Your Sacred Space
Updated: Mar 11, 2021
My mother and grandmother hung on the walls of our kitchen a cream wallpaper with a pattern of green, yellow, and brown cuckoo clocks—an earthy, dull palette indicative of the late seventies. Years after my grandmother passed away, when we were preparing to sell the house, Mom refused to remove the wallpaper because it was the last project she completed with her mother. To her, the kitchen was her sacred space, connecting her with memories and feelings of love and compassion.
This is the purpose of a sacred space or altar that we make for our spiritual practice—a little area in our living environment that we reserve for connecting to principles, qualities, and characteristics embodied in the texts, statues, and reliquaries we enshrine. But a Buddhist altar should also be a place where we set examples of the kind of attributes that we seek to develop in ourselves.
Though there is a traditional way to set up a shrine, it’s important that it serves as your focal point in cultivating your spiritual goals. With the Buddha as the central symbol, it should serve as a constant reminder of the infinite good qualities that are not just the goal of enlightenment that we seek but are the path itself. Making daily offerings at our shrine, we honor the Buddha’s body, speech, and mind and cultivate generosity, wisdom, and compassion for the sake of all sentient beings.
Before being too concerned with finding the best materials, highest quality and most expensive statues, this following story serves to remind us that the most important element for creating a perfect shrine is a sincere motivation to cultivate the qualities necessary for our enlightenment, and those that help us to serve others to the best of our abilities.
A long time ago in Tibet, the Dalai Lama looked down from the top of the Potala Palace and saw an old devotee reciting the Kalachakra mantra around the Podrang Shakhor, a circumambulation path around the palace complex. His Holiness saw an entourage of Kalachakra deities surrounding the old man as he prayed. But the poor old devotee was not pronouncing the mantra correctly, he noticed, and so called out to him and corrected him on the proper pronunciation of the mantra. The old man was grateful for the correction but was disappointed in himself. Nonetheless, he started to recite it the way the Dalai Lama had instructed. Later, when His Holiness again saw him praying on the circumambulation path, there were no deities surrounding him as before. Although his pronunciation was accurate, his joyful spirit wasn’t the same. The Dalai Lama called out to the man and told him to go back to the way he had been reciting it.
The basic elements to include on a Buddhist shrine are a statue of the Buddha, a Buddhist text/scripture, and a stupa. These represent the Buddha’s body, speech, and mind. The statue of Shakyamuni Buddha represents the Buddha’s body. You may also have other important figures, such as Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Vajrapani, Tara, Padmasambhava, etc. If you don’t have a statue, a photo or thangka with an image of the Buddha will suffice. A Buddhist text represents the Buddha’s speech—which we also think of as his teachings, or the Dharma. A traditional sutra from the Kangyur—public and private teachings given by the Buddha, or a Tibetan root text from the Tengyur—commentaries by the great Indian masters. Whether it is a book or a Tibetan-style scripture, called pecha, or a western-style book, they should be wrapped in fine materials for protection and reverence. And finally, a stupa represents the Buddha’s mind (a photo of a stupa will also suffice).
During ancient times in India, devoted Buddhist households would make offerings to the Buddha, monks and nuns as part of their daily customs. In general, offerings are considered an antidote to greed and attachment. Offering to the Buddha and his disciples—usually in the morning before one eats breakfast—demonstrates the selfless dedication to one’s Bodhisattva Vows and to the gratitude and respect one has for the Buddha.
When we make offerings, we should see the statue of the Buddha as the actual Buddha himself and not a piece of brass, resin, or clay. Our prime purpose of having the shrine in our homes is to purify our delusions and to generate seeds for enlightenment by practicing generosity, the first of the Six Perfections.
Morning water bowl offerings—or yunchap—consists of seven bowls and a butter lamp or votive stand. These are set out in front of the statue on the edge of the shrine. The seven bowls and the lamp are representative of the eight sense offerings, so called because they are pleasing to the five senses.
First Offering Bowl – Water for Drinking | ARGHAM:
Water has eight qualities, which are crystal clarity, coolness, sweetness, lightness, softness, freedom from impurities, soothing to the stomach and makes the throat clear and free. As such, water is offered to the Buddha for drinking and to cleanse his mouth or face. This offering symbolizes the auspicious results of all virtuous causes and conditions. In the Seven Limb Puja, it represents Homage and Prostration.
Second Offering Bowl – Water for Bathing | PADHYAM:
Pure and clean water is offered to the Buddha for bathing. Usually, the water is scented with sandalwood, and is used to bathe the feet. This offering symbolizes purification of our negative karma and obscuration. In the Seven Limb Puja it represents Offering.
Third Offering Bowl – Flowers | PUSHPE:
All types of flowers can be offered, including medicinal flowers, fruits, and grains. The offering of flowers symbolizes the beauty and flowering of Enlightenment and signifies the opening of one’s heart. In the Seven Limb Puja, the flower represents Confession.
Fourth Offering Bowl – Incense | DHUPE:
Incense emits a beautiful scent. When offered to the Buddha, it symbolizes morality, ethics and discipline which are the basic causes and conditions from which pure enlightened qualities are cultivated. In the Seven Limb Puja, incense represents Rejoicing in all the virtue in the world.
Butter Lamp or Fifth Offering Bowl – Light | ALOKHE:
This light used for offering comes in different forms, including all-natural light, such as the sun, moon and stars, as well as all types of man-made forms of light such as lamps and candles. This offering symbolizes the dispelling of all darkness of the mind and all ignorance. In the Seven Limb Puja, light represents Requesting the Buddha to always offer Dharma teaching.
Sixth Offering Bowl – Perfume | GENDHE:
All types of beautiful fragrance or perfume that one can smell or put on the body can be used for this offering. Perfume is offered to the Buddha’s mind and symbolizes the perseverance and joyful effort that is the heart of Enlightenment. Without perseverance, all the other enlightened qualities could not arise in the mind. In the Seven Limb Puja, the perfume represents Beseeching the Buddha to remain in the world.
Seventh Offering Bowl – Celestial Food | NEVIDHYA:
Excellent, delicious food of all kinds and various tastes is offered to the Three Jewels. This offering symbolizes the clear and stable mind of Samadhi, or meditative absorption. In the Seven Limb Puja, food represents dedication of all merit for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Eighth Offering Bowl – Music | SHABTA:
Musical instruments such as cymbals, bells, lutes, and string instruments that create beautiful sound is offered to the ears of the Buddha. Sound symbolizes the Buddha’s Wisdom nature and the extraordinary Compassion that arises naturally from the Wisdom mind. In the Seven Limb Puja, it is said that there is no eighth bowl for sound because sound is non-visual.
After placing any offering on the altar, recite Om Ah Hum three times to secure the merit and the blessings.
A friend of mine who teaches Buddhism in her home in Tucson, Arizona has a traditional shrine in a large room of her house. To one side of the shrine, she has reserved a space for symbols and images from other religions that are intended for the various student practitioners of different traditions.
When I put my shrine together, my intention was to create a space that filled me with the same awe as when I look at the altar at the Indiana Buddhist Center or the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center’s Chamtse Ling Temple. Before I make offerings, I make my bed, clean my floor, and prepare the room as though I were to have special guests arrive. This attitude of keeping my environment clean has crossed over into many areas of my life—my workspace, my kitchen, the rehearsal facilities at the various schools with whom I instruct, and so on. A clean and organized environment does wonders for helping to train the mind to also be pure and orderly.
May this help you to create your own shrine or to make improvements on your existent—though not inherently existent—sacred space.
Marc (Sonam Tsering)