"Dharma" refers to the Buddha's teachings. Dharma etiquette refers to ways of behaving mindfully that are rooted in the Buddhist practice of placing more importance on the needs of others than ourselves. By doing this, we show respect for all beings – those very beings who are the basis for our attainment of enlightenment. All of these practices are done as a sincere expression of gratitude and respect for the Buddha’s teachings, our Teachers, and our companions on this journey, keeping in mind their preciousness and power to transform our minds and lives.
Below are some suggestions and guidelines on the practices of Dharma etiquette. Follow Dharma etiquette with an open mind and you may be surprised at what arises – such as patience, giving, gratitude, and even wisdom.
What to wear at our Centre:
Comfort, modesty, and cleanliness are the keys. Wear something loose enough to allow you to sit comfortably for the teaching and meditation. Bare arms are fine, but shorts, short skirts, and revealing clothing are not recommended as we try to avoid baring our legs. Remove hats, head coverings, and shoes before entering the shrine room. Socks or clean bare feet are both acceptable. You may also wish to bring a shawl or wrap for your own comfort. Please turn off watch alarms and cell phones if you bring them with you so as not to disturb the meditation. Also, please be thoughtful of others’ health and allergies and do not wear any scented products. You may leave your shoes and coat in the area provided downstairs. Please bring valuables into the shrine room with you, (as we are not able to assume responsibility for your belongings at our site).
Please arrive early so as not to disturb the class once it has started. In order to prepare yourself to receive the teaching, and allow others to do the same, it is best to refrain from talking in the shrine room. Instead, sit quietly and cultivate a contemplative state of mind.
The Centre provides meditation cushions and chairs for seating. Out of respect for the teachings, when making your way to your seat please make a special effort not to step on or over Dharma texts or other objects and try not to step over the knees, legs, or feet of others.
Participation and questions:
As a place that’s open to all, visitors to the Centre's classes are welcome to participate to the degree they choose. You may simply observe or read along rather than chant, and stand quietly while practising Buddhists make prostrations.
If you are not sure what to do, it is fine to ask someone beside you for guidance. Questions to the Teacher during the sessions are welcomed and encouraged. To discuss a private matter, you may also wish to make an appointment with our Spiritual Director. It is good practice to make a small offering if asking for advice.
Etiquette to Teachers and Monastics:
The person offering teachings to us is known as a Teacher, also called a Lama in the Tibetan language. Teachers have studied and practiced in a rigorous scholarly setting for decades and as a result, have achieved a high degree of spiritual knowledge and development. It is for this reason that we show great respect for Teachers – as an acknowledgement of the knowledge they hold and the potential they offer for us to realize this within ourselves.
Male Teachers in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition are usually addressed by a title such as Lama (Teacher), Geshe-la (Respected Teacher), or Rinpoche (Precious One). “Kushok” is a term of respect for monks from His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s monastery. The word officially means servant of the Dalai Lama and is reserved for monks from Namgyal Monastery. Kushok prefers to be called by this term of respect rather than by a personal name or another title. Nuns in the Tibetan tradition are called Ani-la or Chö-la.
Remember that in some Buddhist cultures it may be against an ordained person’s vows to touch members of the opposite sex. So, if in doubt, it is best to avoid touching a monastic unless they make a gesture such as offering a hand to shake. A small bow is a more customary form of greeting than a Western handshake; however, if the Teacher offers their hand you may shake it. In traditional greetings of Teachers or respected friends, khatas or jalthar (silk scarves) may also be presented. If you are requesting a teaching, empowerment or interview, you may wish to do prostrations first and then make an offering such as a mandala, khata, food, or flowers.
Never step on or over the Teacher’s seat or their body, robes, or belongings as these are all symbols of the Dharma. Do not use the belongings of monastics without having first obtained their permission to do so – this includes sitting in their seat as well as using their dishes and other personal items. Do not walk ahead of them; always allow them to go first. Do not stand proudly with your hands on your hips before a Teacher or lean back casually against walls while receiving a teaching. Always be alert to the Teacher’s needs and comfort. For example, please offer tea first to the Teacher, then to other monastics, senior members, and your Dharma brothers and sisters before filling your own cup.
One of the best ways to show respect for the Teacher is to put their instructions into action by training the mind thoroughly through contemplation and compassionate action. If you are unable to follow a Teacher’s guidance, please discuss your reasons with respect. While there is nothing wrong with having questions or even feeling skeptical sometimes, there is no benefit to disrespectfully criticizing a Teacher or the teachings.
Etiquette to fellow Dharma practitioners:
The people we sit with during teachings and practices are known as our Dharma brothers and sisters, or Dharma family. We call our fellow non-monastic practitioners by their given name and as a sign of respect, we often add the Tibetan honorific “la” to the end of it (for example, Philip-La). It is not customary to add “la” to our Teacher’s title or our own names when introducing ourselves. Feel free to introduce yourself to the Teacher and other practitioners before or after the class.
