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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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.