The Benefits of Making Prostrations

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche

These teachings are extracts from The Preliminary Practice of Prostrations, available from FPMT Foundation Store, as a hardcopy or pdf e-book. A practice CD is also available.

The Benefits of Prostrations is from a teaching by Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, September 2004. Compiled and edited by Ven. Gyalten Mindrol, FPMT Education Services, Dec 2005. Commentary on the Practice is a compilation of teachings by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Lightly edited and reformatted by Ven. Constance Miller, Kendall Magnussen, FPMT Education Services, April 2003.   

See also: Lama Zopa Rinpoche's Online Advice Book and Making Life Meaningful, by Lama Zopa Rinpoche.  

Commentary on the Practice

When you prostrate towards all gurus, numberless buddhas, numberless Dharma, numberless Sangha, you get so much benefit. You receive the ten benefits and the eight benefits immediately by prostrating to one statue of Buddha or one picture of Buddha. If you prostrate to all the ten-direction buddhas just by putting your palms together, you achieve the ten benefits and the eight benefits numberless times. There are numberless statues, stupas and holy objects, so again, when you put your palms together towards all of them, you receive the ten benefits and the eight benefits numberless times. Numberless times you collect merit, because there are numberless statues, stupas, and scriptures. The merit is unimaginable. It is just mindblowing.


Before you start the practice, think, "The purpose of my life is to free the numberless hell beings, hungry ghosts, suras, asuras, human beings, and intermediate state beings, all suffering sentient beings in the six realms. Everyone of these beings is the source of all my past, present, and future happiness, and all my realization up to enlightenment. Each hell being, each hungry ghost, every single animal, every single human being, every single sura and asura, and all intermediate state beings are the source of all my past, present, and future happiness, so therefore, I must free them from their suffering. Therefore, I must achieve enlightenment; therefore, I need to actualize the path. Therefore, I need to purify the defilements.”

To make it even more effective and powerful, remember that one negative karma from the ten non-virtuous actions—one negative karma of killing, telling a lie, sexual misconduct, produces the four suffering results: the ripened aspect result, which is rebirth in the lower realms; experiencing the result similar to the cause; creating the result similar to the cause; and the possessed result, which creates the environment into which we are born when you are again born human. Then, as a result of past karma, you create the result similar to the cause, and you commit again the same negative actions. That negative karma produces another four suffering results, including creating the result similar to the cause, and that complete negative karma produces another four suffering results. It goes on forever with no end. As long as you don’t purify the negative karma, the effect becomes endless.

Now there are so many negative actions committed in one day, month, or year; from birth, from beginningless past lives. It is unimaginable. Think, “Death can come any time, even in this hour or this minute. I could be born in the lower realms any moment. The moment this breath stops, I could be there. Therefore, how can I stand to live for even one second without purifying this negative karma?” There is no way to relax without doing something to purify the cause, without doing the practice of purification. It is like you have eaten poison and you want to get rid of it the quickest way possible. So therefore, we do prostrations.

How To Visualize the Thirty-Five Buddhas

When you prostrate to the Thirty-Five Confession Buddhas, one visualization to use is that from the Ganden Lha Gyäma practice. In the Lama Chöpa merit field, the sutra-aspect buddhas are visualized below the deities of the four classes of tantra. These include the Thousand Buddhas of this fortunate era, the Seven Medicine Buddhas, and the Thirty-Five Confession Buddhas. Due to his unbearable compassion, from Lama Tsongkhapa’s heart, light beams are emitted; the light beams that radiate from Guru Lama Tsongkhapa do not radiate straight out, but downwards.

On the tip of each beam is a throne decorated with pearls and supported by an elephant. Among the animals, the elephant is the most powerful. Therefore, visualizing the elephant helps make the practice of purification powerful. The elephants lifting up the thrones are white and decorated with pearls. Pearls are white, and according to Lama’s advice, due to a dependent arising, purification is more powerful if white is visualized. Here, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha is at the heart of Lama Tsongkhapa, so you do not have to visualize Guru Shakyamuni Buddha again.

