The real altar is in our mind because a Buddhist Altar is just an external representation our faith in Enlightenment, devotion to the Dharma and respect for the Sangha.
Why do we need a physical altar?
The answer is, “You don’t really need it!” But the reality for me is that the image of Buddha acts as a constant reminder for me to practice. A designated area to house and honor a Buddha image becomes a spiritual living space for me. It is a little sanctuary where I can relate to Buddhism in a dynamic and lively way. This is where I light a stick of incense every morning and say my refuge prayer, precept prayer, and perhaps do a 10 min practice to prepare my mind for the challenges ahead. And if there is anyone who crossed my path or stepped on my nerve in the office yesterday, this is where I remind myself to smile when I see that person today.
It is almost like looking yourself up in the mirror before the day starts.
Buddhist altar is unlike other religions
This is of paramount importance. So let us get this straight. The Buddha is not there for us to worship like a god or deity. Buddhists are not servants of Buddha, and our various Buddhist practices are not meant to please Buddha. Once again, the image of Buddha is not there for us to worship. Buddhism does not practice idolatry.
The image of Buddha is meant to remind us of the Buddha’s qualities. This is important to a practicing Buddhist because we aspire to possess those qualities one day. It is therefore extremely beneficial for us to recite the 10 honorifics of Buddha daily.
In the mystical aspect of spiritual practices, identifying our object of refuge clearly prevents interference by non-Buddhist spiritual energy. Thus, it is important to know Buddha. And as Buddha said, “Those who see the Dharma, see Buddha.”
Keep our altar simple
Our altar actually reflects the state of our mind. If we have cravings and busy thoughts, our altar will also show it. It is always tempting to buy that beautiful image of Buddha when we are on vacation or online shopping. DON’T. And if you are in Asia, there is always another “magical” statue that is blessed by another “powerful” practitioners that will bring miracles into your life. (not a very Buddhist teaching right?) But greed may get the better of us and over the years, our altar becomes a clutter of religious artifacts. MESSY.
Moreover, there is a pantheon of Buddhas, Buddhisattvas, Arhats, enlightened masters, and dharma protectors. In reality, there is only one Buddha representing enlightenment. For a beginner, it is tempting to have a visual representation of all these entities. The result is a massive altar with many idols. Agian, this attracts mess and dust.
Once we allow ourselves to start craving for “powerful” Buddha imagery, we fall into the trap of idolatry. That kind of spiritual greed will keep multiplying. I think it is very bad.
As a Vajrayana practitioner, we may need a visual aid for meditation. I only allow myself to keep printed cards of tantric deities, put them up when I need them and keep them after practice. (just sharing a tip)
Keep the object of reverence in odd numbers
Okay, sometimes it is inevitable that we end up having more than 1 image of Buddha. In that case, it is preferable to have odd numbers of images. The reason why Buddhists prefer odd numbers on their altar is pretty straightforward. It helps us focus. The largest size image is always placed in the center and flanked by statues of smaller sizes or of lower “status”. Thus, the statue of Buddha is always occupying the center position. Cos’ He is the founder and we aspire to be enlightened just like Him.
If we also have images of Bodhisattvas or arhats, then they will be placed on either side of the main image. They are considered of “lesser” status. This creates a visual focal point where Buddha takes centerstage.
Another way is to create a terraced altar where images are placed on different levels. The Thai Buddhists organize such altar very well.
The number game is not spiritually mandatory but more of a typical aesthetic to help us focus during practice.
Keep it clean and hygenic
It is important for us to dust and clean our altar at least once a year. Wipe it down and make it clean. If we have perishable offerings like food items or flowers, remember to clear them daily. It is an altar, not a buffet table for pests.
I knew a Buddhist friend who claimed that holy beings were nibbling her offerings and I can tell it’s caused by house lizards? But I kept my silence anyway.
Keep it Buddhist
There is no prohibition in keeping Buddha statues alongside that of other deities. Well, at least Buddha won’t get offended. However, a serious Buddhist practitioner will not mix non-Buddhist elements into a Buddhist altar. This is again due to a simple reason. We do not want to be distracted on our spiritual path or meditation.
Some people are not convinced that Buddha Dharma is all that they need. In that manner, we will still see Buddha imagery being placed alongside non-Buddhist symbols and imagery.
Like I said, the altar reflects your mind and it is good to take a critical look at our altar once in a while and ask:
Am I being superstitious?
Am I practicing idolatry?
Am I confusing and contradictory?
Am I messy?
Am I clean and tidy?
Do I know the Dharma?
May all be well and happy.