All About Altars

Whether elaborate or spartan, what a true home altar really needs is attention and faith.

BY: Lama Surya Das

 

Q

: I would like to create a home shrine. What are the essentials of a true Buddhist altar? Tibetans often have amazing altars in their temples and homes, but I would like to have something simpler, so I'm looking for the basics.



A

: I love altar practice. My home shrine helps focus my spiritual practice and create sacred space, and my meditation seat in front of the altar invites me to daily practice. Not that you need an altar or other kinds of props for following the path of awakening, but altars are a beautiful, and helpful, part of spiritual life.

If I don't have time for an hour or 30 minutes of meditation, just bowing and offering candles and incense--which just takes a minute--makes quite a difference to my state of mind, and therefore to my entire day. Simply entering that sacred space calms me down, brings me to center, and provides the blessings and awareness that I delight in through contemplative practice.

The late Buddhist teacher, Yogi Chen, offered the following five reasons for setting up a home altar:

  • "To invoke holy beings to come down and stay so as to enrich the wisdom and compassion of the practitioner and his family daily until perfect enlightenment is achieved.
  • All sorts of attendant practices such as prostrations, offerings, praises, etc. are included in the daily practices before the shrine, which helps develop bodhicitta (altruistic spiritual aspiration) and fulfill the accumulations of merit and wisdom necessary for the ultimate achievement of enlightenment.
  • By means of gazing at Buddhas, lighting lamps, burning incense, offering flowers, prostrating, etc., the functions of the five sense organs are completely absorbed in the Buddhist practices and hence the purification of the practitioner’s mind is enhanced and accelerated.
  • It is easier to form a habit of contemplative practice by performing daily practices at a definite place in the home, as well as at a regular time.
  • The grandeur and serenity of a Buddhist altar would demonstrate the practitioner's faith in taking the Refuge and give visitors chances of becoming acquainted with the delight and benefits of such practices."

    The basic altar is a focus of spiritual inspiration and beauty: it could consist of simply a candle or candelabra, or a flower or flowers, a crystal, a holy icon, a picture of a saint or religious leader, or an object endowed with personal meaning, placed, with reverence, in a clean and high place.



    A simple Buddhist altar, common to nearly all Buddhist traditions, has a Buddha statue or picture, and perhaps a candle, incense, and flowers. Ideally, Buddhist altars should be set in the east; this is because the Buddha sat facing east beneath the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, when he espied the morning star and experienced great enlightenment. The east is where the sun rises, illuminating us all. Of course, you can visualize this as being the case, regardless of where the altar is placed.

    If I don't have time for an hour or 30 minutes of meditation, just bowing and offering candles and incense makes quite a difference to my state of mind.

    A traditional Tibetan Buddhist altar has specific elements, placed on three levels. On the uppermost level is a central Buddha statue, and perhaps subsidiary statues. Other images, such as pictures and statues of lineage masters and are arrayed on the second level or tier, along with symbolic elements such as a stupa (pagoda-shaped reliquary), holy relics, a dharma wheel, vital Buddhist texts, a mandala, a crystal, a conch shell, a censer, a bell or gong, and peacock feathers.

    For simplicity's sake, it is taught that you need three things on a Tibetan altar to represent the Three Jewels of Refuge –the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings) and the Sangha (the community of practioners)--and the Buddha's Body, Speech and Mind. These are a rupa (or statue of the Buddha), a dharma text, and a stupa.

    Continued on page 2: Altars can be exceedingly simple... »

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