Shakyamuni, the first of the Thirty-Five Confession Buddhas, is already there. Then there is a first row of six buddhas, then four rows of seven. The Thirty-Five Confession Buddhas are in the aspect of the Five Dhyani Buddhas, so the first row consists of six buddhas in the aspect of Akshobhya, with the same mudras as Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, the right hand controlling the earth and the left in the mudra of concentration. They are all blue, except Lu wang gi gyäl po (King, Lord of the Nagas), whose face and neck are white, while the rest of his holy body is blue.

The next seven are in the aspect of Vairochana and white in color. According to His Holiness Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche, Vairochana’s mudra is [two fists, one above the other, with index fingers pointing upwards, the upper fist holding the index finger of the lower]. Sometimes you may see old paintings in which the mudra is like this [Rinpoche shows a different mudra].

The next seven are in the aspect of Ratnasambhava, yellow in color. The left hand is in the mudra of concentration, the right in that of granting sublime realizations. The next seven are like Amitabha, red in color, with both hands in the mudra of concentration. The next seven are like Amoghasiddhi, green in color, with left hands in the mudra of concentration and right hands in the mudra of giving protection or refuge/guidance.

Visualizing the Thirty-Five Confession Buddhas in this way is the simplest method. Another visualization is the one that appeared to Lama Tsongkhapa while he was doing the preliminary practice of prostrating to the Thirty-Five Confession Buddhas to accumulate merit and purify obscurations. I think he did thirty-five times 100,000 prostrations—I do not remember exactly—in the cave called Ölka Chöling in Tibet. In that visualization, the buddhas are holding different implements and so on. If you can remember how the Thirty-Five Confession Buddhas manifested to Lama Tsongkhapa, you can do it that way. If you cannot remember how to visualize in that way, then you can use the simple method, the Thirty-Five Buddhas divided into the five buddha family aspects.

Many years ago, I asked Peter Iseli, from Switzerland, to make a very large thangka of the Thirty-Five Buddhas. In that, there is Guru Shakyamuni Buddha. The way to meditate, the way to think is that this is the Guru in Guru Shakyamuni Buddha aspect. Then, at the heart, there is Thousand-Arm Chenrezig. That is to signify the compassion of the Guru. The great yogi Sangye Yeshe mentions the psychology of this visualization in the teachings, “Before the Guru there is nothing that is even called Buddha.” That means that all buddhas come from the Guru.

Guru Yoga

The very heart of the understanding of guru yoga is the dharmakaya. Generally, instead of dharmakaya, you can say omniscient mind, but to make it more specific, it is the wisdom of great bliss (this is extremely subtle mind), which is non-dual with the emptiness of all existence. Non-dual means that wisdom directly sees the emptiness of all existence. Not seeing from afar, as we see the other side of a mountain, but pervading everything. It is the wisdom of great bliss directly seeing all emptiness and non-dual with it — just like pouring water into water — having completely cut off dualistic view. This is the dharmakaya. This is what is recognized as the absolute guru.

When we speak of the Guru, there is the absolute guru and the conventional guru. Even if the absolute guru manifests in the aspect of Buddha, we cannot see it at this moment due to our obscured mind. So the way the absolute guru can communicate with us is by manifesting in an ordinary form; this means having the suffering of samsara, having delusions, and making mistakes. Only in this ordinary mistaken aspect can the absolute guru communicate with us, manifesting an ordinary mistaken aspect that is according to our impure, obscured, mistaken mind. This ordinary aspect is the only aspect we are able to see right now with our present state of mind.

Thus, the only way the absolute guru can guide us, especially in order to reveal teachings, is through this ordinary mistaken form. We don’t have the karma to see the Guru manifest in a form more pure than this. Even if the Guru were to manifest, we would not be able to see him or her. For beings such as animals who have a lower level of existence than this, it is difficult even to recognize the Guru in ordinary form; thus, the Guru cannot communicate with them, reveal Dharma, and so forth. Therefore, we should understand how this ordinary aspect that shows suffering and delusion is inconceivably precious to us. This aspect is so precious in our own lives. For us, this becomes extremely important, extremely precious, because all the buddhas are guiding us, are working for us through this, by manifesting through this form.

