Dharma Etiquette from the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition for Teachers, Shrines and Sacred Texts~2013


Photo taken at Tara Mandala Retreat Center~2014

I have laid out some of the very unique and sacred rituals of the Tibetan Tradition that I feel are of great value to keep alive in our Western Dharma practice. Each of these rituals provides a psychological and a spiritual support. In order to integrate aspects of this remarkable tradition into our practice of the Dharma, it is important that we understand the intentions behind the actions. In doing so, we are able to integrate our western psychological process with our journey on the spiritual path. We are Westerners practicing a path that is integrating both East and West and are part of the intergration of Tibetan Buddhism with our Western culture. The following traditional practices are very special sacred rituals that infuse our daily lives with meaning and provide a rich vehicle for our spiritual life.

For Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, the teachers, shrine, printed texts, prayers and practitioner’s notes, are considered sacred aspects of dharma (wisdom teachings). Therefore they are all treated with great respect. The shrine is sacred because it is the place where the enlightened energy of the Buddhas resides. The teachers, as holders of the lineage and teachings, are sacred. The notes of the practitioners, as aides to spiritual study and practice, are sacred as well.

Upon entering the shrine room, one does three prostrations toward the shrine before sitting. If a teacher arrives later, one stands when the teacher enters the room and makes three prostrations after the teacher has taken a seat. Prostrations can be understood as an act of reverence toward the precious teachings that one receives in this sacred space and toward all the masters from whom one has received teachings. This is how committed practitioners of Buddha Dharma integrate body, speech and mind through movement to embody humility, respect and commitment. You may do the prostrations if this feels meaningful to you. This is not a requirement, but is simply understood as part of the physical expression of great respect and humility toward the sacred. Otherwise, you may just stand when the teacher arrives for the session and sit after the teacher sits.

In the Eastern traditions, it is disrespectful to face the soles of the feet toward the teachers or the shrine at any time during a teaching or practice. One may slide the feet to the left or the right, but avoid facing the soles directly towards a teacher or shrine. All texts, whether books, prayers or notebooks, should be placed on a cloth or some other support that keeps them from directly touching the ground where they may be stepped on. One should avoid stepping over books, texts, and practice supports when entering or leaving the shrine room.

At the end of the teaching, the teacher usually gives what is called a transmission or a blessing. This is done to connect the students to the authority and blessings of the lineage and the tradition and to grant them permission to practice the teachings. After the transmission and blessing, it is traditional to offer a khata, or a white silk scarf, to the teacher. This is done to show one’s gratitude and to make a spiritual connection with one’s teacher in relationship to the practice. The simplest way to do this is to simply open the scarf and place it over your two hands. When you come up to the teacher you bow slightly and present the scarf. The teacher will then take it and place it around your neck as a blessing. Also at this time, if you have a mala, eastern prayer beads, you may ask the teacher to bless them for the practice you have just received.

The teachings you have received are for your practice and use. They are not to be discussed extensively or lightly with those who have not received the same teachings and are not to be passed on to others without proper preparation and permission. It's not something that we chat about casually like regular conversation-these are sacred conversations. If someone is interested in practicing them or learning more, they can be directed to speak to the teacher who gave you the practices and in turn receive teachings on them. This is traditionally followed by anyone who receives teachings and they are asked to honor this out of respect for the lineage of practice and to ensure that those who receive teachings or special practices have been prepared and given instructions to fully understand what they are doing. This is done to ensure that the student receives the practices within a safe and proper context due to the depth of the material.

© Cary Twomey-Dharma teachings 2012

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