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.

Altar:

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 engageddharma.ig@gmail.com

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Pure Buddhism. No Such Thing.

Wayne Ren-Cheng

Pure Buddhism. No such thing. Pure words of the Buddha. No such thing. How can we be certain of this? Well, if all phenomena are impermanent, changing with each moment and, Buddhism is a phenomena then its components must undergo similar transformation. A overview of the Buddhist councils that have convened since the Buddha’s death is one example of impermanence.

FIRST BUDDHIST COUNCIL

The Buddha, at age 80, died in the village of Kusinara. His passing into parinirvana left his disciples with a legacy to continue and decisions to make.

Shortly after the Buddha’s death a lay-disciple named Subhadra, a barber by trade began speaking lowly of the departed Awakened One. He told others he was angry at the Buddha because he had refused without explanation a meal prepared by Subhadra. He tells all who will listen that they should be happy and content that the “ascetic” is gone. Now they can do whatever they want without the Buddha telling them not to. The causal effects of Subhadra’s intent and action were wide-ranging.

Mayakasyapa overheard the words of Subhadra. It alarmed him that such divisive language might rend apart the already fragile sangha. Mayakasyapa showed the depth of his practice. He applied wisdom and skillful means rather than succumb to fear and anger. His response was to convene a Buddhist council of 500 arhats in Sati-apanni cave near the city of Rajagrha three months after the death of the Buddha.

This is the First Buddhist Council. 500 arhats gathered to recite and codify the rules of discipline (vinaya) and the discourses (sutras) before they were forgotten or ignored. A monk named Upali was chosen to answer questions concerning the rules of discipline. Mayakasyapa knew only one monk, Ananda, who could recite in full the many discourses given by the Buddha. However, Ananda had not yet achieved the status of arhat and so was prohibited from attending the council.

Ananda had been a loyal and devoted personal attendant to the Buddha for over thirty years. There is a tale the recounts Ananda was not happy that the Buddha had not shown him the way to enlightenment before his death. This made Ananda envious of Mayakasyapa in whom the Buddha had recognized an enlightened being upon first meeting.

It was Mayakasyapa who experienced enlightenment when the Buddha, without uttering a word held up a beautiful white lotus flower. It is said that out of the thousands of disciples gathered at Vulture Mountain only Mayakasyapa understood.

Ananda committed himself to achieving enlightenment before the convening of the council. Tradition tells that on the very night before he eliminated the final hindrance in his bodymind. Was envy that final hindrance? Given how the sutras say Ananda felt about Mayakasyapa it may have been. With his new status as arhat Ananda was able to attend the council.

Ananda is said to have possessed an extraordinary memory. He must have because he was able to recite sixty thousand words of the Buddha and fifteen thousand of his stanzas. Ananda told the council the Buddha told him that the sangha could discard the minor rules after his parinirvana. Ananda admitted that he had failed to ask the Buddha which rules those were. The 500 arhats decided then to keep all the rules.

After his recitation the gathered monks chastised Ananda for some of his past actions like not asking the Buddha what the minor rules were that could be discarded – stepping on the Buddha’s robe while Ananda was sewing it – allowing tears of women to fall on the Buddha’s corpse – not asking the Buddha to live for an eon or until the end of the eon – urging the Buddha to allow women to enter the order.

Some accounts tell that a group of 500 monks, lead by Purana returned from the south. When asked to approve of the pitakas he declined. He only wanted to rely on what he had heard directly from the Buddha, not what he thought of as second-hand information. Purana also disputed the value of eight rules in the vinaya.

Whether or not this happened it does reveal that disagreements about the Buddha’s teachings began arising shortly after his death.

For the next seven months assemblies of monks recited the Vinayapitaka and Sutrapitaka.

2nd COUNCIL

The second council was held in Vaisali about 100 years after the Buddha’s death.

Yasas a monk, was in Vaisali and saw monks from that city taking alms of gold and silver from the laity. The Vinaya expressly forbid any monk from handling those precious metals in any form. Yasa, questioning the monks found that these monks had found ten rules in the vinaya they felt were so minor as to be ignored. With this action the monks had defied the results of the first council where full adherence to the rules was agreed on.

The violations Yasas was concerned about were: carrying salt in an animal horn – eating when the shadow of the sundial is two finger widths past noon – gathering food alms from two villages in order to have two meals – holding two many assemblies during the same observance period – making decisions for the sangha without all members present and then getting approval from them later – drinking milk after mealtime – drinking unfermented wine – citing “someone did it before me” as justification for not performing appropriate duties – using mats with fringe – accepting gold and silver. Yasas told the monks that they were, in fact violating the vinaya. Then the monks offered Yasas a share of the gold and silver which he refused and was banished from the order.

