06 September 2007

How to set up a home altar

Setting Up a Simple Shrine

If circumstances permit, it is important to set up a shrine. The place should be quiet and peaceful (not near hallways, bathrooms, kitchens, etc.). The table should be about two feet high and covered with a maroon or golden colored cloth.

On the center of this, place a picture or statue of Shakyamuni Buddha. At the Buddha’s right side, place an image of Padmasambhava and at the Buddha’s left, an image of Green Tara. In front of the Buddha, you might place a clear quartz crystal or clear crystal ball.

In front of this, make the seven bowl offering with objects or with water symbolizing those objects. If the seven bowls are filled with water only, then in addition you will need an actual lamp (candle) and flowers. Finally, on the floor in front of the shrine place an incense holder and incense.

The shrine symbolizes the mandala of the Buddha and the hidden qualities of the nature of your own mind. We should try to keep it neat and clean and its atmosphere peaceful.

Seven Bowl Offering

The seven bowl offering symbolizes the objects of the six senses: forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile feelings and mental objects. The offerings are to be displayed so beautifully that anyone beholding them will be inspired. The bowls should be arranged in a straight line, close to each other but not touching, filled but not overflowing. Set out the offerings with an attitude of devotion and the thought of bodhicitta. Most often the bowls are filled with water, but on special days (full and new moon, 10th and 25th lunar days), the first two bowls starting on your left are filled with water; the third with a flower floating in water; the fourth, rice and incense; the fifth, rice and a lamp (candle); the sixth, water; the seventh, rice and fruit; and an optional eighth bowl can be filled with rice and a small conch or cymbals (tingsha) or anything representing pleasing sound.

The bowls of water, from left to right, have the following representations:

1. ARGHAM (chö yön): Pure stream water gathered from all the universe, offered to the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha). The purity of the water has eight qualities: crystal clarity, coolness, sweetness, lightness, softness, freedom from impurities, soothing to the stomach, and makes the throat clear and free.

2. PADYAM (SHAB SIL): Water for cleaning an object of refuge, as water offered for a lama to clean himself.

3. PUSHPE (ME TOG): All the offering flowers in the universe, including medicine flowers, fruits and grains.

4. DHUPPE (DUG Pö): Incense. Represents burning all appropriate incense for the whole universe.

5. ALOKE (MAR ME): Candle representing an offering of all natural lights (sun, moon, stars) and all manmade lamps, to dispel all darkness of the mind.

6. GENDHE (DRI CHAB): Water representing perfume, pleasant to smell and drink and put on the body.

7. NIVIDE (SHAL ZE): Food offered to the Three Jewels.

8. SHABDA (RöL MO) Sound and music offered to the Three Jewels.

The seven bowl offering should be done in the morning. First fill the bowls with water, chanting the Hundred Syllable Mantra of Vajrasattva, then place the flower(s), light the lamp, then light the incense. Sit facing the shrine and while chanting all the invocation and offering prayers, gracefully move the incense in the shape of the lower part of the letter CHA.

Then place the incense in its holder.

When you finish your practice, extinguish the lamp and incense (for safety’s sake). As long as the flower is fresh it does not need to be changed daily.

When the shrine is closed in the evening, recite the mantra of your main practice or recite the Interdependent Origination Mantra and the Vajrasattva mantra and really think that now all sentient beings have reached enlightenment. The water bowls are then emptied, wiped dry and overturned.

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