Prostrations are performed (1) as a show of respect and gratitude to the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, (2) in order to purify mental blocks and negative karma, (3) to help us gain the correct view of reality, and (4) to create the positive potential for realizing our innate Buddha nature.
Prostrations can be verbal, mental or physical. Verbal prostration are performed when we pay spoken homage to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. We perform mental prostrations when we affirm our faith in the Three Jewels.
Physical prostrations can take several forms. A small bow or simply pressing the palms of the hands together if done with humility and faith is a proper prostration.
Half-prostrations and full-prostrations are performed in sets of four. Place the palms of the hands together loosely. Tuck the thumbs just inside the pocket created by the two palms. With enlightenment and compassion for all creatures in mind:
Bring the two palms together between the eyes and recite (in English or Sanskrit)
OM NAMO MANJUSHRIYE
I pay homage to the Buddha
Bring the two palms to the throat and recite
I pay homage to the Dharma
Bring the palms to the heart and recite
NAMO UTAMA SHRIYE SOHA
I pay homage to the Sangha
Now descend to the knees and touch the forehead to the floor. Repeat this two more times for a total of three prostrations. On the fourth and final prostration in a set, follow the same actions but do not descend to the floor. Only a head bow is performed after bringing the palms to the heart during the fourth prostration.
A full-prostration is performed in similar fashion, however, the body is fully prostrated after descending to the knees. The arms are to be extended in front of the prostrated body and the forehead is brought to the floor.
Prayers may also be recited when performing prostrations. Repetitions can be counted on a mala. Prostrations of hundreds of thousands may be performed over the course of months or years. This forges a powerful mental and spiritual connection with the Three Jewels.