Shambhala Decorum and Culture

The suggestion box had a request for shrine “rules and decorum.” In response, one or two decorum suggestions have been included in weekly announcements and are archived here. These decorum tips are for your information and use, to explain why things are done the way they are done around the Center. Some things seem totally random, but others do not. We strive for “not too random but always mindful” but don’t always make it! If you have questions, please ask. If you see your leaders NOT following decorum, just tap us on the arm and let us know!


Shrine Room Conduct and Environment


Buddhist Culture

Celebrations and Seasons

Tibetan Prayer Flags and Symbols



Shrine Room conduct and environment

Talking: Chatting and general conversations within the shrine room should be kept to a minimum. Talk concerning dharma and practice is encouraged, but it is a place for quiet and calm and reflection. Please take all other conversation outside to the tea room or meeting room. Conversations in the lobby should be moved to the other rooms as well since the building acoustics still take noise from the lobby into the shrine room and can cause unkind distractions.

Personal objects: The shrine room /meditation hall is a quiet respite from the outside world. Please respect this by not bringing in “outside world” items such as car keys, cell phones, bags, food and drinks. Of course, there are understandable exceptions such as paper and pen for note-taking, drinks during long meditation sessions, pagers for people on call at work. Please use discretion and wisdom to create the best atmosphere for meditation – your meditation and the meditation of others – and decrease the amount of distractions.

Cushions and chairs: Mindfulness is expressed in mind, speech, and body. But mindfulness can be shown in all aspects of life – even in your environment. If mindfulness is expressed in your environment, it enhances your practice. So… we encourage mindfulness in the shrine room/meditation hall by how we present the cushions and chairs.

  • All tags and zippers are turned to the back of the room. If there are strings, they are placed to the floor.
  • All cushions should be right side up and placed in the middle of the bottom flat cushion (when not being used.)
  • The rows (cushions and chairs) are staggered to keep a good line of sight for everyone to see the umdze and shrine.
  • There should be some space around each chair and around each cushion to decrease our claustrophobic or “crowded” feeling about sitting too close together. However it depends on how large a gathering is present!

It does sound a little OCD, but it is a simple convention that stills the mind. On a subconscious level there is an understood pattern. Some would say that it settles chaotic energies. Others would say it presents an orderly and respectful view for anyone addressing the group.

The shrine offerings: It is traditional to open the shrine during meditation – light, water, and incense are offered. There are several interpretations of the meanings of the offerings but they are essentially 1) forms to remind you of the five senses and 2) the representation of clarity (crystal ball); luminosity (light); and calm (water.) Plants can seen as examples of impermance and incense an example of perserverance.

These are the external offerings. The internal offering is your meditation practice.

Some people will bow when entering the shrine room and/or passing the shrine. All bowing is a sign of respect not worship. Do not feel compelled to bow if you do not want to – it is a personal choice and no ill-will is interpreted.

Walking Meditation:

Walking meditation is a change of physical form to allow for stretching the muscles and shaking off sleepiness. It is also a good time to leave the shrine room if needed (drinks, restroom.) Make your way to the doorway within the walking circle. Do not disrupt the calm and orderly circle of others enjoying the walking portion of the meditation session. This is also a good time to change cushions or anything that could disrupt the quiet atmosphere of the sitting meditation session. Return to the shrine room and/or finish your changes before sitting resumes. Once people sit, distractions should be minimal.
The circle is always walking in a clockwise direction. Once the signal is given to end walking meditation (the two wood blocks,) make your way back to your cushion at a normal pace and completing the circle until you reach your place – stopping and making a straight-line back can lead to walking over cushions and bumping into others – generally leading to a chaotic (not mindful) atmosphere. Stand at your cushion until the umdze/timekeeper sits down.

Be mindful of those behind and in front of you. Yes… you are focused on the sensation of your feet on the floor but your peripheral vision can easily detect if you are too close to the people around you. A smaller slower step or a larger quicker step can create space. Please slow a bit for those to reenter the shrine room.

For those who routinely bow before the shrine, it is not necessary to bow when passing the shrine during walking meditation.

