Setting Up a Buddhist Altar & Sacred Space



Setting-up A Buddhist Altar & Sacred Space
Rev. David Xi-Ken Astor

This guide is meant to assist in creating a home sacred space with an altar for your Buddhist practice.  It is intended for the Ch’an/Zen practitioner, as the various Buddhist schools have different practice intentions that are reflected in how the various elements of a space and altar are utilized.   As contemporary Zen teachers that work to find pragmatic lessons in all we do in life, we feel that how we approach our intentional ritual practice should be no exception.   It is not what we do, but how our body-mind is during practice that matters.

An altar is one element of creating a sacred space where we retreat to quite the mind and sit in awareness.  The environment associated with this special space is what matters, not what is in it.  However, having meditation cushions, items that act to remind us of the importance of what we have dedicated ourselves to practice, and a consistent location is of importance.  How we go about fulfilling these requirements will be different for each of us, depending on the various demands our private lives require.  There will be as many options and materials to use as there are creative ideas.  There are very few rules to follow.

Consider taking a chair/stool/cushion into different areas of your home or office and sit.  Let your bodymind quietly experience each space.  It may be the light, the noise level, the view, or just a vibe that makes a specific area “click” as the spot for your meditation practice.  —- Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi

So, enjoy the project and send us pictures of what you have accomplished.  While Wayne Shi and I will not be able to visit your space in order to bless it, if you ask us to, we will do so with intentional mindfulness during one of our daily monastic services.

The Space:

Choose a location that is away from the more active areas of your home.  This is often a bedroom.  However, if you use a bedroom that is shared with a loved one, make sure you talk this over with them in order to obtain a consensus.  It is quite OK if the space is shared with others.  The area should be able to be shut off from the other spaces in the home during meditation/practice periods, if possible.  A space with limited or low light, and that is well ventilated, is preferable.   The idea here is to limit distractions, and create a space that is comfortable and inviting.

As mentioned, it is not necessary that the space be permanently set-up.  You might keep your supplies in a container and the cushions stored in a closet or under a bed, for example.  You can also acquire a wall altar that has doors that shut when not in use.  This is an excellent alternative for small spaces.  Many altars have been set-up on a bookshelf, and the meditation cushions brought out during practice time.   So be creative.  But the one basic requirement is that the space be consistent.   As we train the mind to be quiet, having a familiar space helps.


A home altar is difficult to define.  It acts as a focal point of our practice space.  It is an anchor, and in many ways, represents our intentions.  As such, it can be very personal, and what we bring to it gives special meaning as we practice with it.  There are very few necessary elements that may be considered necessary; everything else are personal touches.

We recommend that your altar consist minimally of three tea candles to represent the Three Jewels, an incense burner, and a representation of an Universal expression.  The Universal expression is where your creative imagination comes into play.   Most often it is a statue of Buddha.  But that element is not necessary.   Other iconographic images can replace the image of Buddha.  They can be an eight-spoke Dharma Wheel, an image of the mudra hand, a specific image of a column, a throne, flowers – especially the lotus, something like a fan with the Heart Sutra printed on it, maybe a rock or other natural element even.  Perhaps a nice scroll or print on the wall behind your altar is something that you already have that you enjoy.  Some altars have a ‘minimalist’ look with the candles, an incense bowl and a few flowers.   Unlike the Tibetan or Pure Land Buddhist schools, it is not necessary to face your altar in a specific direction or level of the house.  A basement space is fine, and often preferred.  Don’t think your altar must be like what you see in temples and practice centers.  A home altar should reflect your own needs for achieving a bodymind state of peace and contentment.

The layout of the altar can vary, but the one we use that is more common to Ch’an Buddhism and adopted by EDIG is: the Universal expression such as a Buddha should be placed in the middle.  The three tea candles are placed one to the left and right sides, and one in the center of this image.  The incense burner is placed behind the central image.  If you don’t have space behind the Buddha image, place it in front but behind the central tea light.  Other items can be placed on the altar but in a way that does not disrupt this basic layout.  For example, I keep a picture of my three teachers to the far left, with a red votive candle in front of my late teachers picture.

Place your altar along a wall or in the center of a room.  Put your meditation cushions in front of it about five feet back giving you room to light the candles and perform the incense offering ritual.  If you have a chan bell, it should be placed to the left of the cushion, and a fish-drum to the right.  This is not necessary at all.  But as your practice matures, you will want to add these to your practice space in order to do bell meditation and chanting.


Have fun putting your altar together, but be thoughtful.  Maybe your altar is going to be a “work in progress” until you find the right elements that express your personal practice intentions.  Use the pictures below for some ideas.

If you are interested in obtaining an EDIG Practice Manual, please send us an email at



Multi-Dimensional Aspects of the Four Noble Truths

By: Rev. David Xi-Ken Astor 曦 肯

The following lesson on the Four Noble Truths was first published on the website Order of Engaged Buddhists.  It is re-posted here for our lay students and followers.  