Yasas gathered the support of respected monks such as San-a-kava-sin and Revata, and along with a retinue of other monks returned to Vaisali. Revata went to the Master of the order and questioned him about the vinaya. The Master refused to speak in private about the matter, preferring an open forum. The debate would center on how each group interpreted the vinaya, one of whom was much stricter than the other.

A panel of eight monks was appointed, four from each group. Agreement between the two groups failed and the monks who did not accept the decision of the first council held their own session called the Great Assembly.

The second council is accepted as a historical event. It has come to be called the The Great Schism, a cause of Buddhism’s split into the Theravada and Mahayana sects.

3rd COUNCIL

The third council is thought to have been held approximately 200 years after the death of the Buddha. It was in Pataliputra with the patronage of King Asoka, the Mauryan Emperor.

Asoka, who came to Buddhism after coming to terms with his own violent past, was known to be very generous to the sanghas. This had prompted many non-Buddhist gurus to don Buddhist robes and go around taking alms from the laity and gifts from the king. The uposadha ritual, the monthly ritual of purification was suspended because the false monks could not be forcibly removed from the gathering. This was important because of the list of 21 persons whose very presence delegitimized the process; one of which is “false monks who wear the attire without being ordained”.

King Asoka decreed that the uposadha continue and the monks refused. Asoka had some monks beheaded until the next to be punished was the king’s own brother. Instead, Asoka decided that under the guidance of a monk named Moggali-putta-tissa, the king would intervene and defrock those found to be false monks. Purified of their corrupting influence a group of 1000 monks was chosen to hold a Buddhist council. There the tipitaka and commentaries were recited. Moggali-putta-tissa wrote the Kathavatthu, seventh and final book of the Abidharmapitaka. In it he declared the view of the dharma as practiced by the Theravada schools to be the orthodox, the mainstream of Buddhism and refuted what he saw as heretical Buddhist views and practices. Missionaries were sent out to nine lands to spread the “purified teachings”.

Accounts of this council only appear in Pali Theravada sources so the historicity is questioned by modern scholars of Asia and Buddhism.

4th COUNCIL

There are two different events that are called the 4th council.

400 years after the Buddha’s death King Kiniska of Gandhara called for an assembly for the purpose of compiling the Buddhist canon again. Theravadan monks complied the Vinaya and composed a commentary on the Ahbidharmapitaka. Current scholarship is that this was not a historical event.

In Sri Lanka, 25 BCE, King Abhaya ruled a country undergoing social unrest and famine. He feared that the canon, until then maintained as an oral tradition would be lost with the deaths of monastic families entrusted with their memorization. In response he convened a council at Mahavira. There the canon was recited by 500 monks and inscribed on palm leaves. Tradition tells us that this was the first time the canon was written down. There is historical evidence of this council taking place.

5th COUNCIL

Burmese Buddhism recounts a 5th council convened in 1868 by King Mindon Min. 2400 monks revised and recited the Pali tipitaka. In 1871 a revised canon was inscribed onto stone slabs and erected in concentric rings at the Pagoda of Great Merit.

6th COUNCIL

The 6th council named by the Theravada school took place in Rangoon from 1954 – 1956 to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s passage into parinirvana. 2500 monks from eight Theravada countries recited the canon and edited out discrepancies among various versions of texts.

PERFECT WORDS OF THE BUDDHA

This history lesson is offered as a response to a statement made by a sangha member, and because history offers clear lessons in impermanence and causal conditioning. After reciting a sutra I said that some of the language, specifically words were changed in order to covey a clearer meaning to a Western audience. In Pragmatic Buddhism we call this creative re-description. The response was that the perfect words of the Buddha must not be changed. They are pure and complete.

The only perfect or pure words of the Buddha were spoken by the Buddha. Bold statement but a factual one. After that came impermanence, came causal conditioning, and came the perceptions of human beings; each of which certainly brought about changes to those words.

Great respect must be shown to Ananda for his prodigious memory. He is said to have recited word-for-word sixty thousand words of the Buddha and fifteen thousand of his stanzas. Without Ananda’s, and generations of monks after him ability to memorize vast amounts of text Buddhism would have faded away. The monk Purana had the luxury of living during the Buddha’s lifetime and of hearing the sutras firsthand. Within a generation there was no one left who had heard the words directly. For the next 400 years Buddhism was an oral tradition.

Remember though that no matter how great a memory Ananda had for words, he did forget to ask the Buddha what minor rules he was talking about. This error of omission can be viewed as the first moment the Buddha’s words underwent change.