Resting meditation:  There are meditation techniques that lend themselves to a resting, lying-down posture. These techniques are more challenging due to the habit of lying down and sleeping. These techiniques are generally reserved for those people who are not physically able to sit for a prolonged amount of time. Some examples are neck and back injuries or muscle/skeletal disorders. These techniques should be taught by a meditation instructor.
If you need a simple stretch or quick rest, please do so outside the shrine room.

Some longer programs allow resting meditation (with permission of the timekeeper or teacher.) If you find yourself in need of resting technique and you are in a place that allows such, there are several small details to consider.

  • Keep your meditation without distracting the other meditators.
  • Move to the back of the shrine room and rest on a yoga mat or set of cushions or whatever support you need. If possible, have it available and ready before the session begins.
  • Locate your cushions as not to interrupt walking meditation or the normal flow of traffic from the shrine room.
  • Please do not locate directly in front of the protector shrine.
  • Your feet should not face the shrine as a sign of respect.
  • As soon as you are able to move to a chair or cushion (without distractions) please do so.


What are those wooden blocks we hear at the end of walking meditation?  Informally known as claves or clappers; more formally known as gandi or taku; these two wooden pieces are a traditional mindfulness sound in many Buddhist meditation traditions. They are used for various times: to return to mindfulness, to mark the ending of walking meditation sessions, some aspects of the daily liturgy. Several other wooden percussion instruments such as a hollow carving or different shapes can be used for signals such as return to certain rooms, certain practices, etc during the silent practices.

Dress: As a gesture of mutual respect, we could take extra care with our grooming and dress when preparing to visit a Shambhala Center. In this case, dressing up is not done to soothe our egos, and it is not about having expensive clothes. Taking care of our clothing and appearance is a way to increase our confidence and dignity, and also to offer our best manifestation to our fellow practitioners. At holidays, celebrations, or events where special guests will be present, it’s nice to dress in our best attire. If you would like, you can add Shambhala pins, jewelry, or other special adornments.

Timekeeper or Umdze: The timekeeper is the position of the meditator nearest the shrine and facing outward. This person is responsible for keeping the container for the meditation hall; and watching the time and directing the flow of practice. This person has a confident posture and so has a presence to manifest calmness and sanity. The timekeeper space is never left empty during the sitting session. The timekeeper is not necessarily a chant leader but a person can be both. This position is open to all people. If you are interested, please reply and let me know! There is always need for timekeepers.

Candles and Incense: Everyone – at some point – has seen the shrine opened and the candles lit and incense lit, or you have seen the shrine closed by extinguishing the candles. Have you noticed that we don’t  use our breath to blow out the candles? The breath is a very sacred gift of our life and continued presence here on earth. Fire or flame is often associated with a gift from the gods (the Prometheus myth,) a sign of the deities or the gods themselves, the soul, or as one of the essential elements. Most traditions consider using the breath (life force) to end another force disrespectful and aggressive. When flames are to be extinguished, you can fan them out using your hand or a flick of the wrist or you can use a candle snuffer.

Oath Water:  Some buddhist oaths are proclaimed with oath water. Traditionally, the water is infused with saffron and held in a conch shell. The oathtaker rinses his or her mouth with saffron water to purify speech. The conch as a symbol which fearlessly proclaimed the truth of the dharma. Among the eight auspicious symbols, it stands for the fame of the Buddha’s teaching, which spreads in all directions like the sound of the conch trumpet.

Chairs and thrones in the shrine room: The teaching chair or Sakyong’s chair should be an elegant wood chair with arms, and an upholstered seat. This would be covered with a brocade when he is present. When he is not present, it is appropriate to place a white khata (offering scarf) across the arms of the chair. If you have a larger centre, you may choose to build a throne for the Sakyong to use when he is present.



