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A Brief Introduction to Setting up a Buddhist Altar

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A. The Meanings of Setting up a Buddhist Altar


a. To invoke holy beings to come down and stay so as to enrich the wisdom and compassion of the practitioner and his family daily until the Perfect Enlightenment is achieved.

b. All sorts of attendant practices such as prostrations, offerings, praises, etc. are included in the daily practices so that, firstly, the merits for achieving enlightenment are accumulated by deepening the relationship of Refuge; and secondly, the bodhicitta is nourished through extending the merits toward the attainment of Buddhahood for all sentient beings.

c. By means of gazing at Buddhas, lighting lamps, burning incense, offering flowers, prostrating, etc., the functions of the five sense-organs are completely absorbed in the Buddhist practices and hence the purification of the practitioner's mind is enhanced and accelerated.

d. It is easier to form an unalterable habit by doing the daily practices not only at a regular time but also at a definite place.

e. The grandeur and serenity of a Buddhist altar would demonstrate the practitioner's faith in taking the Refuge and give visitors chances of acquainting with and taking delight in such practices.

B. The Location of a Buddhist Altar

It is ideal to set up a Buddhist altar in a dedicated room. If the building is of two or more stories, it is proper to set it up on the top floor. If there is no dedicated room available, a quiet place or a room which can be closed up for quiet meditation at the regular practice time should be selected.

The orientation of a Buddhist altar depends on the main Buddha worshipped. If the practitioner majors in the Pureland school, the main Holiness should be Amitabha Buddha And hence the altar should be oriented toward the East. In case of the Healing Buddha who eliminates misfortunes and prolongs lives, it should be orientated toward the West. (All notes below are added into the English translation by Dr. Lin. Note 1: Amitabha Buddha's Pureland is in the West, hence the altar ideally is to be set up such that when we face Him, we are facing the West. A similar remark applies to the case of the Healing Buddha whose Pureland is in the East.) If the wall available is not of the ideal orientation, it is also fine to ignore this point. It is proper to select a wall with sufficient illumination so that it is easier for the practitioner to concentrate on gazing at the holy images .

C. The Installation of the Images of Buddhas


The images of Buddhas selected should have been made according to correct rules. Try to avoid those made of fragile materials, such as porcelain, so that they will not be damaged in accidental falls.

In general, holy images complete with a seat are to be selected for an altar. However, in case of an antique image that had been worshipped by some virtuous Buddhist for a long time, even though it is scarred and cracked a little, it is still fine to welcome it home with respect and continue worshipping.

It is proper to ask a virtuous Buddhist practitioner to perform the invocation ceremony for a Buddhist image so as to bring in the body, speech, mind, merits and activities of the depicted holy being. If a Buddhist statue is hollow, it should be fully filled in advance with sutras, mantras, holy relics, jewels, dried pine or cypress leaves etc. by the practitioner who is going to conduct the invocation. If there is no virtuous Buddhist practitioner near by, it is also fine to install and worship the images first and get the invocation done in the future when chances arise.

The Buddhist images hung on the wall should be positioned according to their status. Usually, they are hung in rows from top down in the order of guru, yidam, dakini and protector. Again, in the rows, they should be arranged in the order of Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya or of Buddha, Bodhisattva, Pratyekabuddha and Arhat. There are two ways to arrange the images in a row:

1. The superiority is from right to left - the highest one starts from the right most side of the wall (i.e. the left-hand side of the practitioner when he faces the wall).

2. The superiority starts from the middle and then in turn to its right-hand side and its left-hand side as follows.

The shape and size of the images should also be taken into consideration so that the resultant combination would be symmetrical and nice looking. Hence one of the two ways introduced above can be chosen to produce the best arrangement possible. (Note 2: On one altar, the two ways introduced above may be applied respectively to different rows. For example, the images on the wall may be arranged according to the second way, while the holy statues on the table may be arranged according to the first way.) The image of a yidam and the image of its mandala should be hung in a column but not in a row. The mandala can be either over or under its yidam. For example, the picture of the Western Pureland may be hung over or under the image of Amitabha Buddha but not beside it. The superiority on the right as mentioned above is an ancient custom of Sakyamuni Buddha handed down in India and Tibet. The images of the three Holinesses of the Western Pureland as drawn by the Chinese painters usually follow the Chinese custom of superiority on the left, and hence with Avalokitesvara and Mahasthanaprapta on Amitabha's left and right respectively. If both Bodhisattvas are painted facing toward the Buddha, we are obliged to follow the underlying local custom in our arrangement. If the three images are not on one sheet of paper and the two Bodhisattvas are facing forward, then it is more proper to put Avalokitesvara on the right (Note 3: and mahasthanaprapta on the left of Amitabha Buddha) according to Sakyamuni's original custom.


