What is an Altar?
Regardless of religion, practitioners of all faiths have an altar of some sort, a dais or portal through which they make a connection with the divine and take another step towards discovering their true nature. For Buddhists, the altar forms the focal point of their practice and whether large or small, it is one of the first things a practitioner sets up when they become committed to deeper spiritual practice.
Understanding the purpose of an altar is therefore important to establishing one. Contrary to popular belief, a Buddhist altar is not about idolatry or the worship of a deity in order to be granted boons or have our wishes fulfilled. A Buddhist altar is used by the practitioner to purify negative karma, and to generate merits which will create the causes for us to have conducive conditions in order to further our spiritual practice.
For higher Tantric practitioners, the altar also functions as an aid for visualisations. The Buddha image (whether in 3D statue form or 2D thangka form) takes central position on the shrine, and it is an excellent visual cue for the complex meditations required in higher Tantric practices, for example in the practice of Yamantaka who possesses nine heads, 16 legs and 34 arms, each bearing a different ritual implement. Thus the altar becomes a reminder of the qualities the practitioner is trying to achieve and what is possible when we move closer towards our spiritual potential.
Altars can vary greatly in terms of how elaborate or creative they are. Our personal shrines should be in accordance with our lineage, and reflect the deities we rely on and the practices we do.
The simplest altar is an image of the Buddha or our Yidam (meditational deity), or an image of our teacher with some simple offerings laid out before it. These offerings can range from something as simple as a bowl of water or a candle and some flowers, to more elaborate layouts involving sets of offerings with an esoteric significance.
General Buddhist Altar
A typical Buddhist altar has representations of the Buddha’s body, speech and mind. Our body, speech and mind are the three doors through which we create merit, so when we offer supplications towards representations of the Buddha’s body, speech and mind, we are creating the causes to develop the same qualities as the Buddha’s body, speech and mind i.e. to become a Fully Awakened One ourselves.
On a Buddhist altar, the central position is usually reserved for the Buddha’s body, in the form or representation which is given the highest priority in the student’s practice. This can be represented by an image of any enlightened being, for example Shakyamuni, Tara, Manjushri or Lama Tsongkhapa, in the form of a statue, thangka (painted image) or tsa tsa (a votive tablet or plaque).
The body of an enlightened being possesses the 32 major and 80 minor characteristics which are physical attributes representing the culmination of three aeons of practice and virtuous deeds. Therefore when we make offerings to an image of any Buddha, we are invoking their blessings based upon their practice over countless lifetimes which resulted in their full awakening as an enlightened being. Their placement in the central position on our shrine represents the significance of their role in our practice, as the originator of the teachings we rely on to progress on our spiritual path. It is an expression of our gratitude and recognition of their qualities, understanding that if we follow the teachings they have laid out for us, we will be able to accomplish these qualities too.
In general, on a Buddhist altar, the space on the left side of the shrine is normally reserved for a Dharma text, representing the Buddha’s speech. The Dharma text is revered because it represents the entire corpus of teachings which will lead us on the path towards ultimate liberation from all forms of suffering. The right side of the shrine is reserved for a stupa, a votive mound-like structure representing the Buddha’s mind.
Instead of a Dharma text and stupa, some practitioners may choose to place images of other Yidams on the left side of their shrine, for example their Tantric Yidams like Vajrayogini or Yamantaka. They may also reserve the right side of their shrine for images of their Dharma Protector, for example Dorje Shugden, Kalarupa or Palden Lhamo.
We can also include an image of our teacher on our altars. This is usually placed in a prominent position, either in the centre of the altar in front of the Buddha image, or hanging on the wall behind the shrine. Including an image of one’s teacher on the altar makes it easier to visualise our Yidams and Guru as one, as a potent way of empowering our meditations with the blessings of our Lama. It is also a powerful reminder to generate gratitude for our Lamas who make the Dharma accessible to us through their teachings and through example. As this gratitude arises, so too does faith in their methods and instructions. If there is space, we can also include images of our lineage Lamas, to tap into their blessings so that one’s practice will be successful.
Anything that appeals to our five senses, including (but not limited to):
- Sensory offerings: Representing water for drinking, water for washing the feet, flowers, incense, light, perfume, food and music
- Mandala sets: Filled with semi-precious stones, beans or grains, representing the entire cosmos
- Medicines: Representing the practitioner’s request for healing
- Dried herbs and fruit: Representing the practitioner’s request for longevity
- Food: Representing the practitioner’s request for spiritual nourishment and sustenance
- Precious metals and stones: Gold leaf, gold paint, precious or semi-precious jewellery offered on or around the Buddha images
- Garlands of fragrant flowers
- Anything that we have been gifted with, or we find pleasing. H.E. Denma Locho Rinpoche and H.E. Tsem Rinpoche have recommended offering any gifts that we receive from others, prior to using the gifts ourselves. In this way, we keep our attachments in check, and both ourselves and the person who gave the gift have the opportunity to accumulate merits
Dorje Shugden Altar
It is traditional for Tibetan temples to house the Dharma Protectors’ shrines in a separate room or building. Due to space constraints however, it is not always possible for lay practitioners at home to have a separate altar dedicated to their Dharma Protector. Accordingly, lay practitioners may incorporate an image of their Dharma Protector (in this case, Dorje Shugden) into their main shrine at home, by placing the image of Dorje Shugden on the right side of the shrine.
