Monday, July 17, 2006

Creating a Buddhist Altar

[image source]

On the Buddhism 101 listserve, there had been some discussion about creating an altar. Someone posted an article from Snow Lion Press this morning, so I decided to post the original article here.

Tibetan Altar

Snow Lion has received many calls over the years from individuals wanting to purchase items for their altars. To help answer some of the most frequently asked questions about the proper arrangement and significance of Tibetan Buddhist altars, Snow Lion's Gail Birnbaum recently met with the Venerable Tenzin Yignyen of Namgyal Monastery who has offered the following guidelines for setting up an altar and making proper offerings.

Why Have an Altar?

A proper altar holds images or representations of the Buddha's enlightened body, speech and mind which serve as reminders of the goal of Buddhist practice-to develop these qualities in oneself so as to be able to fully benefit all sentient beings. The reason for setting up an altar is not for fame, for showing off wealth, or to increase pride, but rather it is to reduce one's mental afflictions and to seek the ability to help all sentient beings.

Where to Place the Altar

The best place for an altar is in a separate shrine room, but if you live in a small place and cannot set aside a separate room for worship, any room can be used. The size of the altar is not mportant, but it should be in a clean and respectful place, higher than the level of your head as you site facing it. If it is in your bedroom, the altar should be placed near the head of your bed, never at the foot, and it should be higher than the bed. The altar should be either on a separate shelf or on a table set aside for this purpose that does not double as a coffee table or night stand.

The Objects and What They Represent

A proper Buddhist altar holds symbols of enlightened body, speech and mind, traditionally represented by displaying a statue or photo of Buddha Shakyamuni, a scriptue, and a stupa. At the very least, the altar should hold an image of Buddha Shakyamuni, the found and source of the teachings in our time.

Regarding the placement of the images, it is important that Shakyamuni Buddha be the central figure. Other images are not requisite, but if you have them place them around the central figure in this order: root lamas, yidams (highest yoga tantra deities, performance tantra deities, then action tantra deities), dakinis, and finally protector deities. The order of the arrangement is never by the quality of the material or the artistry. Often it is better to have only a few images, as too many can be distracting.

The scripture representing the speech of the Buddha does not need to be written in Tibetan or Sanskrit, but can be in any language. It can be the Heart Sutra if you wish to represent all the teachings of Buddha, or it can be a special scripture related to your practice. If the altar consists of three or more levels, the scripture should be placed highest on the altar, above the Buddha statue. If the altar is on one level, the order should be, from left to right: scripture, Buddha, stupa.

The mind of the Buddha is traditionally represented by a stupa of enlightenment, but you need not go out and buy a costly silver or gold one. A photograph or a clay model is perfectly acceptable. The stupa should be placed to the right of the Buddha image, or below the Buddha if the altar consists of several levels.

The objects on the altar also represent the Three Jewels of Refuge. If there is only a statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, think that it represents all Three Jewels. If there is also a scripture and a stupa, think that the stupa represents the Buddha Jewel, the scripture represents the Dharma Jewel, and the image of the Buddha represents the Sangha Jewel.

It is important to keep in mind that the objects on the altar serve as a means for directing one's mind to the Buddha and the Buddha's enlightened qualities, which one aspires to emulate for others' benefit. In maintaining an altar one is trying to cultivate the qualities of the Buddha-his enlightened body, his enlightened speech and his enlightened mind. By remembering these qualities and aspiring to develop them, one reduces the negative qualities of attachment, hatred and ignorance, and increases positive qualities like faith, respect, devotion, and rejoicing.

Making Offerings

There is no limitations to what can be offered, and there are many levels of offering. In general, one can offer any pleasing object, particularly objects pleasing to the five senses-form, sound, smell, taste, and touch. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it is customary to offer seven bowls of water which represent the seven limbs of prayer prostrating, offering, confession, rejoicing in the good qualities of oneself and others, requesting the buddhas to remain in this world, beseeching them to teach others, and dedicating the merits. Flowers, candles or butterlamps,a and incense are also commonly offered. It is customary to offer a part of every meal on the altar before eating and a portion of tea before drinking. The things to be offered should be clean, new and pleasing. Food should be of only the best part, fresh, and clean-never old, leftover, or spoiled food.

