Buddhists frequently have personal shrines or altars in their homes. A proper altar holds images or representations of the Buddha's enlightened body, speech and mind. These images serve as reminders that the goal of Buddhist practice is to develop these qualities in ourselves. Daily practice at our altar gives us the opportunity to achieve these qualities so we can fully benefit all sentient beings. Daily upkeep of a small, simple altar is an easy and very beneficial practice.
The best place for an altar is in a separate shrine room. If you live in a small place and cannot set aside a separate room for worship, any room may be used. The most practical consideration for location is to find a place where you will not be distracted or disturbed. The items used for a home altar are nothing difficult to obtain and can be as simple or as elaborate as you would like.
- A support
- A statue or a photograph
- Seven bowls
- An oil lamp or candle holder
- A flower
- Fruit, small biscuits, or candies
- A small musical instrument such as cymbals or a shell
- Oil wicks or candles
The size of the altar is not important. It should be in a clean and respectful place and be on a level that is higher than your head when you sit facing it. If it is in your bedroom, the altar should not be placed at the foot of the bed. The altar should be higher than your bed. The altar should be either on a separate shelf or on a table set aside for this purpose. The table should not double as a coffee table or nightstand.
A shelf, the top of a chest of drawers, the mantle of a chimney or a small sideboard will work nicely. The facing direction of the altar does not matter. By definition, it is always facing the East. This is not the east of geographers, but the East within. This is because: "Where faces the yogi, is East of the yogi".
If you would like, you may cover this support with a beautiful cloth that is dark red, yellow, or white.
The Statue or Photograph
Once the support for the altar is properly placed and prepared, your altar is ready to hold symbols of enlightened body, speech, and mind. A statue or photo of Buddha Shakyamuni, a scripture, and a Stupa are the principle items. The idea behind this is very simple. The statue (or photograph) represents the Awakening and the Transcendence of Samsara. In front of these symbols, we place offerings that are an expression of our devotion.
The statue or a photograph is the central figure on an altar. It is usually a statue or picture of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Other representations such of deities and yidams like Guru Padmasabbhava, Chenrezig, Tara, Manjushri, or of a spiritual Master of past or present. Several representations may be used, since the manifestations of the Awakening are numberless.
The statue can be painted: the face and the neck of gold color (or gilded with the sheet), the hair (blue dark and not blacks), eyes, the mouth. It can also be dressed with a yellow square of brocade. The photograph may be surrounded by a kata. Statues may contain healing herbs, sacred objects, precious stones or jewels, or other offerings. Statues are usually filled with the help of a Lama.
A photograph - the reproduction of a thangka or the photograph of a Master should blessed with an inscription to the back. Rinpoches place three syllables OM, AH, HUM - one below the other - respectively on the level of the head, the throat, and the heart. These are the symbols of the Body, the Speech and Awakened Mind. It is important that this statue or photo be the central and highest figure.
The Eight Traditional Offerings
The eight offerings are made in seven bowls and a lamp. Beginning on the right, the offerings are water for drinking, water for washing, flowers, incense, light, perfumed water, food, and music.
Choice of Bowls
Seven bowls of a size relative to the altar are used to make all offerings except the light offering. If the bowls are made of something beautiful and noble, then the offering will be precious, beautiful and noble. Traditionally, bowls are made of silver or copper and are of the same size and form. They should be kept clean and polished, worthy, and clean, even if the material is simple glass which is also fine.
The first and second bowls contain water for drinking and water for washing. In practice, although the destination is different, the same water is used to fill up the first two bowls. It should be a clear, clean and drinkable water.
The third bowl offers flowers to delight the eyes and nose.
The fourth bowl offers incense.
When a bowl will not contain water, it is filled with rice upon which you place the offered item. The fourth bowl is filled with incense placed into rice. This incense is not for burning. The incense for burning placed in another container. A simple bowl filled up of sand or rice, put on the floor in front of the altar works nicely.
The light can be a candle or lamp.
Tibetan butter-lamps, with a defined form are in silver or copper. You can substitute for them with glass or candles and candleholders. Tea lights are excellent choices. You may use an electric "candle" or a bulb of very low power. Tradition says that you should never blow out the flame as it is same as putting out the breath of your own life.
The fifth bowl offers perfumed water. Using the same water as that of the first two bowls, add some perfume drops, rose water, lavender water, rosemary water, or saffron.
Sixth bowl offers food. The sixth bowl is filled with rice with an offering of beautiful fruit, a cookie, or candy. Be certain to change it before the offering goes bad. You may also use a small "torma" of flour, called chelzai - which represents the offering of food.
Seventh bowl offers music. On top of a filled bowl of rice place a symbol of a musical instrument. This is generally a shell (representing the conch) or a small bell or cymbals.
Maintaining the Offerings
The seven bowls must be carefully lined up and separated one from the other. They usually are kept about a grain of rice apart from each other. It is said that too much space between the bowls predicts a distance from your precious teacher. The lamp is placed either in front of the statue (behind the bowls) or between the fourth and the fifth bowls.
Method for the Daily Offerings
Bowls containing water must be filled up each morning and emptied each evening. Those containing rice may remain continuously in place until their appearance has lessened. Change rice each full moon. Take the rice outside, offering it to the birds, fish or other animals.
The three bowls intended to contain water are presented empty and turned over. Fill up them a special container reserved for this purpose. Fill each bowl, generously as close to the top as possible. Overflowing is considered a lack of discipline but filling just above the rim is just the opposite.
Bless the Offerings
Take some water in the perfumed water bowl (fifth bowl), soak an incense stick, or the end of a piece of kush grass, or moisten the right annular finger. Sprinkle the offerings. At the same time, recite the mantra Om Ah Hung three times (representing the Body, the Speech and Mind of the Buddhas. Or recite the mantra: Ram Yam Kam Om Ah Hung. In this case, the first three syllables purify, while the three following ones bless.
- Ram - represents the fire that burns the impurities.
- Yam - represents the wind that sweeps them clean
- Kam - represents the water that washes the offerings
After the blessing, as a sign of homage, do three prostrations on front of the altar, taking refuge in the three jewels and repeating boddhisattva vows if applicable.
Empty the water bowls from right to the left, then dust them and turn them over until the next morning. Pour this water in a clean place preferably outside or in a flower pot.
There is a more simple method of offering that may also be used. This offering consists of filling seven bowls of water.In this case, one fills up the seven bowls each morning and empties them each evening.
Other Altar Things
- A bell and dorje (Sanskrit: vajra) respectively representing wisdom and emptiness and compassion and skilful means.
- A holy text symbolizing the Speech of the Buddha.
- A tsa-tsa, or a small cheuten (Sanskrit: stupa) which are symbols of the Mind of Buddhas.
- Two small kapalas: Containers in the shape of skull, which symbolize destruction of the ego and contain substances representing wisdom and compassion
- Tormas: ritual effigies in flour or earth, symbolically representing the Lama, yidams and protectors