If space is not an issue, then lay practitioners are encouraged to follow the tradition of the temples. One can have a separate shrine dedicated to Dorje Shugden. In this case, the central image on the shrine is Dorje Shugden; behind and above Dorje Shugden, the practitioner should place an image of their root or lineage lama.
Note that Dorje Shugden, as an emanation of Manjushri (the Buddha of Wisdom) is an enlightened being who resides in great bliss and emptiness, and can therefore be relied upon as a Yidam. Thus although it is not traditional, his form can take central position on the main altar of our homes.
Anything representing the swift fulfilment of our requests and clearance of obstacles, including (but not limited to):
- Serkyem offering: Also known as golden drink, this can be any beverage and, most commonly, is piping hot tea
- Commitment substances: Milk, yoghurt, oats (with a pat of butter on top), tea and alcohol (commonly beer)
- Wrathful sensory offerings: Tea, wrathful flower, crossed incense sticks, candle, beer, wrathful food, spiked conch shell
- Water offerings: Representing our request to collect merits and develop generosity
- Incense: Representing our request to be able to hold our vows well
- Wrathful, powerful animals: e.g. lions, tigers, bears and dragons, representing our request for Dorje Shugden to assist us swiftly and effectively
- Weapons: Representing our request for Dorje Shugden to fight our negative karma and create conducive conditions for our Dharma practice
- Precious and semi-precious stones or crystals: Representing our request for the necessary resources to accomplish and complete our Dharma projects, e.g. constructing a monastery
In the same way there is a prescribed approach to setting up an altar, there is also a prescribed approach for the placement and type of offerings we make on our personal shrines.
Buddhists are encouraged to set out offerings on the altar, to generate merits by making offerings to the Three Jewels, and to generate the causes to cut our attachments to worldly things that we find pleasurable. The way we lay out our offerings can become a meditative practice in itself. For example, water offering bowls should be placed one rice grain apart, and the water is poured to the level of one rice grain below the rim of the bowl. The concentration necessary to achieve this perfectly becomes a training in meditative concentration for the practitioner.
Customary offerings made in the Buddhist tradition range from the most basic water offerings, to what is known as the eight sensory offerings: water for drinking, water for washing the feet, flowers, incense, light, perfume, food and music (set out from left to right). Each type of offering has a significance related to our spiritual practice:
- Water for drinking: Offering water for drinking symbolises the teachings and knowledge that the practitioner has ‘drunk’ (received) from their teachers. It generates the causes for the auspicious results of all virtuous causes and conditions.
- Water for washing the feet: In ancient India, it was customary for the host to wash the feet of the honoured guests, e.g. the Buddha or a King. Offering water to bathe the feet symbolises purification of our negative karma and obscurations, and generates the causes for us to develop humility.
- Flowers: Offering flowers creates the causes for us to realise Samsara’s beauty and its impermanent nature, and for us to be reborn in pleasant environments that are conducive to spiritual practice.
- Incense: The tradition of offering incense, to purify the environment and to invite the Buddhas into our environment, originated with Magadha Sangmo. She was a female disciple of Buddha Shakyamuni himself and the first incarnation of H.E. the 25th Tsem Rinpoche. It is said that monks who hold their vows well emit a sweet-smelling fragrance. Offering incense thus creates the causes for the practitioner to hold the vows well, thus purifying tremendous amounts of negative karma and accumulating vast amounts of merit to support one’s practice.
- Light: Like a light dispels the darkness, offering light generates the causes for the practitioner to develop wisdom which dispels the darkness of ignorance. Light offerings can be made in the form of candles, butter lamps, oil lamps or even electric / battery-powered candles.
- Perfume: Offering perfume purifies the practitioner’s habitual patterns of aggression, ignorance, attachment, and generates causes so that the outer environment may become purified and perfected.
- Food: When the practitioner offers food, it is a direct antidote to one’s attachment to pleasurable foods and substances. Offering food generates the causes for sustenance and longevity.
- Music: When offering music, the practitioner generates the causes to achieve the Buddha’s wisdom nature, and attain compassion that arises naturally from the wisdom mind.
Overall, these eight types of sensory offerings represent the practitioner’s attachment to the five senses. These five senses, when uncontrolled, result in the practitioner creating karma which perpetuates the cycle of death and rebirth. Thus when these items are offered up to the Three Jewels, the practitioner generates the causes to gain control of their five senses. In developing renunciation, they stop creating the karma which will lead them to take continuous and uncontrolled rebirths in samsara.