There is an interesting dimension to Buddhist teaching which is both inspiring and fascinating, but which is not always apparent to either the beginning student or even the more experienced ones.  That is, how often do we hear specific Buddhist lessons presented that often mysteriously reflect other aspects of Buddhist thought other than the one presented.  Specifically I am thinking about the Four Noble Truths.  I have awakened to how the whole Buddhist path is a macrocosm that can be expressed and understood through each element of teaching within it, starting with the Noble Truths.  Consider for a moment the lessons inherent in the Jewel Net Of Indra.  Where each jewel reflects all the other jewels in the net of co-dependence,  and that this net is a metaphor for the nature of our Universe.  This is somewhat a revelation for some when they come to realize how Buddhist lessons can be studied and are often capable of showing how our practice reflects the essence of the entire Buddhist dharma.  This is also an example of the transformation of ideas that reflect how we must encounter and understand the lessons from different traditions in order to give us a chance for a clearer meaning to our understanding of the dharma in our contemporary lives.  Even if we do not adapt them to our own platform and practice.  The Dalai Lama expressed it this way, “Buddhism is more than an Asian religion.  As the teachings of the Buddha (dharma) become better know and practiced in Western countries, it is vital to understand their place in Western history and culture.”

The challenge of this realization comes when we consider that each Buddhist tradition has developed over time their own interpretations, selected and adopted suttas, and external concepts and practices outside the Buddhist Cannon.  But at the same time these external concepts become a part of the Cannon within their tradition, and are reflected along with the standard teachings that are common to all the other traditions.  For example, some traditions are more comfortable relying on mystical and metaphysical interpretations and beliefs and finding ways to integrate them into their common teaching, than are other traditions.   Yet, the underlying message is basically the same.  The Buddhist practitioner must decide which tradition best reflects their own worldview and practices, and then commit to follow the path according.  But we must always work to find the lesson that reflects Universal reality, or Dharma.  We must also remember that this is a mutual-causal Universe and we must leave room open for change as our own experiences, and expert research by others, points to a clearer understanding of the Dharma as time evolves.

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Buddha Is Not Dharma

Buddha Is Not Dharma
David Xi-Ken Astor

“We take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha”.   If we follow Buddhist thought, and not accept a duel state of being, we may come to realize that while we make distinctions of the Three Jewels in practice, in reality they are not separate phenomena.  They are interdependent and connected as one reality, and are components of the principle of Inter-dependent Origination.  So, we come to ask the question, “how can ultimate reality be embodied in the form of a person (Buddha)?”   I would argue that if we strictly apply Buddhist logic, it isn’t.  It is a kind of paradox, and what is “ultimate reality” anyway?

We use the term “Buddha nature” rather freely sometimes without a clear notion of what we are talking about.  Yes, as human beings (and the historic Buddha was that) we are both Universal and unique expressions of the Universe at the same time.  Buddha nature is an expression that points to our inclusion in the Dharma; we manifest an image or reflection or intimation of that which can not be separate from all the other expression the Universe is.  Life as we know it can be considered as a large fabric woven of all the various expressions that in totality makes up what we know as reality.  Remember that science tells us that we have only identified about 8% of what makes up the Universe.  We have a long way to go yet in our exploration.  Dharma goes beyond this limited notion of reality to encompass both what we can know, and that which is unknown.

Some Buddhist traditions acknowledge the passing of the Buddha into nirvana, as an act of absolute deliverance from suffering as though it is a place or dimension somewhere.  They suggest some kind of termination of his manifestation in the human form to something “other”.  The danger in this belief is that it suggests a duel nature, something Siddhartha denies in his doctrine of not-self.  Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, said, “For whatever can be named leads to dualism, and Buddhism is not dualistic.  To take hold of this notion of non-duality is the aim of Zen’.   Hui-neng’s teacher said, “One will not get rid of birth and death if one constantly thinks of other Buddha’s.  However, if one retains one’s mindfulness, one is sure to reach the further shore.”  In the Vajraccedika-parajnaparamita Sutra the Buddha states, “If any one wishes to see me in form, or to seek me in sound, this person is treading an evil path and he cannot see the Tathagata.”  His meaning here is only clearly understood if you also understand the term “further shore”.  Our practice must bring us to understanding and liberation from all attachments that act to distort our awakening to how the Universe is and we are in it, including the form of the Buddha too.  This recalls to mind the Zen expression “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

From a contemporary point of view, away from medieval logic, it can’t be said that the Buddha is revered and worshiped in either his human form or a Universal metaphysical expression.  Dharma is beyond all of these states of thinking.  So if we consider our human Buddha nature appropriating a specific definition, then it can not really be the Dharma.  On the other hand, if Buddha nature is given emptiness of definition and possession of absolute suchness, then we have an opportunity to awaken to Dharma.  Only from the Dharma we come to see the Buddha as he is, and not vice versa.

