Do you have an altar? When you want to turn your attention to the practice, to your tradition, to offering, where do you turn? You can face in any direction, obviously. You can be inside or outside, alone or in a crowd. It's said that one day, as the Buddha was walking with his disciples, he remarked that they'd arrived at a good place to build a temple. The god Indra plucked a blade of grass, stuck it in the ground, and announced, "The temple has been erected." The Buddha smiled, as we should - we know Indra's right, that the only place to turn to is right here, wherever we are.
Still, an altar has the power to focus your energies. The main altar in a Zen temple is called the shumidan, literally, the "Sumeru altar." Mount Sumeru, in Buddhist cosmology, is the mountain at the center of the world, and we humans live at the base of its southern slope. So altars often face north, looking up the mountain, beyond the human realm. They act as a compass.
What are the components of an altar? The first, at the center, is some object of attention - usually the Buddha, but maybe a bodhisattva like Avalokiteshvara or Manjushri; in Tibetan Buddhism, it might be a deity like Tara. This might be a statue or just a drawing. But ideally, when you look at that image, you feel just slightly off balance. If it's the Buddha, maybe you feel drawn in, on the balls of your feet, wanting to see what he sees; an image of Avalokiteshvara might have the opposite effect, knocking on your heels by setting such an impossibly high bar of compassion. In other words, we want to be inspired but not comfortable. (Luckily, any Buddhist image, if you think hard enough about what it represents - perfect wisdom, total enlightenment, all-encompassing generosity - should almost knock you off your feet.)
What else? Directly in front of that image, something for offering incense; if you're allergic (and many people are), then some other kind of offering - a little bowl of water is nice, and that brings with it a nice ritual of changing out the water every day ( a big part of monastery life).You can even offer food. I was taught that to the right of the incense, you place a candle or light source, and to the left, flowers, though a big temple altar will have both on either side. There's a teaching that the candle is the Buddha's eyes - so it needs to be lit for him to really be present in the room - and the flowers are his robes, so if they're missing or old, there's a kind of rudeness to that. Take that or leave it. The real message is that we treat the altar and the objects on it as if they have their own dignity and life, and we uphold that.
Those are the basics. You can go further, populating your altar with images of those you want to remember, from inspiring teachers or historical figures to family members or friends who have passed away. Some, especially in these divisive times, might even put images of people for whom they have trouble feeling compassion - certain political leaders or others who have caused harm - as a reminder to lean into the hard parts of this practice. The altar, in this way, is both a visual representation of your actual mind and a reminder to you of the way you might wish your mind could be.
If you haven't yet, if this is new to you, see if you can clear a little space - maybe even just part of the top of a bookshelf - and arrange a picture, a candle, something pretty. Look north, to the peak of Mount Sumeru. Light some incense.
Bow. Maybe bow again.
It's that simple.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
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