Most Buddhists will find the practice of making water offerings familiar to them. Simple and easy but deeply meaningful, the practice of making water offerings originated with Lord Atisha. According to this illustrious 10th century Indian pandit whose teachings were fundamental to Buddhism’s revival in Tibet, the eight inherent qualities of pure water resemble the qualities of the enlightened mind:
- Crystal clarity: Causes to develop a mind that is clear and alert
- Coolness: Causes to develop pure moral discipline
- Sweetness: Causes to always find delicious food and drinks in future lives
- Lightness: Causes to experience the bliss of physical suppleness, to be reborn with a good body
- Softness: Causes for our mind to be calm and gentle
- Freedom from impurities: Causes for powerful purification of our negative karma
- Soothing to the stomach: Causes for our good health, free from illnesses
- Clears the throat: Causes for us to develop powerful, melodious speech
At home, practitioners can offer any amount of water they wish, from one bowl of water to multiple sets of seven bowls each. However, for practitioners who wish to engage in Tantra, they should aim to make at least 100,000 water offerings in their lifetime, as part of their preliminary practices (sngon ‘gro). Doing so will generate a vast amount of merit for an easier livelihood and for the practitioner to develop a clear mind that absorbs the Dharma easily.
Those who wish to make more elaborate offerings can make offerings of medicines, dried herbs and anything they themselves find pleasing. Great masters also recommend offering a mandala set on the altar, as a method of generating a vast amount of merit. The mandala represents the entire universe according to the Buddhist worldview. The mandala set itself consists of a round base or plate and three or four concentric rings, and is usually filled with semi-precious stones, grains or beans before the set is crowned by a symbolic victory banner. Aside from offering the mandala set on the shrine, one can also perform the mandala offering ritual while reciting the long mandala offering prayers.
When offering the mandala, the practitioner visualises that the universe (represented by the mandala set) is filled with the most precious and beautiful items. In offering these symbols of their attachments and desire up to the Three Jewels, the practitioner generates vast amounts of merits to realise that what they find pleasing and attractive is, in reality, free from any kind of inherent value and is impermanent in nature. Upon gaining this realisation, the practitioner finds it easier to cut any attachment to these items.
What has been described above is the traditional layout for altars, and the traditional method of making offerings. However, as with any Dharma activity, what generates the most merit is anything that is offered sincerely. Once our altar has been established, what is most important is how we maintain our altars.
Maintaining an Altar
The act of making offerings, as well as maintaining our altars should be approached as a meditative practice. With the correct motivation and visualisation, taking the care to set out our offerings beautifully and keeping our shrines clean will generate a tremendous amount of merit for our practice.
According to the Lamrim, when cleaning the shrine we should visualise that our altar is the same as our mind, in the tradition of Chudapanthaka (Tibetan: Lam Chung), a disciple of Buddha Shakyamuni.
Known to be extremely dull but very devoted to his teacher, Chudapanthaka was unable to retain any of the teachings given to him by Buddha. With great compassion, the Buddha thus instructed him to sweep the gathering place of the monks every day. While sweeping the floor, Chudapanthaka was instructed to visualise the floor as his mind, and the act of sweeping to represent the removal of impurities from his mindstream. The Buddha also instructed him to recite the mantra “DU PUNG DRIMA PUNG” (Tibetan: “I am removing dirt. I am removing dust”) as he swept. He was given no other practices or teachings but this.
So dull was he that Chudapanthaka struggled to remember even the mantra. No sooner had he memorised “DRIMA” that he would forget “DU PUNG” and so on. Chudapanthaka however, persevered and after a long period of sweeping, developed great clarity in his mind and eventually became an Arhat in his lifetime.
Chudapanthaka’s story demonstrates that sincerity, guru devotion and purification are powerful, potent paths to attainments. Thus if visualised correctly, then the act of cleaning our altars can become a powerful purification practice. We can follow Chudapanthaka’s example and recite the same mantra prescribed by the Buddha, or recite Vajrasattva’s mantra as we clean our altars.
For reasons of inauspiciousness, we should be mindful not to leave empty offering bowls upturned on our altars, or any dirty and rotten offerings on our shrines. It is said that doing so will attract spirits to come and remain in the environment, to partake of the offerings. We can also develop a condition known as drib whereby our mind becomes clouded and drowsy whenever we encounter Dharmic and virtuous circumstances like teachings, thereby presenting an obstacle to our spiritual progress.
Thus when unused, our offering bowls should be cleaned and turned over, or kept away. If we plan to be away for an extended period of time, then all offerings should be cleared and kept away until our return. After all, if making offerings on and maintaining our altars can be used as a meditative practice, then keeping it clean even in our absence is important too.
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