As Shambhala Buddhist practitioners, it is traditional to open and close our home and Center shrines each day. Part of this ritual is the recitation of chants. We also recite certain chants at the beginning of certain practice sessions. Some chants tell the story of important events in Buddhist history, while others request a particular type of energy to be present. There are also long-life supplications for our teachers. In addition, there are chants that dispel the negativity that can manifest as discord, sickness, or fixation. These chants invoke the dharma protectors, which are forms of enlightened energy that transmute and help to overcome environmental negativity. Invoking these protectors serves as a reminder to awaken our own awareness and inspire our ability to work with challenging emotions and obstacles.
Chanting is generally done as a sustained monotone – punctuation is not observed (although it is quite necessary when studying!) One word flowing easily into the next. Chants typically start the first sentence or phrase slower and “ramp up.” Similarly, the ending sentence or phrase “ramps down.”

The pace is quick but slow enough to pronounce and appreciate the words. The tempo is set by the day’s chant-leader (or timekeeper.) However the day’s chant-leader recites the chant is the way you should recite it. The idea is mindfulness of speech and that is achieved by everyone at the same tempo. Each chant-leader may recite differently but the basics are the same.

Breathing: If you keep a sustained and quick tempo without punctuation, it is difficult to recite an entire chant with one breath (classic example of the Heart Sutra!). When you need to breathe, simply stop speaking, take a normal comfortable breath or two, and resume where the chant is at the time. Do not feel like you need to catch up or rush. While you are taking a breath, someone else is chanting and so the chant itself will not be interrupted. Just join the chant and your neighbor will take a breath while you are chanting.

By tradition, chanting is an intimate and powerful process. Chanting is done in a closed container (doors closed for example) whenever possible. Breaking the container can lessen its power and disturbing chanting can disrupt the energy. It is good form not to enter or leave the room during chanting. As always, emergencies are understandable.

The Warrior’s Cry:
The Warrior’s Cry is a traditional exclamation expressing inspiration and invoking bravery and gentleness. It is usually said at celebrations and special events.

The syllables are: KI KI SO SO ASHE LHA GYALO TAK SENG KHYUNG DRUK DI YAR KYE, and the meaning is:

KI KI    awakenment

SO SO   goodness in the world

ASHE    unconditional confidence and compassion

LHA  GYA  LO  (may LHA be victorious; LHA is the highest part of your being; wisdom)

TAK   tiger

SENG    lion

KHYUNG    garuda

DRUK    dragon

DI YAR KYE   (may these arise here)

KI KI SO SO (just these 4 syllables) are said as a joyful cheer. It can also be said as a “seal” after a thought or profound statement.
The Dedication of Merit 

(The Buddhist Dedication of Merit)

By this merit may all obtain omniscience

May it defeat the enemy, wrongdoing

From the stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness, and death

From the ocean of samsara

May I free all beings.

(The Shambhala Dedication of Merit, incorporating the Great Eastern Sun and Rigden principles)

By the confidence of the golden sun of the great east

May the lotus garden of the Rigden’s wisdom bloom

May the dark ignorance of sentient beings be dispelled

May all beings enjoy profound. brilliant glory.

This chant is often offered at the close of a Shambhala event or practice. With this chant, you are dedicating the merit of your practice and understanding for the enlightenment of all sentient beings. You can say this chant at the conclusion of practice sessions and other gatherings to signify that you “give away” or offer any merit that may have accumulated through those gatherings and activities and have no wish to “keep” it for yourself.

Shambhala Buddhism Culture Points

This section explains terms and names.
manjushriManjushri is the Bodhisattva of Transcendent Wisdom. His name is a compound of the Sanskrit words Man-ju (meaning charming, beautiful, pleasing) and Shri (or Sri , meaning glory, brilliance). The combination of both these words convey the kind of intelligence and wisdom Manjushri represents.

Wisdom is the most honored virtue in Buddhism. It is called the Mother of all Buddhas. Wisdom is the only path to make possible the great bliss of total freedom from suffering of all living beings.

In his fundamental form he sits on a lotus holding a double-edged flaming sword (to cut through illusion) in his right hand and a blooming lotus that supports the manuscript of the Prajnaparamita Sutra – or the Heart Sutra – revealing the transcendent wisdom of Buddha’s teaching – in the left hand.


YesheTsogyalYeshe Tsogyal is a feminine balance to the previous three male teachers and bodhisattvas.

