Gestures of Respect

If you're born into an Asian Buddhist family, the first thing your parents will teach you about Buddhism is not a philosophical tenet but a gesture of respect: how to place your hands in añjali, palm-to-palm over your heart, when you encounter a Buddha image, a monk, or a nun. Obviously, the gesture will be mechanical at first. Over time, though, you'll learn the respectful attitude that goes with it. If you're quick to pick it up, your parents will consider it a sign of intelligence, for respect is basic to any ability to learn.

DSC04092As you get older, they may teach you the symbolism of the gesture: that your hands form a lotus bud, representing your heart, which you are holding out to be trained in how to become wise. Ultimately, as you grow more familiar with the fruits of Buddhist practice, your parents hope that your respect will turn into reverence and veneration. In this way, they give a quick answer to the old Western question of which side of Buddhism — the philosophy or the religion — comes first. In their eyes, the religious attitude of respect is needed for any philosophical understanding to grow. And as far as they're concerned, there's no conflict between the two. In fact, they're mutually reinforcing.

The Buddhist sees respect as a prerequisite for learning. It's easier to learn from someone you respect than from someone you don't. Respect opens the mind and loosens preconceived opinions to make room for new knowledge and skills. At the same time, people who value their knowledge feel more inclined to teach it to someone who shows respect than to someone who doesn't.

(Extracted from:  Opening the Door to the Dhamma: Respect in Buddhist Thought & Practice by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

How to perform these gestures

Dhamma is the way for training mind, speech and body. To help with the training of the body there are various gestures which are expressions of one's confidence in and reverence for the Buddha, Dhamma (his teachings) and the Sangha (the community of monks who had kept the practice alive). These actions when performed with due mindfulness are wholesome kamma made by way of the body. Repeated frequently they become habitual bodily kamma and it is good to have the habit of reverence as part of one's character.

The gestures should be done with mindfulness and therefore gracefully. And one should be careful to see that exaggerated and impetuous movements are avoided, as the Dhamma and its actions intend to aid endeavors to calm one's heart.

The gestures used for this are mainly two: respectful salutation with the hands (añjalikamma) and the five-limb prostration (pañc'anga-vandana).

The first of these, the "añjali", is made by bringing the palms of the hands together, and raising them to the region of the heart or higher. For instance, in the shrine room after kneeling down in front of the Buddha image, one makes añjali before offering flowers, lights and incense. And as the Teacher was the highest in the world and one to go beyond the world, so one respects him by placing one's hand in añjali to the forehead. But while chanting, the hands are held in añjali at heart level.

The five-limb prostration (pañc'anga-vandana)CNY (14) is made to pay one's respects with the whole body to the Teacher. When afterwards one says "Namo tassa..." that word "namo" (homage) comes from the root nam meaning "to bend." So now one bends oneself, one's mind and body, down and acknowledges that the Buddha was indeed the Perfectly Enlightened One that one's own understanding of Dhamma is insignificant. In the kneeling position, one's hand in añjali are raised to the forehead and then lowered to the floor so that the whole forearm to the elbow is on the ground, the elbow touching the knee. The hands, palm down, are four to six inches apart with just enough room for the forehead to be brought to the ground between them. Feet are still as for the kneeling position and the knees are about a foot apart. This is called the prostration with the five limbs, that is the forehead, the forearms, and the knees. This prostration is made three times, the first time to the Buddha, the second to the Dhamma, and the third to the Noble Sangha.
(Extracted from: Lay Buddhist Practice)