for not prostrating properly, insisting that she must follow the proper way or she might ‘go to hell’! She was taken aback, trying to explain that she believes in her own way of offering respects. Is there actually a proper way to prostrate?
Answer: It is not true that not prostrating ‘properly’ can lead to hell – unless the prostration was done with great evil on the mind, with great harmful effects to others too. The irony is that the old lady, through her drastic response, is the one creating negative karma by making a mountain out of a molehill over personal preferences. Do pardon some for being sticklers for rituals to be done in strictly specific ways. The Buddha actually taught attachment to rites and rituals to be a mistake, even though rituals expressed reverently are important as part of Dharma practice.
In the Theravada, Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, there are slightly different ways to prostrate fully, with the common factors being at least the knees, palms and forehead (i.e. the five limbs) touching the ground thrice to express supreme refuge and reverence in the Triple Gem. This is done while keeping the rest of the body (feet, trunk and behind) as low as possible.
In the Tibetan tradition, a ‘fourth refuge’ is sometimes added, with the guru or spiritual teacher representing the Triple Gem too, while prostrating flat with the body fully outstretched. ‘Perfect’ prostration styles are best learnt in classes with demonstrations, though slight variations in practice are not a big issue so long as sincere. Of course, if participating in a mass Dharma assembly, it is ideal that all prostrate in the same way to cause less distractions, and for uniformity.