Shrine Room
Dharma Etiquette

by Gan Starling


The following rules of etiquette are more than just helpful suggestions. These are extremely important traditions deeply infused with symbolic meaning. Their strict observance extends until now from the Golden Age of Buddhist culture, even from the time of Lord Buddha. It seems entirely probable that no few of us, in prior rebirths, understood their importance very well and never would have thought to ignore them.

The body and mind have a strong connection. Every action we perform leaves its impact on the mind. These behaviors are more than simple rules of polite society. They are basic Dharma practice. Most will find that when observed with a full measure of enthusiasm these traditions keep us mindful and help express our heartfelt joy in finding the Dharma.

As rules go, these are considered general. There is no great variation in any school of Tantric Buddhism that I know of. And most are also shared in common with other Buddhist sects as well. And at the very least, knowing these traditions well will help us feel much more at home on those rare opportunities when we visit other centers.

Removing Shoes:

This is symbolic of leaving the dust and dirt of the mundane world outside. And as a practical measure, it does so in all reality, helping to keep the shrine room clean.

Paying Homage:

Upon entering any shrine room, offer a gesture of respect. How formally and ellaborately to do so will depend on circumstance.

The three central objects on the altar represent the Body, Speech and Mind of Buddha. It would serve us ill to nurture a karmic propensity ignoring these as ordinary. Before the altar in one's home, three prostrations twice a day must suffice when time does not afford anything more. Consider these as greeting Buddhas in the morning and taking leave of Them at night. A slight bow, with one or both hands raised prayer-like in salutation, is also nice to do in passing sometimes during the course of the day.

In more formal settings, such as a Dharma center shrine room, we prostrate ourselves upon our first entry of the day, and again on taking our final leave. If the teacher enters, we arise quietly from whaever we're doing, face him or her with slight bow and palms together before our heart. We remain thus, facing the lama, while he or she makes their own prostrations toward the altar, right up until he or she has taken their seat. Then we make our own prostrations toward the teacher.

At the end of a day's formal instruction the process is as follows: arise with the teacher, bow slightly with palms together, keep facing toward the teacher right up until he or she leaves the room. Then make three parting prostrations, except on the final session of the final day of instruction. This latter omission is to signify our desire that the teacher may soon return.

Joining in Practice: Lama Tsong Khapa Center’s in-house custom...

Enter quietly and take a seat. Your invitation to join our practice is implicit by the setting. So don't be shy! Just come on in. Otherwise you may be in for an hour's wait. Folks sometimes glance in on us from the door out of curiosity. Not wanting to seem pushy, we don't get up to invite, lure or drag them in. Further, we may not see you, since we'll be facing the other way. If the door is closed, pay it no mind. We've only shut it to keep out (in?) possibly distubing sounds. Just enter and re-close it behind you. Then look for a practice manual from the shelf in back, find a spot to set yourself down, and settle in.

In larger centers there will be cushions already laid out for visitors. At our own Lama Tosngkhapa Center, since it is a rented room and neither funds nor storage space yet suffice, member's usually bring their own. Still however, one or two members may have broght guest cushions from their homes. Otherwise, help yourself to a chair from the stack by the wall. We recommend the armless variety out of preference for good posture.

If you have arrived somewhat late, please come in anyway. Incline yourself toward whoever's most convenient and look to see what page we're on. Be a little obvious. That member will quietly point to the verse in question.

Preserving the Quiet:

Refrain from idle conversation. Polite greetings can be accomplished with a nod. This is simple curtesy, not an order for total silence. Others may be meditating: building their preliminary visualizations, summoning proper motivation, or simply letting mundane thoughts slip away. Be so kind as to not make it any more difficult. Even so, and only when needful, substantive information may be exchanged in low voices.

Dharma materials:

This refers to books, vajra and bell, etc. Do not allow any of these to directly touch the floor. A brocade, place-mat, towel or almost any clean and servicable textile whatever is convenient in this respect. In a pinch, a briefcase, bag or some other item may have to suffice. As a last resort, simply balance them in your lap, or else keep a hold of them.


An erect, alert and attentive posture is important. It also helps you actually stay alert and attentive. (See Rinpoche's detailed instructions under "How to Meditate" on the main menu page!) In long practices discomfort may impel you to variation, however. That's unavoidable for many Westerners. But one must never slip all the way into a full slouch, or worse, recline. And never show the soles of your outstretched feet (especially not both together) directly toward the shrine or the teacher. In the Orient this is putting them beneath you. So if leg discomfort becomes too much, and you simply have to limber up, deviate as much as you can from this unseemly gesture: aim off toward some other direction; unknot one leg at a time; point your toes...whatever it takes.

Food and Drink:

Leave these outside, unless they are for an offering. The only refreshment allowed for consumption in the shrine room is plain, clear, unadulterated water. Without at least this, too many of us would be croaking like frogs before the rite was even half over. At least if water should happen to spill it will not stain. There would then be no unnecessary commotion to detract from everyone's full concentration on an otherwise very inspiring ceremony.

Addressing the Teacher:

The Spiritual Director for all our family of Dharma centers operating under the umbrella organiazation Gaden for the West is the Ven. 13th Zasep Tulku Rinpoche. The proper honorific to address him with face-to-face is Rinpoche (pronounced: RIN-po-shay) which means something akin to "precious, rare, invaluable". In the third person it is sometimes better to be specific, "Zasep Tulku Rinpoche", since outside our own family of centers (and historically, as well) there are many Rinpoches.

Others may be variously addressed: an English translation for the usual honorific of a monk or nun is Venerable. Sometimes a degreed scholar is be addressed according to level of diploma: Acharya-la or Geshe-la, etc. Nuns are frequently addresed as Ani-la.

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