Be busy with peace, create your Tibetan Buddhist altar
Setting up an altar is a practice itself and an intimate moment to commit to spiritual development. As a representation of the qualities that we will unveil through meditation, it has multiple meanings: it is an endeavour to inspire our practice, a way to purify our delusions, generate merits and invoke blessings. Whilst size and arrangement are up to your preference and possibilities, the following guidelines will help you shape a Tibetan Buddhist shrine.
Start from the basics: altar layout guidelines
‘Transform your small self-cherishing heart and small self-grasping mind into the great heart and mind of the awakened warrior’
A Buddhist altar is a sacred place and, as such, deserves a respectful and clean dedicated space or, ideally, a separate room. It is your go-to meditation corner depicting the qualities of the Buddha that you wish to attain and, therefore, you may want to collocate it at the height of your eyes, either standing or sitting on your meditation cushion.
The altar represents the Buddha’s body, speech and mind, also referred to as the Three Jewels of Refuge: our ways to create merit.
At the heart is the image of the Awakened One, our Guru and/or Yidam representing His holy body. Adorned with offerings, this can be a basic setup for first-timers.
Tibetan buddhist statues are made of bronze and in fine details, according to an ancient tradition. They are, or can be, filled with mantra rolls and holy substances. Once you have chosen your statue, it can be blessed by your Guru, Teacher or during special ceremonies such as Rabne Chenmo.
Around the central figure can be added images of Tantra deities, Dharma protectors and spiritual teachers that are relevant to your practice and can support your visualisations.
On the left part of the shrine is generally placed a Dharma scripture, like the Prajnaparamita sutra, to remind us of Buddha’s speech.
On the right, either a dorje and bell or a stupa symbolise Buddha’s mind.
Although all prominent icons of your shrine, from left to right the Buddha’s speech holds the highest position, then - in order - the Buddha’s body and mind. Lower are the offerings.
If you do not possess any of the items listed above, an image of the Buddha and some offerings are also fine. Most important is the spiritual value attributed to the altar and its ability to renew our aspiration to achieve inner peace and be freed from mental delusions, in order to heal ourselves, the environment and other sentient beings.
OM AH HUM: an ocean-vast space of offerings
‘Visualise the syllable AH, it is the primordial symbol of space’
Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhist altars are adorned with offering bowls, incense, flowers, candles and butter lamps to please the five senses. In particular, light dispels ignorance with the brightening rays of wisdom. Key to making offerings is a pure motivation: cultivate generosity towards all by giving with joy and unattachment, gradually reducing our selfishness and its resulting negative karma.
Water is an abundant and inexpensive substance to most of us and generally not subject to attachment. Largely present on Tibetan Buddhism altars, 7 small water offering bowls symbolise the seven limbs of prayer:
homage and prostrating
offering to the Buddhas
confession of non-virtuous actions
rejoicing in the good qualities of oneself and others
requesting the Buddhas to remain in this world
beseeching them to teach others
dedicating the merits
They also correspond to the Seven Shrine Offerings: drinking water, cleaning water, flowers, incense, light, perfume, food. Normally these are eight offerings, including an extra bowl for music.
You may as well offer part of your meal, some tea, flowers and other delicacies, as long as they’re clean, fresh and acquired according to moral standards. Better to choose an incense made of pure healing ingredients, free from chemical or polluting components. Items on the altar should reflect as much as possible our conscious and peaceful actions
A tool to transform your mind
‘Develop bodhicitta, the altruistic compassionate motivation of wanting to benefit all sentient beings through your actions, and you will earn great happiness’.
The altar represents our deepest and pure intent to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, by developing our inner qualities.
Offerings should be made with a sincere motivation to stamp on negative karma, cultivate generosity and lay the causes for growing this - and more - qualities naturally. While reciting the mantra OM AH HUM, we can visualise limitless offerings pervading all space, pleasing and satisfying all sentient beings and deities.
Lastly, do not forget to dedicate merits accumulated through this practice: may all beings have happiness and its causes, be free from suffering and its causes, never be separated from the great happiness that is beyond all misery, dwell in equanimity, unaffected by attraction to dear ones and aversion to others and enjoy inner and world peace now and forever.
‘Recite the mantra OM AH HUM and you will develop the pure crystal energies of body, speech and mind.’
Setting up the altar and renewing offerings is a mindful practice that should be performed according to specific rituals with a profound meaning. An insightful overview is kindly explained in Lama Michel Rinpoche’s teaching ‘The Six Dharmas of Preparations’.
Note:all quotes are from H.H. T.Y.S. Lama Gangchen’s ‘Crazy Wisdom Oracle’