Yeshe Tsogyal (757–817), was the consort of the great Indian tantric teacher Padmasambhava, the founder-figure of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

Both the Nyingma and Karma Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism recognize Yeshe Tsogyal as a female Buddha. The translators of Lady of the Lotus-Born, the namthar or spiritual biography that Yeshe Tsogyal left as a terma, observe:
As Dodrup Tenpai Nyima makes clear, beings able to reveal Termas must have at least the realization of the Perfection Stage practices. On the other hand, the one who originates the Treasures must have the supreme attainment of Buddhahood. Lady of the Lotus-Born is thus a testimony of Yeshe Tsogyal’s enlightenment.

From the mouth of a lotus was born
The swift goddess, heroic liberator
Who went forth in human form
Amid the snowy mountains of Tibet.

According to legend, Yeshe Tsogyal was born in the same manner as the Buddha, a mantra sounding as her mother gave birth painlessly. She is considered a reincarnation of the Buddha’s own mother, Maya. Her name, “Wisdom Lake Queen” (Wylie: ye shes mtsho rgyal), derives from her birth causing a nearby lake to double in size.


AvalokiteshvaraThe Bodhisattva of Great Compassion
The Sanskrit name “Avalokiteshvara” means “the lord who looks upon the world with compassion”.

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is the embodiment of great compassion. He has vowed to free all sentient beings from suffering.

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is has great powers and can help all sentient beings. His skilful means are limitless and he can appear in any form in all the six realms of existence to relieve the suffering of the sentient beings who live there. He vowed to rescue those who call on him when they are in suffering, for example, when caught in a fire, shipwrecked or facing an attack.

In Buddhist art, Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is sometimes shown with eleven heads, 1000 hands and eyes on the palms of each hand (Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva). The thousand eyes allow the bodhisattva to see the sufferings of sentient beings, and the thousand hands allow her to reach out to help them.

Mudra is a position of the hands used in several aspects of spiritual practice and iconography. It can be used to create energy channels (such as in energy practice or yoga); it can be seen in iconography to help distinguish one personage or deity from another (usually with other items such as swords or bowls;) and it often used to bring a deeper meaning to a certain being (such as a Buddha with a hand facing out denotes fearlessness or renunciation, a Buddha with palms facing up and resting in his lap denotes meditation.) Depending on your practice, there can be as few as five basic mudras or up to 108!

Celebrations and Seasons

Harvest of Peace or the Autumn Equinox

This holiday commemorates the season of harvest, of generosity, and enjoying the bounty of the season together as a community. The Sakyong and the Sakyong Wangmo usually give a Harvest of Peace address which is broadcast to Shambhala Centers worldwide. In Birmingham, we also celebrate volunteers, members, and new members, and witness oaths for committee or council positions if timely and appropriate. It is also a time of expressing your generosity by pledging financial support to the Birmingham Center and in doing so support the worldwide Shambhala sangha.

The Don Season

It is said that the last days at the end of the Tibetan year are marked by a propensity to lose one’s mindfulness, and as a result we can have accidents and mishaps. Such loses of mindfulness are referred to as attacks by “dons.” Because of such losses of mindfulness, we act in ways that are not kind to oneself, to others, or to the environment.

The period of ten days preceding Shambhala Day is referred to in our sangha as the “don season,” because such sudden loses of mindfulness can be more common – and is a time during which it’s recommended that we don’t begin any major undertakings such as extensive travel or big changes of life, but keep life simple and be very mindful, do a lot of practice.

Pacifying the Turmoil of the Mamos
It has been customary in our sangha to recite a chant called “Pacifying the Turmoil of the Mamos” during this time in order to pacify the karmic causes of personal, social, and environmental chaos accumulated through the year due to such unmindful acts. The chant says:

“When children do not listen to their parent’s words,
An evil time, when relatives quarrel,
When people dress sloppily in clothes of rags,
Eating bad, cheap food,
When there are family feuds and civil wars,
These provoke the black mamos’ wrath,
And various women fill a thousand realms,
Sending sickness upon humans and beasts.
The sky is thick with purple clouds of sickness.
They incite cosmic warfare.
They destroy by causing the age of weaponry.
Suddenly, they strike people with fatal ulcerous sores.”

