Pure land BUDDHISM > forms of practice
Forms of Practice: Sitting, Walking, and Prostrating
To begin our practice, we put our hands together, palm to palm in front of our heart. Fingers are also placed together, without any space between them. Elbows are slightly bent. Eyes are focused on the tips of the middle fingers, and the head is tilted slightly down. This position is used to express respect and is called hezang in Chinese. Besides being used to symbolize a mind without wandering thoughts, it is also used to express the oneness of the true nature.
It is traditional to begin practice by prostrating to the Buddha. Prostrating is another way of showing respect and can serve to purify the three karmas of body, speech, and mind when it is combined with chanting. Since this practice can be physically challenging for people who are unaccustomed to the movements, it is acceptable to do a bow instead of a prostration.
When ready to begin a practice session, do one bow, three prostrations, and another bow. With doing this, we pay respect to the Buddha and mentally prepare to begin our chanting. Having done this, we may next light an incense stick if conditions allow, and then take up our position.
Assume comfortable position on a meditation cushion or stool, or on a chair. When sitting on the floor or on a chair, use a cushion that is slanted so the back of the cushion is slightly higher than the front. Ergonomic chair cushions are ideal for this. This will incline your pelvis forward and provide better support. When sitting on the floor with a cushion, you may do so in a full or partial lotus position. If this is painful or too difficult, you may cross your legs or use a meditation stool or higher cushion. Sitting on the stool and placing one’s legs under it in a simulated kneeling position is the usual position.
If these positions are still too difficult, you may simply sit on a chair, preferably one that has a straight back, and which provides good support. Place the soles of both feet on the floor about a foot apart.
To sit in a lotus position, sit on the cushion and try to place the top of your left foot on your right thigh. Next, place your right foot on your left thigh to form a stable seat. The back and shoulders should be erect but relaxed. If this is too difficult, as it is for many people, try the half lotus position, in which you raise only one foot onto a thigh, and rest the other under the opposite thigh. Or, sit cross-legged. Please remember that it is not necessary to force yourself to sit in an unfamiliar position that is too physically demanding. It is more important to focus on subduing our pointless, wandering thoughts than on subduing bodies that are not used to sitting in unfamiliar ways.
Put your hands on your lap with the back of the right hand resting on the palm of the left hand, and with thumb tips slightly raised and lightly touching. Eyes may be lightly closed or slightly open. If you feel drowsy when your eyes are closed, open them slightly. Posture is very important, so sit upright comfortably without slumping or leaning forward. Hold the head at a slight downward tilt with the chin pulled in just a little. In this position, begin chanting “Amituofo” aloud or silently.
Breathe in through the nose, pulling the air down into the deepest part of the lungs while distending the diaphragm and then slowly breathe out through the nose. Breathing should be natural. Try to use your diaphragm to pull the air deeper into your abdomen instead of breathing shallowly. In silent chanting, the tip of the tongue lightly touches the back of the upper teeth, and teeth and lips are held as usual. Shoulders are level and elbows are held slightly away from your sides.
If you are not yet accustomed to such practice and experience discomfort such as leg cramps, slowly move your legs into a position in which you are more comfortable. It is best to keep initial sessions short: ten to fifteen minutes. Sessions may be gradually lengthened as you become more used to the practice. It is better to chant for a short period than not chant at all. You may use walking or bowing to calm both mind and body before you begin your sitting, but continue your chanting as you vary the physical forms of practice.
We can practice chanting while walking indoors or outdoors. This form is excellent for mindfulness as well as for calming down both mind and body. We are usually so wrapped up in rushing from one place to another that before we can sit quietly, we need to gently slow ourselves down. Thus, it is often helpful to begin a longer chanting session with walking because this helps to make the transition from hurried everyday activities to our practice.
Unlike our usual walking as a means to get from one place to another, often quickly and without any real sense of where we are, our practice of walking while chanting is slow and deliberate. While we do not become absorbed in our surroundings, we do remain aware of where we are and what is happening around us. Ideally, we stay alert but are not distracted by activities around us.
