A proper altar holds images or representations of the Buddha's enlightened body, speech and mind which serve as reminders of the goal of Buddhist practice; that is: to develop these qualities in oneself so as to be able to fully benefit all sentient beings. The reason for setting up an altar is not for fame, for showing off wealth, or to increase pride, but rather it is to reduce one's mental afflictions and to seek the ability to help all sentient beings.
The best place for an altar is in a separate shrine room, but if you live in a small place and cannot set aside a separate room for worship, any room can be used. The size of the altar is not important, but it should be in a clean and respectful place, higher than the level of your head as you sit facing it. If it is in your bedroom, the altar should be placed near the head of your bed, never at the foot, and it should be higher than the bed. The altar should be either on a separate shelf or on a table set aside for this purpose that does not double as a coffee table or night stand.
A proper Buddhist altar holds symbols of enlightened body, speech, and mind, traditionally represented by displaying a Buddha's statue or photo of Buddha Shakyamuni, a Scripture, and a Stupa of any size. At the very least, the altar should hold an image of Buddha Shakyamuni, the founder and source of the teachings in our time. Regarding the placement of the images, it is important that Shakyamuni Buddha be the central figure. Other images are not required, but if you have them place them around the central figure in this order: root lamas, Yidams (highest yoga tantra deities, performance tantra deities, then action tantra deities), Dakas, Dakinis, and finally protector deities. The order of the arrangement is never by the quality of the material or the artistry. Often it is better to have only a few images, as too many can be distracting. The scripture representing the speech of the Buddha does not need to be written in Tibetan or Sanskrit but can be in any language. The scripture can be the Heart Sutra if you wish to represent all the teachings of Buddha, or it can be a special scripture related to your practice. If the altar consists of three or more levels, the scripture should be placed highest on the altar, above the Buddha statue or at the right of the Buddha statue. If the altar is on one level, the order should be, from left to right: Scripture, Buddha and Stupa. The mind of the Buddha is traditionally represented by a stupa of enlightenment, but you do not need to go out and buy a costly silver or gold one. A photograph or a clay model is perfectly acceptable. The stupa should be placed to the left of the Buddha image, or below the Buddha if the altar consists of several levels. The objects on the altar also represent the Three Jewels of Refuge. If there is only a statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, think that it represents all Three Jewels. If there is also a scripture and a stupa, think that the stupa represents the Buddha Jewel, the scripture represents the Dharma Jewel, and the image of the Buddha represents the Sangha Jewel. It is important to keep in mind that the objects on the altar serve as a means for directing one's mind to the Buddha and the Buddha's enlightened qualities, which one aspires to emulate for others' benefit. In maintaining an altar one is trying to cultivate the qualities of the Buddha, that is, his enlightened body, his enlightened speech and his enlightened mind. By remembering these qualities and aspiring to develop them, one reduces the negative qualities of attachment, hatred and ignorance, and increases positive qualities like faith, respect, devotion, and rejoicing.
There are no limitations to what can be offered, and there are many levels of offerings. In general, one can offer any pleasing object, particularly objects pleasing to the five senses form, sound, smell, taste, and touch. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it is customary to offer seven bowls of water which represent the seven limbs of prayer: prostrating, offering, confession, rejoicing in the good qualities of oneself and others, requesting the Buddhas to remain in this world, beseeching them to teach others, and dedicating the merits. Flowers, candles or butter lamps, and incense are also commonly offered. It is customary to offer a part of every meal on the altar before eating and a portion of tea before drinking. The things to be offered should be clean, new, and pleasing. Food should be of only the best part, fresh and clean; never old, leftover, or spoiled food. It is best to offer things that you already have or can obtain without difficulty. Don't think that you have to deceive others in order to get offering materials. They should not come from stealing, cheating or hurting others in any way. Rather, they should be honestly obtained. In fact, it is better not to offer things that were obtained in even a slightly negative way.
As you make offerings, think that what your are offering is in nature you own good qualities and your practice, although it appears in the form of external offering objects. These external offerings should not be imagined as limited to the actual objects on the altar, but should be seen as vast in number, as extensive as space. Offer food with the wish that all beings are relieved of hunger, and offer water with the wish that all beings are relieved of thirst. It is important to think that the deities accept the offerings, enjoy them, and are pleased. Think that by making these offerings all beings are purified of their negativities and that the ultimate nature of reality is realized. The purpose of making offerings is to accumulate merit and in particular to develop and increase the mind of generosity and to reduce stinginess and miserliness. By making offerings you also create the causes for the future results of becoming naturally and spontaneously generous.
If you have the space, place the offerings a little lower than the objects of refuge on your altar. When you awaken in the morning, it is customary to wash at least your hands before approaching the altar to offer prostrations and then place new offerings. This is a sign of respect for the object represented there: one is making offerings as if one is accepting a dignitary or a great being into one's home and it is important to be gracious and respectful. To offer water on your altar, you should have a minimum of seven bowls. Start with fresh water every day. The bowls should be clean. Pour a little water into each bowl before placing it on the altar. Place the bowls in a straight line, close together but not touching. The bowls should be filled up to the space of a grain's width from the top - neither too little nor too much. Try not to breathe on the offerings. If you have a butter lamp, you can place it on your altar between the third and fourth water bowls. Lamps or candles symbolize wisdom, eliminating the darkness of ignorance. In Tibetan monasteries hundreds of lamps are lit as offerings. There is really no limit to the quantity of either water bowls or lamps.
After pouring the water, lighting candles or lights and offering incense, bless the offerings by dipping a piece of Kusha grass (or a tree twig) into the water, reciting three times Om Ah Hum (the seed syllables of the Buddha's body, speech and mind), and then sprinkling the offerings with water. Visualize that the offerings are blessed.
Whether external offerings become pure or not, or whether they become a cause for good rebirth in the next life, a cause to achieve liberation, or a cause to achieve enlightenment to benefit all beings depends on one's motivations and dedication. Dedication is crucial. It will not exhaust or limit one's store of merit but will multiply and increase it. It is excellent to dedicate the merit of making offerings to the elimination of suffering and its causes from all beings, to their achievement of lasting happiness, and to world peace.
At the end of the day, before or at sunset, empty the bowls one by one, dry them with a clean cloth and stack them upside down or put them away. Never leave empty bowls right side up on the altar. The water is not simply thrown away but offered to the plants in your house or in the garden. Food and flowers should also be put in a clean place outside where birds and animals can eat them. Bowls of fruit can be left on the altar for a few days and can then be eaten when they come down - there is no need to put them outside.
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