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.

  • 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.