Meaning Of Buddhist Altar Elements & Ritual Practice

Meaning Of Buddhist Altar Elements & Ritual Practice
Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor 曦 肯

In our post Setting-up A Buddhist Altar & Scared Space, we have giving you a guideline on how to set up a practice altar representing elements common to both the Soto Zen and Pragmatic Zen school’s construction.  Each Buddhist tradition has developed over the ages a specific set of standards for what elements should be found on an altar.  The variations can sometimes be overwhelming, especially when considering how the Asian communities have incorporated indigenous elements into their ritual practice that have taken on great value over the centuries.  It can even vary depending on whither it is for temple or private practice.  For Zen Buddhists, a simple and refined look has been adopted in the West that might reflect it’s Japanese influence perhaps.   Each item we place on the altar has a specific meaning and represent aspects of the reality we are awakened to that points directly to how the Universe is.  These elements are both symbolic, and useful at the same time.  No duality in either purpose or intent.   It is another example of the lesson on “Appropriate View” incorporated in the Eightfold Path.

The following altar elements and their meaning are standard for Zen ritual practice, but are not the only ones to be found on Zen Buddhist altars around the world.  Cultural and individual school tradition can dictate variations to these standards that is only to be expected when we value the ever changing nature of human expectation.   Altar elements are tools of ritual practice, and are used with intentional action as we engage them to bring meaning into our daily practice.

Buddha Image:  While it is true that many altars have a statue of a Buddha, generally the Historical Buddha Siddhartha Gotama, it is not necessary.  If not a Buddha, than a representation of a natural element is placed on the altar as a central focus.  This image is consider the “reflective” and translucent” element.  Yes, it is a Buddha image generally, but it is not ABOUT Siddhartha directly.  It is not an element of worship from a Zen perspective.  The central meaning of this element is one of pointing directly at our own true potential for awakening to how the Universe is.   It is a reminder of our universal-being.  We find that many of these images of an “altar Buddha”  are made of reflective or translucent material, like metal, jade, or glass.  This is done so it reflects all that is surrounding it including ourselves; it is empty inside.  It represents that idea that when our practice is clear you can see right though us.

Incense:  Incense is the transformative element.  It is an excellent representation of the causal nature of the Universe.  Everything is in the state of change, nothing remains the same for long.  A stick of incense represents this reality.  It starts out being a solid, and when introduced to the natural element of flame, it “transforms” to its original substance(s) and returns to the environment, to become something else.  It also represents the lesson “form to emptiness to form”.  This is why concentration on incense during meditation is a good practice.  Before our vary eyes we can see the causal nature of the Universe unfold.   As we light and perform the incense offering, we use this element to recite our vows of refuge.

Candles:  We use three candles on the altar to represent both an earth element plus the Three Pure Precepts.   As we light each of the three candles we should recite the Three Pure Precepts: do no harm, do only good, do good for others.  So you see, lighting both the incense and the candles is an intentional ritual practice, as well as having them represent meaning on the altar.

Salt:  We place an open bowl of salt on the alter to represent the meaning of purity in practice, as well as reminding us of the importance of preserving the vows we have undertaken to live a life of flourishing for ourselves and others.  After lighting the three candles and performing the incense offering, we raise the bowl of salt and recite the Salt Offering Gatha.  By the merit of this offering we are sending positive thoughts for all sentient beings to find success on the path to liberation.

Individual Personal Objects:  We may choose to include personal items on the altar to remind us of what we also value that supports our practice.  These elements connect us to others, or to other natural expressions of the Universe.  These elements are the “connecting” element that remind us of how inter-connected and inter-dependent we are to all worldly expressions.  We are Universal beings, connected to all other Universal expressions.  It is the objective of our practice to become awakened to this reality.

21 Strikes Of The Ching Bell Begining A Meditation Session:

We strike the ching bell 21 times to begin our meditation session both in the Meditation Hall and in our private practice.  The meaning behind the number 21 is based in Chinese culture.  The number 7 is the luckiest number, and the spelling of it in Pinyin is “qi3”.  The name for seven has an auspicious number PLUS a reference to the power of Qi.  The number can have the meaning of “perfectly completed cycle”, or “arising”.  The number 3 does mean birth, but it also can have a meaning in the Tao which tells us of the Great Triad which can be loosely translated to mean the “path from obscurity into manifestation”.  The Chinese like to combine numbers to create even amore auspicious meaning.  So, there is a relationship of 7 to 3 with its name “qi3” and three 7’s = 21.  Combining the meanings we could come up with this phrase: “Arise to awareness (obscurity to manifestation) and complete the cycle of practice to an aware state of mind through mindful meditation”.  Thus we invoke 21 strikes of the ching bowl.

© EDIG-Astor 2012