100 years passed before monks gathered again to recite the Buddha’s words. In Vaisali the monks had decided that some of the rules didn’t work for them so they changed them. While the monk Yasas made quite a big deal about the rules the truth is that those monks were following what the Buddha said. The Buddha made clear that the dharma was impermanent and dynamic in that it should transform according to time, culture and experience.

Disagreement concerning the Buddha’s words led to one group of monks dividing into two, Theravada and Mahayana.

200 years after the Buddha’s death his words “false monks who wear the attire without being ordained” were used to justify King Ashoka’s beheading of monks because they wouldn’t heed his declaration and continue with the uposadha. A monk, Moggaliputtatissa using the Buddha’s words and skillful means caused the king to change his thoughts and actions resulting in the convocation of the 3rd council. It was then that Moggaliputtatissa used his own interpretation of the Buddha’s words to write the Kathavatthu. He told the gathered that the Theravada schools were the orthodox, Buddhism truer to the Buddha’s words and missionaries spread to nine lands speaking the words of the purified teachings. Purification requires change.

The 4th council held in Sri Lanka is most noteworthy because it was then that the Buddha’s words were first written down. The oral tradition became a written tradition in that moment. The words written were influenced by over 200 years of Theravada tradition and practice. This would have had a tremendous effect on the language of the texts.

In 1868, around 2200 years after the Buddha’s death Burmese (Myanmar) monks held what is accepted as the 5th Buddhist council. Then they recited and revised the canon. No doubt that part of their revision included changing the wording according to their time and culture.

At the 6th council in 1954 monks from the Theravada school recited and edited their own texts of the Buddha’s words in order to remove what they experienced as discrepancies or errors. From the 2nd council to that moment the Buddha’s words underwent change within their tradition.

Since the Buddha’s death there have been no “true or pure” words of the Buddha. Each time the words are spoken or written down the time, culture, perceptions and wants of the group or individual have altered the language, the words. And that is okay. It is what the Buddha expected and wanted to happen.

What is clear is that Buddhist sects from India to South Asia to China to Tibet to Japan, and now to the rest of the world might use different words and phrases dependent on their culture, what hasn’t changed is the intent of the Buddha’s words, as Buddhists to be wholesome transformative forces in the world. The intent to alleviate suffering with compassion, generosity, acceptance and wisdom is the foundation of all Buddhist traditions.

SIDEBAR: The history of the Buddhist councils reveals a truth about Buddhists. Buddhists can be petty, malicious, angry and entitled, we just try harder than most to NOT be.

Reciting the Three Refuges as Intentional Practice

Engaging the Three Refuges

by Wayne Ren-Cheng for a talk at the Buddha Center, Second Life – 030317

Across Buddhist traditions the Three Refuges (P., tritratna) is the initial step for all on the Noble Path. In the Chinese Ch’an tradition reciting the Three Refuges (also known as the Three Treasures or Three Jewels of Buddhism) is how a person “becomes” a Buddhist, it is known as Taking Refuge (P., sarana). It is a recognition that at any time, when needed a Buddhist can return to, or find sanctuary in the Three Refuges. It is not an act of conversion. It is a choice. We can choose approach the Noble Path with the knowledge that Siddhartha was a human being like ourselves, one whose example we can follow. We can approach the Noble Path with the realization that the dharma is a dynamic reality. We can approach the Noble Path alongside others who have similar goals and are searching for similar experiences.

The precise meanings of each of jewels, their interconnectedness, and how to honor each differs between traditions, while the intent remains steadfast. The intent being that once on the Noble Path the practitioner can return to the ideals of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha whenever needed to reinforce and strengthen practice needed to deal with the realities of human existence.

In the Buddhavagga Sutra is found these verses about refuge:

They go to many a refuge, to mountains and forests, to park and tree shrines: people threatened with danger.

That’s not the secure refuge, not the supreme refuge, that’s not the refuge, having gone to which,

you gain release from all suffering & stress.

But when, having gone to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Sangha for refuge, you see with right discernment the four noble truths —

stress,the cause of stress, the transcending of stress, & the noble eightfold path, the way to the stilling of stress:

that’s the secure refuge, that, the supreme refuge, that is the refuge, having gone to which, you gain release

from all suffering & stress.

Buddhavagga Sutra

In Engaged Dharma the Three Refuges are recited before any session, whether at home in front of a personal altar or with the sangha.

THE THREE REFUGES

I go for refuge to the Buddha, the teacher.
I go for refuge to the Dhamma, the teaching.
I go for refuge to the Sangha, the taught.

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dhamma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

I have taken refuge in the Buddha.
I have taken refuge in the Dhamma.
I have taken refuge in the Sangha.

SVA HA!