It is best to offer things that you already have or can obtain without difficulty. Don't think that you have to deceive others in order to get offering materials-they should not come from stealing, cheating or hurting others in any way. Rather, they should be honestly obtained. In fact, it is better not to offer things that were obtained in even a slightly negative way.

As you make offerings, think that what your are offering is in nature you own good qualities and your practice, although it appears in the form of external offering objects. These external offerings should not be imagined as limited to the actual objects on the altar, but should be seen as vast in number, as extensive as space. Offer food with the wish that all beings relieved of hunger, and offer water with the wish that all beings be relieved of thirst. It is important to think that the deities accept the offerings, enjoy them, and are pleased. Think that by making these offerings all beings are purified of their negative edge of the ultimate nature of reality is satisfied. The purpose of making offerings is to accumulate merit and in particular to develop and increase the mind of generosity and to reduce stinginess and miserliness. By making offerings you also create the causes for the future results of becoming naturally and spontaneously generous.

Placing Offerings on the Altar

If you have the space, place the offerings a little lower than the objects of refuge on your altar. When you awaken in the morning, it is customary to wash at least your face before approaching the altar to offer prostrations and then offerings-this is a sign of respect for the object represented there. One is making offerings as if one is accepting a dignitary or a great being into one's home, and it is important to be gracious and respectful

To offer water on your altar, you should have a minimum of seven bowls. Start with fresh water every day. The bowls should be clean. Pour a little water into each bowl before placing it on the altar. Place the bowls in a straight line, close together but not touching. The distance between the bowls is traditionally measured by the width of a grain of wheat. The bowls should be filled up to the space of a grain's width from the top-neither too little nor too much. Pour water like the shape of a wheat grain-in a thin stream at first, then gradually more, then tapering off at the end. Try not to breathe on the offerings.

If you have a butter lamp, you can place it on your altar between the third and fourth water bowls. Lamps or candles symbolize wisdom, eliminating the darkness of ignorance. In Tibetan monasteries hundreds of lamps are lit as offerings. There is really no limit to the quantity of either water bowls or lamps.

Blessing the Offerings

After pouring the water, lighting candles and offering incense, bless the offerings by dipping a piece of kusha grass (or a tree twig) into the water, reciting three times Om Ah Hum (the seed syllables of the Buddha's body, speech and mind), and then sprinkling the offerings with water. Visualize that the offerings are blessed.


Whether external offerings become pure or not, or whether they become a cause for good rebirth in the next life, a cause to achieve liberation, or a cause to achieve enlightenment to benefit all beings depends on one's motivations and dedication. Dedication is crucial. It will not exhaust or limit one's store of merit but will multiply and increase it. It is excellent to dedicate the merit of making offerings to the elimination of suffering and its causes from all beings, to their achievement of lasting happiness, and to world peace.

Removing the Offerings

At the end of the day, before or at sunset, empty the bowls one by one, dry them with a clean cloth and stack them upside down or put them away. Never leave empty bowls right side up on the altar. The water is not simply thrown away but offered to the plants in your house or in the garden. Food and flowers should also be put in a clean place outside where birds and animals can eat them. Bowls of fruit can be left on the altar for a few days and can then be eaten when they come down-there is no need to put them outside.
For those of us who also are involved in integral studies, having an altar may seem like a vestige of the tribal/magical mindset. Maybe, but having outgrown that meme as a central aspect of our lives did not remove it from our psyches. We still have that need to recognize the spirit inherent in all thinsg, including sacred objects.

We use an altar as a way to remind ourselves of the qualities of the Buddha that we wish to possess and embody. I have a beautiful Medicine Buddha on my altar that fills my heart with peace when I contemplate it. Simple as that sounds, that's what we ask of our altars -- that they help us along the path through bringing out the Buddha nature inherent in us.

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