Special Topics

Common Buddhist Etiquette

Most of the gestures that Buddhists use to express sincere reverence come from the "nine forms of showing respect in India". They are: speaking softly to inquire about another's well-being; bowing the head; holding hands high in salutation; pressing palms together with the fingertips facing upward; bending one knee to the ground; kneeling; placing hands and knees on the ground; placing the head, elbows, and knees on the ground; and throwing all five parts of the body to the ground in prostration. Except for the most reverential salutation of throwing five parts of the body to the ground, gestures commonly seen in Buddhist sutras also include joining palms together at the chest level, respectfully greeting, kneeling, and the Hun way of kneeling—all of which are considered essential Buddhist etiquette that serve as an expedient means in place of a complete courtesy.

Joining Palms
Joining palms together is the simplest Buddhist way to show respect and salutations. As the Tiantai Buddhist master Zhi Yi (538-597) mentioned in his "Commentary on the Chapter of the Universal Gate of Avalokitesvara in the Lotus Sutra", Chinese people show their respect by cupping one hand in the other before their chest, whereas people in India join their palms as an expression of reverence. Añjali mudrā, or joining palms with closed fingers pointing upwards, signifies a focused mind in addition to the courteous and modest attitude of Buddhist bodily etiquette.     

Respectful Greeting
Before worshiping the Buddha, "respectful greeting" is usually an indispensable procedure. Originally intended as a form of greeting, asking about someone's welfare, and extending the wish for blessings, it is the first of the "nine ways of showing respect in India", and the only one that involves displays of verbal respect. In the Buddha's time, Buddhist disciples performed respectful greetings to the Buddha, and the Buddha also asked after his disciples while receiving them. There are occasions mentioned in the sutras where the Buddha inquired after the welfare of the bhikkus who came from afar, in a tone of loving-kindness: "Have you been struggling for food along the way?" "Are you exhausted from the long journey?" "Are you monks abiding in realization of peace and harmony?" "Are you tired out by the long and difficult trek?" In addition, when the Buddha paid a visit to sick monks, he would inquire after them by saying: "How have you adapted to your health condition? Are you still uncomfortable?" 

In Chinese Buddhist practice, the "respectful greeting" has been replaced by forming a relevant hand gesture (mudrā). In places where worship rituals are difficult to conduct, one can simply do a "respectful greeting" instead of "bowing the head".

To kneel is to go down on both of one's knees. Chanting sutras accompanied with the kneeling posture indicates sincerity and respect. One can also kneel down and join hands with both the thighs and upper body held vertically in order to curb dullness and torpor while doing meditation. Another form of kneeling in worship is the so-called "Hun way of kneeling", with right knee on the ground and left knee lifted up. In India, the right side is considered holier than the left side, so the right knee is on the ground when performing the Hun way of kneeling, a posture mostly commonly mentioned in Buddhist sutras.

Extended Reading:

Prostration: Paying Homage to the Buddha

Common Buddhist Etiquette

Common Qs and As on the Practice of Prostrating to the Buddha - 1. Buddhism does not advocate for idolatry, so why would people still make Buddha statues and even prostrate to them?

Common Qs and As on the Practice of Prostrating to the Buddha - 2. If we do not have a Buddhist altar or a Buddha statue at home, then towards which direction should we prostrate?

Common Qs and As on the Practice of Prostrating to the Buddha - 3. When is the appropriate time to make prostrations to the Buddha? How many prostrations should one perform?

Common Qs and As on the Practice of Prostrating to the Buddha - 4. Are the objects to which Buddhists prostrate only limited to Buddha statues?

Common Qs and As on the Practice of Prostrating to the Buddha - 5. Can prostrating to the Buddha eliminate karmic obstacles?

Prostrating to the Buddha to Train the Body and Cultivate the Mind

Prostrating to the Buddha and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Practice Method of Prostrating to the Buddha

Resource: Issue 347 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Photos: Issue 347 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: Dharma Drum Mountain Translation Team     
Editing: Chia-chen Chang (張家誠), Keith Brown