So it comes to the point that this aspect of showing suffering and having delusions and mistakes is so precious, so extremely important. This is the way we can realize how the Guru is so kind. With this aspect, the Guru grants pratimoksha vows, bodhisattva vows, and tantric vows and, in this way, leads us to happiness in future lives, to a good rebirth, and even frees us from samsara. With this aspect, the Guru leads us to highest full enlightenment, wherein the two obscurations—the disturbing-thought obscurations and the subtle obscurations — are ceased and all realizations are completed.

In Tibet and in Solu Khumbu, for example, even the person who teaches the alphabet is regarded as the Guru. When children learn the alphabet, it means they are going to live their lives in the Dharma. There is no other reason. It is concluded that they are going to learn the Dharma. Also, the person who teaches the alphabet teaches with that mind. It is different from school. So in this way the teacher who teaches the alphabet is also regarded as the Guru.

So, the one who teaches the alphabet, the person who gives oral transmissions and commentaries relating to sutra, who frees from all the sufferings of samsara, from the obscurations, and brings us to enlightenment, and in relation to tantra, the person who gives initiations, explains the meaning of tantra, explains the commentaries and meditation instructions, who again frees us from all suffering, from the obscurations, and leads us to enlightenment: this person is called the conventional guru and is the one who guides us to enlightenment by revealing the whole path to enlightenment. This dharmakaya, the absolute guru, guiding us by means of this ordinary mistaken form is called the conventional guru. Why this is happening is because the absolute guru, the dharmakaya, is bound by infinite compassion. The originator is the absolute guru, the dharmakaya, the transcendental wisdom of non-dual bliss and void. That which is dharmakaya, that which is absolute guru, is bound with infinite compassion embracing ourselves and all sentient beings without excluding even one. Not so much because it is omniscient mind and has perfect power, but the main thing—what makes it manifest in numberless forms according to the minds of all of us sentient beings, helping us from life to life and gradually from happiness to happiness, leading us to enlightenment—what makes it to do all this work for others is compassion. The dharmakaya is bound with infinite compassion embracing all of us sentient beings.

When we say “Guru” in Guru Shakyamuni Buddha we have to remember the absolute guru which manifests, which guides us through the ordinary form which is the conventional guru, which relates to us through the conventional guru. When we say, “Guru Shakyamuni Buddha,” the way to think or realize from our side is “absolute guru.” Then there is conventional guru through which the absolute guru guides us. This manifests into Shakyamuni Buddha. So, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha. This has the meaning of being one. We have to think like this then this becomes guru yoga. When we look at Guru Shakyamuni Buddha like this, oneness, the mind which sees in that way becomes guru yoga mind; ordinary mind is transformed into guru yoga mind. Before this, you see separation of Buddha and the Guru. At that time, the mind is not guru yoga mind. By looking at it this way, seeing oneness, having this devotion, at that time the mind becomes guru yoga mind.

The reason for visualizing Chenrezig at the heart of Shakyamuni Buddha is to signify that all these Thirty-Five Buddhas who are transformed from the heart of Shakyamuni Buddha come in order to purify us. Thus, they come from compassion. To signify that they come mainly due to compassion, we visualize compassion [Thousand-Arm Chenrezig] at the heart of Shakyamuni Buddha. So beams are emitted from that. Because of having compassion for you, the Guru manifests into these Thirty-Five Buddhas to purify all your negative karma, defilements, to bring you to liberation, to enlightenment, to cause all realizations. There are pictures made of that thangka with beams coming out from Chenrezig’s heart. The reason why this thangka was made was to understand this way [of visualizing]. Then, there are also the other powerful deities—Vajrasattva and Kunrig [on the left when looking at the picture], Mitrugpa and Namgyälma [on the right]. With Mitrugpa, there is, I think, a mistake. I made a mistake, not his mistake. Mitrugpa is white and doesn’t have a vajra. [Mitrugpa is traditionally blue and holds a vajra in his left hand.] That white Mitrugpa was due to my ignorance.