As a source of like-minded support and inspiration in our spiritual practice, our Dharma friends deserve kindness. Please avoid negative or divisive speech, and gossiping about your Dharma brothers and sisters. If you have a concern, please discuss directly with the person involved in a kind and respectful manner, using this as a wonderful opportunity to practice loving-kindness and mindful speech. Have and show respect and devotion for everyone close to your Teacher, Please respect the Teacher’s time and attention, remember your Dharma brothers and sisters may also have a need for his or her guidance or may wish to speak to him privately.
Teacher’s arrival and exit:
Please stand and bow slightly, with hands in the prayer gesture at your heart when the Teacher enters and leaves the teaching area. At the start of the teaching, remain standing while the Teacher makes three prostrations to the Buddhas and his own Teachers (visualized on the teaching throne) and takes his or her seat. If you are close by, please help the Teacher to take his seat.
If you are meeting with the Teacher privately, please stand while they enter and if there is only one chair in the room please offer it to the Teacher and do three prostrations before taking a seat on the floor. As a sign of respect for the Dharma that the Teacher offers, we never sit in the Teacher’s seat or on the same seat as them. It is customary to be seated lower than the Teacher when receiving teachings or discussing Dharma. Do not sit while the Teacher is standing or lie down while they are sitting.
Once the Teacher is seated, practising Buddhists will make three prostrations as a sign of respect for the Teacher, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. You are welcome to join in or stand quietly. If you would like to perform prostrations put your palms together in front of your heart, with thumbs tucked into your folded hands, then raise them and touch the crown of your head, your forehead, throat, and heart. Lean forward from the hips and without moving your head, make a standing bow. Next, squat onto your heels, place your hands on floor, kneel and briefly touch your forehead to the floor. Bring your head back up, raise your torso and put your weight on your heels then return to a standing position. Throughout the prostrations please be sure to keep your legs together and do not splay your fingers.
Do three prostrations. After the last prostration, make another bow to the Teacher and the Three Jewels and then take your seat. Prostrations are not made when the teaching ends because this omission conveys our wish for the teacher to return soon.
Behaviour during Meditation and Teachings:
Being attentive is the best way to show respect to the Teacher and the Dharma. Use mindfulness to avoid actions or noise that may distract or disrupt the Teacher and others. Out of respect for your neighbours, and so that they may keep focused on the teachings, please do not whisper to others while the teacher is speaking, and when moving please do so slowly and quietly so as not to disturb others. Out of consideration for the health of others, if you are suffering from a cold, cough, or flu please take time to rest at home until you feel better.
To help keep alert and focused on the teachings, sit in a comfortable yet upright position either on the floor or in a chair. Try not to sit with your body twisted around or lean casually against walls. During long periods of sitting feel free to make slight adjustments to your sitting posture to become more comfortable. If you need to stretch during the teaching, please do not stretch over your prayer books or point the soles of your feet towards the Teacher, altar, or Dharma texts. When the meditation period or teaching is over, try discreet shoulder shrugs, lifting one or both knees and wriggling your feet to get your circulation going again before standing.
Following are a few more distracting behaviours that may appear as disrespectful to the Teacher, the teachings, and those around you. Please remain seated during teachings and do your best to avoid walking back and forth without reason. If possible, refrain from leaving the shrine room unexpectedly before the session is over. If something requires you to leave before the teaching is over, please be as discreet and quiet as possible. Sit upright and alert and please do not lay down or sleep in the shrine room. Behaviours like cracking your knuckles, playing with your pencil or mala, or otherwise fidgeting during a teaching may be seen as a lack of interest or boredom in the teachings. Please do not text, read email, or browse social media on your phone or tablet during the teachings. When possible, please turn your phone to silent mode before entering the shrine room.
Offerings to the Centre:
Making offerings to the Centre helps to generate kindness and generosity in ourselves, and provide us the valuable opportunity to support the teachings. All of the Centre’s positive activities to benefit the community are supported through the generosity of practitioners. Making offerings provides us the opportunity to support the teachings that help us to realize our true nature. We invite you to give in whatever way is best for you – physically, financially, mentally, spiritually, or all of the above.
Volunteering time helps the Centre accomplish the many tasks: cleaning the shrine room or other areas, maintaining the yard, shoveling walks, mowing the lawn, organizing events, preparing meals, fundraising, hosting others during retreats, and much more. Dharma service is a great opportunity to get to know our Dharma brothers and sisters outside of the formal teaching time. If you would like to help, please just ask, “How can I be of service today?”