The Vajradhatu Practice Manual says mamos are “… wrathful goddesses usually pictured as furious, ugly women. They can be dakinis acting as protectors. If reacted to negatively, they appear as fickle, causing all sorts of chaos. If understood positively, they serve as reminders of awareness, almost at the level of discursive thought.”

We pacify the mamos so they will not cause chaos but help us instead. “Pacifying the Turmoil of the Mamos” is an elaborate protector offering. By reciting the chant, we tune into the protector principle of awareness and reconnect with sacred outlook.

It is not the mamos that cause us to “eat bad cheap food, wear clothes of rags,” etc, that’s our own confusion, our dons, at work. We want to banish, or send away the dons that cause us to lose mindfulness (they’re the “bad guys”). The mamos will help us reduce our confusion if they are convinced that is our desire. If not convinced, they visit us with with their wrath, with chaos. In this way, they are protectors.

From the Shambhala Office of Practice and Education, “Remembering that the protectors, or dharmapalas, as well as deities altogether, are nothing else than projections of the richness of our own minds, by supplicating them, we are in fact rousing confidence in our own buddha nature. The function of the dharmapalas, ‘protectors of the truth,’ is to protect us from deceptions and sidetracks on the path, to detect and clear away any obstacles to fully awakening in the phenomenal world.

“Wrathful dharmapalas are known as mahakalas (masculine) and mahakalis (feminine). They are fierce and swift in destroying whatever obstructs the dharma.

How does this protection from these “dons” manifest? Dons operate undercover, by making themselves seem like reasonable parts of our minds. For example, if we’re in a hurry trying to get to a meeting and driving fast but carefully, and a car cuts in front of us abruptly, what could seem more reasonable than leaning on the horn and “flipping the finger” to the offending driver? Wasn’t he or she aware of what they were doing? What were they thinking? They’d better wake up!

By cultivating awareness of our minds, our thinking and our emotions, if a negative emotion arises suddenly we don’t automatically react in a “knee jerk” kind of way but allow a little space between the impulse and the action, hopefully allowing us recollect our basic goodness (and the other driver’s). We could remember that it is helpful (as always) to be gentle and kind toward ourselves and others.

Preparing for Losar, Tibetan New Year

Losar is the Tibetan New Year, a three-day festival that mixes sacred and secular practices — prayers, ceremonies, hanging prayer flags, sacred and folk dancing, partying. It is the most widely celebrated of all Tibetan festivals and represents a time for all things to be purified and renewed.

Tibetans follow a lunar calendar, so the date of Losar changes from year to year. It begins February 18 in 2015, February 8 in 2016 and January 28 in 2017. It sometimes falls on the same date as Chinese New Year, but not always.

During the month before Losar, in Tibetan households the eight auspicious symbols and other signs are drawn on walls with white powder. In monasteries, the several protector deities — such as dharmapalas and wrathful deities — are honored with devotional rituals. (At the center, we practice meditation and recite chants the last ten days of the year – we call it our Winter Retreat).

On the last day of the year, monasteries are elaborately decorated. In homes, cakes, candies, breads, fruits and beer are offered on family altars.

Fire MonkeyThis Tibetan New Year is the Happy Year of the Monkey!

The lunar Year of the Male Red Fire Monkey runs from Monday Feb 08 2016 to Friday Jan 27 2017. Under the influence of elemental Fire and the Monkey’s fixed element of Metal, it’s an era of building, creating and forging ahead.

The Monkey is wise but also unpredictable.

The nimble Monkey is an opportunist. Even in difficult circumstances, this canny creature finds ways to overcome and succeed.

Insight into the character of the Monkey is illustrated in legends and such tales as Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. Endowed with the powers of both Chaos and Creation, the Monkey brings potent magic that can work for or against the common good.