If your area for walking is large enough, you can walk in a circle. While walking slowly, be aware of lifting and placing your feet upon the floor. Instead of the usual hurried impact on the surface that we are walking on, the foot should gently touch it. Keep body movements smooth and agile, as with tai chi movements. During this practice, hands are held at slightly lower than waist level in front of us, with the back of the right hand resting on the palm of the left and with our thumb tips lightly touching. Walk clockwise, as this has been the custom since the time of the Buddha.
Place your right foot down on “A” (pronounced as ah) and shift your weight forward on “mi” (pronounced as me). Then place your left foot down on “tuo” (pronounced as toaw) and shift your weight forward “fo” (pronounced as faw). All movements should be deliberate and careful. While most people step with the right foot first as described above, people at some centers might step on the left first, so if you attend different centers, you will need to see how they do their walking meditation.
During the walking, our chanting may be done aloud or silently to ourselves. Whether aloud or silent, listen to, and focus on the sound of your chanting.
Walking may be used to break up more extended periods of sitting or as the sole form of practice. During retreats or regular chanting sessions, some centers use walking meditation more often since it effectively counters the drowsiness and stiffness that can arise from prolonged periods of sitting.
We can also do our walking in a relatively smaller flat path area of about twenty yards or so. When you reach the end of the walking area, pause and then turn slowly to your right. Stand for a few seconds and then resume walking. Whether walking on the path or pausing before turning around, remain focused on your chanting.
We prostrate not to worship the Buddha but to pay our respects to him for teaching us, to recognize the Buddha-nature that is in him and in all beings, and to practice humility by touching the floor with our head.
If we are focused and sincere in what we are doing, we will be cleansing the three karmas of body, speech, and mind. For example, as we prostrate, our body will be moving as we chant, and with each one, we will purify some of the negative karma we had created through our past actions. As we think “Amituofo,” we will purify some of our evil karma created by our past thoughts. As we chant “Amituofo,” we will purify some of our past harmful speech.
To begin, stand with your feet pointing slightly outward in a “V” and your heels a few inches apart. Place your hands in the hezang position, look down at the tips of your middle fingers, and slightly tilt your head down. Keeping your neck straight, slowly bend forward until you have bent over about forty-five degrees. If you are doing a bow, resume your original upright position with hands in the hezang position.
To continue into a prostration, bend at the knees as you have bent over about forty-five degrees and, while holding your left hand in the same position at chest level, move your right hand toward the floor so that it will support you as your bending knees complete lowering you to the ground.
When your right hand touches the ground bring the left hand to the ground as well, but about six inches ahead of the right. With this support of both hands on the ground, continue bending your knees to the ground until your knees are on the floor. Your right hand should be just in front and slightly outside the edge of the right knee, and the left hand still ahead of the right. For those with problems in the wrist or joints, or who feel unsteady due to physical conditions, you may place both hands down at the same time to provide better support.
Next, flex your feet so that the tops of your feet are resting on the floor and your toes are almost touching each other. Your lower legs and feet will now be resting on the floor, and your buttocks will be resting on your legs.
Move your right hand to a position level with your left and angle your hands towards each other, so your lower arms and hands form an inverted “V” without the hands touching one another and with your palms down. Continue lowering your upper body until your forehead touches the floor. At this point, slowly and supplely make a loose fist with each hand and then turn your hands over, so they are palms up with fingers very gently curled. Position your hands as if offering to hold the Buddha with your hands. This is the final position in the prostration. Your forehead, forearms, knees, lower legs, and feet will now be resting on the floor. Keep your slightly curved back parallel to the floor. Do not push your stomach down, thereby pulling the middle of your backbone down; keep the back gently curved.
To raise yourself, just repeat the prostration in reverse order. Slowly turn the hands, so they are palms down. Then pull your right hand towards your body a foot or so. This will help to straighten and raise your trunk. If needed, pull your left hand towards your body until it is more level with your right hand; then using both hands push yourself up. Change the position of your feet so your toes are on the ground and your feet are ready to support you as you rise. Continue rising and straightening up until you are again standing upright with palms together at chest level.
Begin with only a few prostrations, doing them slowly and gently while being mindful of your movements, and gradually increase the number you do. If possible, do this practice while a chanting CD is playing. You may remain on the floor for several seconds until you begin to rise.