If the wall chosen is not large enough for hanging all the images, some of them may be hung on the other three walls of the room. On each wall, the images should still be installed according to the principles explained above. The images of protectors may be hung on the wall opposite to the alter at lower positions so that they can pay attention to the instructions of Buddhas. It is also fine to add an offering table with offerings under the images of protectors to form an altar dedicated to these Dharma protectors.

Buddhist statues may be placed on the altar table. If there is only one table, arrange the statues near the wall and the offerings before them. (Note 4: Some altar uses two tables: a higher one set near the wall for placing the statues and a lower one in front for placing the offerings.) The order of arrangement is still determined as mentioned above. If there are two or more rows, do not let the bigger statues block the view of the smaller ones. It is proper to have the altar table and the offering table covered with majestic cloths or decorated with carved designs of auspiciousness.

It is proper to put the sariras (Note 5: i.e. relics of holy Buddhists) in a miniature sarira-stupa with transparent glass windows and place it on the altar table for worshipping.

D.The Location of the Bookshelves for Sutras

All Buddhas are born from the Dharma (Note 6: i.e. Enlightenment is achieved through following the Buddhist teachings), hence sutras and mantras may only be placed over or beside the Buddhist images or statues to show respect. It is a mistake to put sutras and mantras under the images of Buddhas or offering tables. Sutras or mantras may also be placed on the altar table for worshipping. Make sure that nothing is placed on top of them (Note 7: except protective or ornamental coverings.) If there is only one bookcase which is not for the exclusive use of sutras, sutras and mantras should be placed on the top shelves; Buddhist books and the audio cassettes of Buddhist hymns and Amitabha chanting, the middle ones; and books on other religions or worldly affairs, the bottom ones.

Those practitioners who intend to circulate, free of charges, Buddhist books and images may assign a part of a bookcase or set a dedicated bookcase near the Buddhist altar or in the parlor for that purpose so that visitors may select and pick up whatever they are interested in.

E. The Placement of the Dharma Implements


Dharma implements, such as a wooden fish, hand-bell, Dharma wheel, bell and vajra, etc., may be placed in front or on either side of the Buddhist images on an altar table. A Buddhist rosary may be coiled clockwise to form a lotus seat with three loops so that the father- and mother- beads stand upright on the seat. While picking up a set of bell and vajra, cross the hands with the right one over the left one and take the vajra with the right hand, and the bell, the left one. The way of putting down the bell and vajra is the same as the way of picking them up. Hence the bell is placed closely on the left of the vajra on the table. The female Buddha's face on the bell-handle should face the practitioner. If there is a Tantric drum (Damaru), it should be placed, standing on its side (instead of one drumhead flat on the table), to the right of a vajra. If a Dharma wheel can not stand steadily by itself, its handle may be inserted into a cup filled with rice. Tantric implements, such as ritual daggers and curved knives, should be placed close to the holy beings who use them. If they are set flat on the table, their sharp ends should face away from the images so as to defend against demons. If they stand upright, their sharp ends should point downwards. Hence daggers are sometimes inserted in a tube filled with rice. The counters for counting the numbers of chantings, offerings or prostrations may also be placed on the edge of an altar table. The board for prostrating and the cushions for worshipping or meditating may be placed in front of an offering table. If there is room under the table, they may be stored in there when they are not in use.

F. The placement of the Offerings

A censer may be placed in the middle of an offering table. The censer should be filled with incense ash or fine sand (Note 8: so that incense sticks may be inserted to stand upright.) It may also be filled with rice first, and then, after a fair amount of incense ash has accumulated, the contents thereof are sieved to preserve the ash. A censer may also be used for burning powdered or shredded sandalwood. The way is to bum the powdered sandalwood first, and then gradually add the shreds of sandalwood. In order to prevent the walls from getting smoked, a censer with cover for incense to lie in may be used. If an incense stick extinguishes before it is entirely burned up, it may not be lit again, but it may be placed in a censer for lying incense and be reused. (Note 9: An incense stick that stands up in a censer and fails to burn through is called a "beheaded" incense. It is considered irrespectful to offer the rest of that stick while it stands. When we use the remaining parts in a lying position, we consider it as mere incense powder.) Do not pull out and extinguish an incense which is still burning. Do not use the electric counterfeit incense sticks with tiny bulbs in place of the real ones. In case it is forbidden to burn incense in a rented house or room, at least, three or five pieces of sandalwood should be offered on the table.

A pair of lamps may be set on the left and right sides of the offering table in front of the Buddhist images. It would be better to have lamps that are majestically decorated with dragons or lotus-flowers. It is best to use small red bulbs for the lamps and leave them on all the time. Besides, butter lamps, peanut-oil lamps or candles may also be added as offerings.

