In dharma practice we engage our body, speech and mind to cultivate positive qualities and reduce our non-virtuous actions. Body, speech and mind are strongly connected and all our actions leave an impact on the mind. There are opportunities to practice mindfulness in everything we do, including our demeanour in the shrine room and in the presence of our gurus, lamas and ordained sangha.
Lamas and ordained Sangha
Buddhist masters and the monastic sangha devote their lives to the buddhadharma. They have often undertaken extensive training and, by years of study and practice, achieved a high degree of realisation. Their compassion extends to all beings, and their aspiration is to bring out the highest spiritual potential in everyone they encounter, as well as in themselves. For these reasons, they deserve not only courtesy and respect, but great consideration.
We can show gratitude and respect towards lamas in simple ways. A traditional Tibetan greeting is to offer a white scarf (katak). If the lama is a high rinpoche, and especially one’s own teacher, it is customary to prostrate three times upon arriving. The important thing is to acknowledge the lama as one would acknowledge any dignitary, in an appropriate way.
One should defer to lamas in every way possible, such as by standing when they enter a room, offering them a chair and giving assistance as needed. Their needs should be carefully looked after with keen observation as, not being grasping, they may not mention their needs even when asked. This can include simple things like making sure they have ample water or tea, adequate meals, or putting aside our own egotistical requests when the lama may need time for rest or meditation.
The shrine room
A shrine room is a sacred space for us to contact the highest aspect of our nature, the buddha nature, and should be approached respectfully with that in mind. Part of the practice of making the shrine a sacred space is to leave ordinary activities, speech and thoughts outside.
Shoes are removed and left at the door, and hats should not be worn. This is symbolic of leaving the dust and dirt of the mundane world outside, (as well as a practical way of keeping the shrine room clean). Short skirts, or shorts, or revealing garments are inappropriate attire – a shawl can be used to drape over the legs or shoulders while sitting.
In most shrine rooms, seating is provided with cushions on a clean floor, and the acceptable posture is to sit cross legged. If that is difficult because of physical problems, one can sit in a chair towards the back of the shrine room. Whenever possible, one’s seat should be lower than that of the lamas.
The cross legged, or lotus posture, is universally used in the East as that which expresses and produces the attitude of contemplation, respect and receptivity to the teachings. Do not sit with legs outstretched in front of you, as this is a sign of disrespect, and of course lying down shows great discourtesy. If you must stretch your legs when you are seated in the shrine room, please cover your feet and do not point your feet towards the shrine or lamas.
In the shrine room we try to offer the most pleasing sights, sounds and smells and cause the least distraction to lamas, monastics and fellow students. To assist this, please keep your belongings tidy and to a minimum in the shrine room. Do not eat in the shrine room during teachings or engage in activities that might distract those who are in meditation. Voices should be lowered when talking and ordinary conversation should be kept to a minimum in and around the shrine room.
Dharma texts and teachings
Dharma books and puja texts do not belong on the floor, out of respect for the precious words they contain. Texts should always be placed on a table or cushion and never stepped over, stepped on or sat on. When the shrine room is crowded, please help others who are entering or leaving by picking up and holding your text.
Like the written dharma, spoken dharma is treated respectfully, and unless one is serving tea, or has a physical problem, one should not get up and walk in and out of pujas, initiations or teachings – especially during the reading of the text in Tibetan (the ‘lung’), which is the formal transmission of the teaching and conveys the spiritual power and grants the permission to study and practise it. During formal ceremonies such as pujas and initiations, the lama will normally indicate when students can take a break or leave freely.
Arriving and leaving
When entering the shrine room, it is customary to make three short prostrations facing the shrine, to pay respect to the Buddha, dharma and sangha with our body, speech and mind. In formal settings, it is normal to prostrate upon our first entry of the day.
When attending teachings, be sure to be in the shrine room early so as not to arrive after the teacher. When the teacher enters and while they make their prostrations, we stand facing them with a slight bow and our palms together at the heart, to keep our heads lower than the teacher’s. Once the teacher has taken their seat, we then make our own prostrations towards them.
At the end of a teaching, we stand as the teacher stands up and again bow slightly with palms together, facing towards the teacher right up until he or she leaves the room.
This short guide to behaviour in the shrine room has been adapted from one published by Drogmi Retreat Centre. It was first published in the Dechen Bulletin in 2009.