We would like all newcomers to feel comfortable and at ease as they explore the healing practices of Tibetan Buddhism. We offer the following information to address some of the most frequently asked questions and as an introduction to the typical practices of our teachings and events.
Please know that our classes are informal and everyone is welcome. Feel free to ask any questions after the teachings or by E-mail.
WHAT TO EXPECT
You'll notice that some people attending teachings or other events engage in practices such as prostrating to the teacher, chanting prayers in Tibetan, making offerings and the like. There's never any pressure to take part in such practices. Some practices (such as chanting in Tibetan) are done out of respect for our teachers, most of whom speak Tibetan. Other such practices are common to many schools of Buddhism. But, you should not feel that you need to engage in them unless doing so feels positive and natural to you!
Showing Respect to the Teacher
It is customary to stand as the teacher enters the room and to remain standing until he/she is seated. We also stand as the teacher leaves the room.
By prostrating, we use our body, speech and mind to show our respect for the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Furthermore, as Lama Yeshe said: "Why do we make prostrations at the beginning of the teaching and meditation sessions? It's to beat our ego down a bit. Ego-centric pride looks at things very superficially and never sees the nature of reality. When we prostrate, we are not prostrating to the material objects on the altar but paying homage to true, understanding wisdom." — Ego, Attachment and Liberation, Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archives (2006)
If you'd like to offer prostrations, place your thumbs inside your cupped hands, and then place your cupped hands on your head. Place your hands in the space between your eyebrows. Then place your hands at your throat; finally, place your hands at your heart. All these actions both collect merit and purify yourself: they purify the obscurations of your body, speech and mind.
If you do not choose to make prostrations, it’s perfectly polite to stand quietly while others offer their prostrations. It’s thoughtful to avoid walking directly in front of someone who is making prostrations. Usually, at the last session of a series of teachings, prostrations are not offered at the closing, as a sign that you welcome the teacher's return.
Offerings for the Altar
You are most welcome to bring flowers or food for the altar as an offering to the Buddhas. Doing so is a wonderful way to accumulate great merit. Afterwards, the food is donated to a local homeless shelter.
Before and after the teachings, we recite a few short prayers in Tibetan (a copy of the prayers in Tibetan phonetics and English is provided). The purpose is to correctly set our motivation for listening to the teachings and for paying respect to our teachers.
In one of the prayers, we offer the mandala — the representation of the entire physical universe to the Buddhas and teachers. While reciting the short prayer, we hold our hands in the mandala gesture (mudra) — the third fingers of both hands are placed back-to-back and point upwards, while the second and fourth fingers are crossed or intertwined horizontally across the palms. The thumbs are then extended across the palms to press upon the tips of the fourth fingers, and the index fingers are curved backwards to press upon the tips of the second fingers. (If you'd like to learn how to do this, please ask someone — it's easy once you learn!)
The two upward extended third fingers represent Mt. Meru, the crossed second and fourth fingers represent the four continents surrounding Mt. Meru, and the thumbs and curved index fingers represent the great salt ocean surrounding Mt. Meru. The rosary (mala) can be held within the palms and around the raised fingers representing the seven ranges of golden mountains and lakes that surround Mt. Meru. (From The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols by Robert Beer, Shambhala (2003)).
We use prayers from FPMT's Essential Buddhist Prayers Vol. 1 available from FPMT's online store. Copies are also available for use at the center.
Dharma Books, Sacred Texts & Holy Objects
These represent the teachings of the Buddha, so it’s best to avoid placing a practice text, Dharma book, or any holy object directly on the floor. Instead place them on a clean cloth, a desk or table, or even on top of a backpack or bag, rather than the floor. People try to avoid stepping over a text or other holy object that is in their path. It’s polite to move your texts or hold them if someone needs to walk by.
You may sit on a cushion on the floor or on a chair. Choose the seat that will be most comfortable for you. A point of etiquette is to not extend your the soles of your feet towards the teacher, altar, or holy objects. If you need to stretch your legs, you can turn to the side.
Out of respect, it is traditional for both men and women to wear modest clothing, even in hot weather, and avoid wearing revealing clothing, backless or low-cut tops, etc. If you like to dress this way, you can always cover your legs or shoulders with a light shawl in the presence of the lama. If you will be sitting for a long period of time it is best to wear loose clothing, for the sake of your comfort.
How to Offer a Khata to a Lama
Tibetans offer khatas (a scarf) to friends, acquaintences, loved ones and teachers as a way of showing respect and affection. After a teaching, it is customary to offer Rinpoche a khata as a way of thanking him. To do so, fold the khata in half with the open edge facing away from you. Put both palms together and drape the scarf over them. Assuming Rinpoche is sitting, kneel down, bow your head and hold the scarf at the level of your forehead. If you would like to make a donation to him, discreetly place the envelope on the table and then offer the scarf. He will respond by putting the scarf around your neck. He may choose to say prayers for you or touch you gently on the head by way of a blessing. Then you can stand up.
For more information on the history of khatas, see: http://www.tibetanprayerflag.com/products.php?cat=5
Resources for Learning More About Buddhism
The more you learn about Buddhism, the more these customs will make sense. So here are two excellent online resources: FPMT's FAQs About Tibetan Buddhism and the Dharma and BuddhaNet's Buddhist Studies website. The latter is broader in scope, it's not just Tibetan Buddhism.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How many people typically attend the classes?
A: It ranges from maybe five to thirty people depending on the event.
Q: Does Rinpoche teach in English?
A: No, but we have an excellent translator.
Q: Is there a children's Dharma program?
A: Not at this time but we can offer it when enough people request it.
Q: I'm interested in learning more about Tibetan Buddhism, which class is right for me?
A: Most classes are well suited for beginers, check out the calendar page!