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All About Altars

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

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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.
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