Offerings to the Altar:
It is a wonderful practice to make offerings to the altar. In the shrine room, offerings of flowers, incense, candles, juice, tea, cookies, fruit, and other food may be made at any time. This is especially important on special puja days such as Lama Chöpa (Guru Puja) when the offerings made will be blessed and then shared in a ritual feast called “Tsog.” Fruit should be washed so it is clean, and fruit and other foods should be put in a bowl or on a plate before being offered. Once candles and incense are lit, and other offerings made, it is customary to say the blessing “Oh Am Hum” three times. You may also offer a sprinkling of water over the offerings using the blessing vase on the altar.
The altar is a field of merit for us, so we make our best effort to keep it by dusting it daily, and vacuuming or sweeping the shrine room before making offerings. Once items are offered, it is important not to lean over the altar, or touch or breathe on the offerings. If you want to go closer or ask about an offering, please cover your mouth while doing so. When extinguishing candles, please use a snuffer rather than blowing them out.
Bowls of water on the altar represent welcoming gifts that would traditionally be offered. Fresh water bowl offerings are made in the morning, from left to right, and removed at night from right to left. According to the teachings, the bowls sit a rice grain’s width apart from each other and are filled to that same width from the top of the bowls. Offerings are to be shared, given away, recycled or disposed of in a clean place. Offering water is best used to water plants or poured outside in a clean area but should not be poured down a sink. Also, do not throw incense ashes in the garbage. They should be cast away outside in a clean area of the yard.
Setting up an Altar:
It is often best to invite a Teacher to come to your house to set up the altar correctly. If possible, please do not set up your shrine in your bedroom. If you have no choice it is best to have it at or alongside the head of your bed so that whenever you sit or lie you will not have your feet pointed at the shrine or books.
When hanging thangkas and pictures of Deities they should be hung as close to the roofline as possible. Thangkas of highest respected Deities, such as Palden Lhamo, are hung to the left of the shrine and those of lesser figures, such as Je Tsongkhapa are hung to the right. Deity pictures should always be in beautiful frames. Some pictures of wrathful Deities are best kept covered to avoid generating negative thoughts about the Dharma in those who are non-Buddhist. Statues, Deity images, and pictures of your Teachers should never be lower than you when seated. Images are often adorned with a khata.
Care of Dharma Articles:
Dharma books, prayer texts, Deity pictures, prayer beads (malas), and ritual instruments should be kept off the floor and places where you or others sit, walk, or sleep. You may place them on top of a table or small mat if one is available. If a table or mat is not available, you may place Dharma articles on a handbag or on top of non-Dharma papers that are on the floor.
Dharma texts contain the Buddha’s wisdom and should therefore be treated with care. Please cover or protect them when transporting them and keep them in a high, clean place separate from mundane materials. People often use book covers and Dharma bags to keep Dharma objects separate from other objects. It is best to write notes on a separate sheet of paper rather than in Dharma texts. Wetting a finger to turn pages of texts or breaking the spine of books is considered disrespectful. Never take Dharma items such as books, prayer texts, Deity images or malas into unclean areas such as the washroom.
When referring to a Buddha statue, Deity thangka or image, or picture of a Teacher, it is disrespectful to point at the image with one finger. Instead, gesture towards it using your whole hand.
If you should happen to drop a text or Dharma item such as your mala, touch it to the crown of your head and say “Om Ah Hum” three times to purify the text or item before returning it to its proper place.
Offerings to Teachers and Monastics:
Offerings are often made to Teachers as an expression of thanksgiving. If offered sincerely from the heart, they present an opportunity for us to practice generosity – one of the six perfections.
Offering the long silk scarf known as a khata or jelthar is a uniquely Tibetan expression of well wishes and gratitude. This tradition can be done to welcome a Teacher and also at the end of a formal teaching, initiation, or empowerment. The khata will often be returned to you as a blessing from the Teacher. There is no obligation to offer a khata; it is your own choice.
After an empowerment or retreat, and special pujas, it is customary to make a financial offering to Teachers and also to the monastics present. The amount offered is a personal choice as it is an offering of appreciation and not a payment for services rendered. Monks and nuns have taken vows to live a life of simplicity and so accumulation of material goods is something they prefer to avoid. Instead, attendees make monetary offerings which can be used in many different ways to benefit the Dharma and its practitioners. Frequently offerings are used to request prayers for others, purchase statues and other Dharma objects for the Centre, make requests for other Teachers to visit our Centre, and to perform other positive acts to benefit the Centre.
If offering money to a monk or nun, please present it in an envelope as the vows of an ordained person ask them to abstain from directly handling money. It is considered auspicious to offer an odd number rather than an even number as this is creating the karma to meet the Teacher again in the future. Offerings are presented with both hands, often together with a khata, and your head should be slightly bowed.
The teaching, retreat, empowerment, or meditation session will end with a short dedication that offers the merit accumulated through this positive activity to benefit others. By sharing the merit of our practice with others we ensure that the merit remains solid and is not weakened by moments of anger or other temporary afflictions. Please join in with these short chants so that the positive energy of the practice you have just completed may be shared with others and thus increased and strengthened.