Sutta Pitaka, Khuddaka Nikaya, Saranagamana Sutta

The three repetitions follow the traditional Ch’an ritual of intent. The first recitation is to remind us that we made the choice to walk the Noble Path by going to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha for shelter. The second, that we accept the Refuges as moment-to-moment ideals that must be engaged in the reality of the world we live in. The third, that we realize that refuge, serenity and equanimity can always be returned to. Once the recitation ceremony is completed then the intent of the Three Refuges becomes part of our consciousness, and with repetition the Three Refuges become firm in our unconscious mind and become a foundational cause of HOW we are. It is a simple act of intentional recitation, deep listening, and solemn reminder of a chosen path. It is a ritual done with the intent to transform how we are.

The Buddha – The Physical Body

At times in life we may become disillusioned or be assailed by doubt that one human being can have an appreciable effect on the unsatisfactoriness and suffering we recognize around, and within us. We can feel ourselves stepping back from our commitment.

Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha lived and died as a human being. He encountered the same experiences as any other person of his place and time. He was simply a man who wanted to find a way to relieve unsatisfactoriness and suffering and committed himself to finding a way. He is the personal, human component in Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Siddhartha didn’t come to realize a path out of unsatisfactoriness and suffering by hiding out in a cave or sequestering himself in a monastery. He sat under a bodhi tree in full view of anyone walking by and meditated until he awakened with the realization of the Four Ennobling Truths. Then came Siddhartha’s moment of doubt . . . was this realization too much for others to understand? . . . do I have the skills necessary to get the message to others? . . . he ultimately decided that it would be selfish to keep this knowledge to himself because with the knowledge came the responsibility to tell others.

Each of us have moments of doubt. Can we do it . . . whatever it is? We can look to Siddhartha as our example, and go on to be an example to others. Then we take refuge in the Buddha.

The Dharma – The Teaching Body

Traditionally the dharma (P., dhamma) in Buddhist philosophy has three manifestations. The Dharma recorded as the words of the Buddha in the Nikayan texts are scriptural dharma. Realized Dharma arises when the practitioner puts information into practice and comprehends its positive transformational effects. Third is the dharma that is the reality of the world we live in. It is the realities of causality, the not-self, and of impermanence. We take refuge in all the manifestations of dharma. Through the Dharma the Buddha presented us with ways to live in harmony with the world around us, ways to live in harmony with the people around us, and to live in harmony with ourselves.

To take refuge in the Dharma has other interpretations as well. It can mean to take refuge in the truths that have been revealed by our everyday experiences, the laws of nature, or the principles that govern our individual and communal lives. Beth Ross, Tricycle Magazine Website, Family Dharma: Taking Refuge (On the Wings of Angels)

As Ms. Ross writes, we have to look to everyday, moment-to-moment experiences and learn from them. We have to learn to be aware and accept the causal process of the Universe and take action within it to create and maintain human flourishing. While we have individual lives we must realize they are never separated from the communal living that goes on around us, what we do has its effect.

When faced with situations we can take refuge in the Dharma to direct us toward positive transformation.

The Sangha – The Community Body

In the Mahayana tradition there is less of a distinction between the monastic and the lay people; all are considered the sangha. The sangha is important because Buddhist philosophy and practice isn’t meant to be only an individual pursuit, it is meant to have a strong socially engaged aspect. From the earliest incarnations of the Noble Path the Buddha made it clear to his disciples that they must travel around and spread the Dharma through example.

The EDIG sangha at the Buddha Center in Second Life is a support network that offers friendship and the shared experiences of members. A sangha provides a fertilizer to help each practitioner grow into a socially engaged, socially relevant Buddhist. All sanghas allow the brain to think on a more encompassing scale as connections between members reveal that each are representative of the whole sangha. As a representative each practitioner becomes more than themselves, they realize themselves as a piece of everyone. This does not mean a loss of personal identity, only that there is no duality between individual and member.

It is through interactions and personal connections developed within the sangha that social selves arise. We discuss relevant issues and the effect of applying the teachings of the Buddha to them. Through social consensus decisions are made on the value of actions we have taken, and how we can better react to situations that didn’t turn out so well.

The sangha is a place we must be able to “air our views” without fear of judgement. We grow to trust the members of the sangha and this trust is a refuge.

Engaging the Three Refuges

Buddhist practice is all about re-wiring the bodymind, strengthening the positive practices we already engage in, and discarding or transforming the negative ones. This isn’t mind control or brain washing. No one, deity or otherwise is coercing you or can force you to change; it is up to you to choose your path.

Reciting the Three Refuges is a reminder that no matter what situations we face there are places of sanctuary. We can go to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha to refresh our awareness that we must accept the world as it is, and that we can take actions necessary to make it better on a personal and societal level.