Sane Celebrations and Toasts:

At banquets, celebrations, feasts, and social occasions in Shambhala, it is customary to offer toasts. A toast gives us the opportunity to thank and ackowledge people that wakes us up by putting the person offering the toast and the suject of the toast on the spot together. Any beverage is acceptable – water, tea, or champagne – the feeling and the generosity are key not what is in the glass.
Traditionally the order or toasts offered is as follows:

  • The Sakyong (Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche)
  • The Sakyong Wangmo (wife of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Khandro Tseyang)
  • The Druk Sakyong (Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche)
  • others

Other toasts can include a toast to the sangha, the coordinators of an event, other leadership, other teachers of the event, or other aspects relevant to the occasion. Toasts can be humorous, poetic, or very simple – but they should always come from your heart. Sometimes, people at the event have been asked to present the toast for a particular individual. Other times, it is spontaneous.

Tibetan Prayer Flag and Symbols

The five colors of the tibetan prayer flags are blue, white, red, green, and yellow – and in that order if displayed horizontally. If they are displayed vertically, yellow is on the bottom. The elements associated with the colors make this placement obvious and appropriate.

Tibetan Prayer FlagsBlue – sky/space (at the top)

White – air/wind

Red – fire

Green – water

Yellow – earth (at the bottom)

The five flags provide other representations and characteristics: Five Pure Lights, Five Wisdom Energies, Five Buddha families, Five Aspects of Enlightened Mind, and the Five Directions. Many of these “fives” are closely related and sometimes interchangeable.

Prayer Flags are can be categorized as mantras, sutras, or prayers. (Earlier I categorized them by horizontal or vertical and by color symbolization.)

A mantra is a power-laden syllable or series of syllables or sounds. Continuous repetition of mantras is practiced as a form of meditation in many Buddhist schools. They are not really translatable; their inner meanings are beyond words. Probably the oldest Buddhist mantra and still the most widespread among Tibetans is the six-syllable mantra of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. OM MANI PADME HUM! Printed on prayer flags, the mantra sends blessings of compassion to the six worldly realms.

Sutras are prose texts based on the discourses directly derived from Shakyamuni Buddha. Many sutras have long, medium and short versions. Prayer flags use the medium or short versions. They can convey the essence of a teaching or a particular state of mind.

For purposes of categorization all the other text seen on prayer flags can fall under the general term “prayers.” These would include supplications, aspirations and good wishes written by various masters throughout the history of Mahayana Buddhism

windhorseThe Wind Horse (Lung-ta) carrying the “Wish Fulfilling Jewel of Enlightenment” is the most prevalent symbol used on prayer flags. It represents good fortune; the uplifting life force energies and opportunities that makes things go well.

The Eight Auspicious Symbols is one of the most popular symbol groupings. These Eight Symbols of Good Fortune are:  The Parasol- which protects from all evil;  The Golden Fish – representing happiness and beings saved from the sea of suffering; The Treasure Vase – sign of fulfillment of spiritual and material wishes; The Lotus- symbol of purity and spiritual unfoldment; The Conch Shell – proclaims the teachings of the enlightened ones;  The Endless Knot- symbolizing meditative mind and infinite knowledge of the Buddha; The Victory Banner – symbolizes the victory of wisdom over ignorance and the  overcoming of obstacles; The Dharma Wheel – symbol of spiritual and universal law (these are also on a wall hanging in the tea room)

The Vajra is the symbol of indestructibility. In Buddhism it represents true reality, the being or essence of everything existing. This pure emptiness is unborn, imperishable and unceasing.

The Four DignitiesThe Four Dignities – These four animals: the Garuda, the Sky Dragon, the Snow Lion and the Tiger are seen in the corners of many Tibetan prayer flags – often accompanying the Wind Horse. They represent the qualities and attitudes necessarily developed on the spiritual path to enlightenment. These are qualities such as awareness, vast vision, confidence, joy, humility and power.

Deities and Enlightened Beings – Deities in Vajrayana Buddhism are not gods as such but representations of the aspects of Enlightened Mind. Their postures, hand gestures, implements and ornaments symbolize various qualities of the particular aspect. There are other images depicted on prayer flags that look very similar to the transcendental deities. These are actually enlightened human beings such as Shakyamuni Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava, and Milarepa.