All About Altars

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

BY: Lama Surya Das


Continued from page 1

In front of these, often on a lower third tier, are offerings to the things symbolized by the holy objects above. These offerings are represented by eight traditional silver or brass offering bowls, placed in a straight line, approximately 1/8 inch apart. They are filled with either water or the the following separate offerings: water for drinking, water for washing, flowers, incense, light (candles or a lamp), perfume, food and music, and something representing clean clothes (a piece of silk, perhaps).

These eight traditional offerings represent the things a devoted Buddhist householder in ancient India would offer the living Buddha and his monks and nuns when they came to visit. They are called the eight auspicious or significant offerings because they are associated with the arising of Buddhist teachings in the world.

Another interpretation of the eight offering bowls corresponds to the seven- or eight-limbed offering puja (rite) which Tibetan Buddhists chant while doing prostrations and taking refuge. This rite can included the following eight components of:

  • prayer (for blessings and inspiration)
  • bows (of respect and reverence)
  • offering (generosity)
  • confession (of nonvirtues and defects)
  • rejoicing (in the merits and positive qualities of oneself and others)
  • requesting (the Buddhas to remain in this world)
  • beseeching (the Buddhas to teach)and
  • dedicating (the merits and good karma of the practice) for the benefit of all beings without exception.

    Having your spiritual teacher bless your altar, meditation room, Buddha statue, thangka scroll (religious painting), mala beads and stupa, etc., is ideal. It is usually taught that Buddha rupas (statues or images) need to be filled with sacred objects and blessed to transform them from mere metal or paint into genuine representations of the Buddha. However, it is not absolutely necessary, as faith alone can infuse objects with sacred power and blessings, as many religious traditions of have demonstrated through the veneration of the bones, clothes and other relics of the saints.

    Of course, altars can be exceedingly simple. You could just place a cement garden Buddha in your yard, and sit where you can see it through a window.

    In a famous Tibetan teaching tale, an old woman venerates a dog's tooth she believes is a holy relic of the Buddha, brought from India by her son. Her constant prayers and devotion transform her, and bring blessings and inspiration to her entire hamlet. (Read this story in the Snow Lion's Turquoise Mane: Wisdom Tales From Tibet by Lama Surya Das) In the same way, our own devotional practices can support our inner development.

    Of course, altars can be exceedingly simple. You could just place a cement garden Buddha in your yard, and sit where you can see it through a window. Or put a single object on a small table, perhaps along with a candle or some flowers. You could also use a picture of your spiritual teacher as the altar's focus, or place it alongside a main Buddha image. I have a meditation room in my house, since I have been practicing daily for three decades. But when short of space, I have used a corner of my bedroom, walk-in closet, attic, basement, garage, outdoor tool shed, screened-in porch, tent, yurt, cave, and any number of other quiet nooks and crannies for my meditation seat and shrine. I love to create sacred spaces, temples and shrines, as well as retreats where people can join in this joyous, timeless path of awakening.

    Continued on page 3: »

  • comments powered by Disqus