A couple of flower vases should be placed on both sides of an offering table. Beautiful and decorative vases which are not fragile, for example, Cloisonne vases, are preferable. Fresh flowers in season are recommended. Artificial flowers which are well arranged would also be fine. In this case, whenever the fresh flowers become available, they may be offered in additional vases. Several peacock feathers may also be offered in the flower vases. Flowers of thorny plants should not be offered to Buddhas. They may only be offered to Dharma protectors who are brave beyond being afraid of thorns. When the flowers in a vase are well arranged, the best-looking side should be turned toward the Buddhist images.


In front of the censer, a row of offering cups may be set up. In Exoteric schools, three cups of clean water may be offered. In Tantric schools, seven, eight or nine cups may be used according to different traditions. The offerings in the cups are essentially the same for all traditions. Eight cups stand for eight offerings; they are, starting from the right side of the images, water (for washing), water (for drinking), flowers, incense (for burning), lamp, saffron (for perfuming), food and music respectively. Usually seven cups of water are offered. Food is offered beside them. (Note 10: In this case, although all seven cups contain only water, they are visualized as the seven kinds of offerings, besides food, mentioned above.) The sixth cup of water which stands for saffron may be added with a few drops of perfume (Note 11: instead of saffron, but not in addition thereto.) The distance between two adjacent cups (Note 12: measured from rim to rim) is about the length of a long grain of rice. On the offering table in a retreat room, two rows of offering cups may also be set up. The row nearer to Buddhist images is for Buddhas. The other row which is nearer to the practitioner is for the practitioner who possesses the Buddha Pride of his yidam. This row of cups start from the right-hand side of the practitioner for what they stand for as explained above.

Usually, a Tantric practitioner would offer a mandala. It consists of seven or thirty-seven offerings. In addition, The Nyingma School practitioners offer their special trikaya mandala.

All kinds of fruits in season or food may be offered. Generally, Exoteric practitioners make only vegetarian offerings. Tantric practitioners include meat in their offerings but they should not kill or ask other people to kill in order to get the meat. Only meat available from markets may be purchased for offerings.

G. The Adding and Replacement of the Offerings


It is proper to add or replace the offerings before each meal. Incense may be offered at any time, but at least twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. If the oil lamps or candles other than the unceasingly lit lamps can not be offered very often, they should be lit in the evening or during daily practices. The water in vases for the fresh flowers should be replaced every two or three days. The withered flowers should be removed when noticed. Artificial flowers may be replaced after several months. Before going to bed or after the evening practice, visualize the offering water to be nectar and then pour it away to feed hungry ghosts. Dry the cups, pile them up in two sets and put them upside-down on the table. (The sixth cup for the water added with perfume is placed alone. The others are all in one pile.) If the cups can not be piled up, they may be placed upside-down separately. After getting up in the morning, set the seven cups in place again. The forth one may first be placed before the censer as the central reference, and then set the left and right three ones respectively. Then pour the water into the cups from a teakettle and repeat "Om Ah Hum" while pouring. (Note 13: Fill the cups four fifth full.) Whenever one makes offerings, one should repeat "Om Ah Hum." The mandala should be added with rice. If there is no time to replace the rice in the mandala everyday, it should be done on the four days when offerings are made to gurus, yidams, dakinis, and protectors respectively. (In order, the four days are the eighth, fifteenth, twenty-fifth and twenty- ninth of each month in (Note 14: the Chinese or Tibetan) lunar calendar. For a Nyingma School practitioner, the eighth is replaced by the tenth which is a special day of Padmasambhava.) All food offerings should be removed after the period of burning up one incense or one or two days before they would become spoiled so as to avoid the contrary result of committing a sin. The value of offerings depends more on the sincerity of the offerer, hence offerings that are specially bought or prepared for Buddhas are best. Food for ourselves may also be offered to Buddhas before we take it so that we can obtain the Buddhas' blessings. While eating, one visualizes the food to be nectar. The offerings removed may be taken by ourselves or be given to the beings outdoors while repeating the Giving of Leftovers Mantra: "Om Woojeedza Palingda kaka Kasee Kasee" so that they can also share Buddhas' grace. All the rice removed from the mandala may be fed to birds. The incense, candles, rice, matches, etc. for making offerings may be stored in the drawers of the offering table or under it for convenience. Matches are poisonous, hence they should not be placed on the offering table. If there are small children in the family, the matches and candles should be stored at other higher places so that they cannot be reached and played by kids.

H.The Disposition of an Altar during Traveling or Moving


When you are out traveling, you had better ask someone else to do the offerings at the altar as usual and you yourself should also make a remote offering of food before each meal. (Note 15: Before each meal, chant "Om Ah Hum" three times and visualize the food has been offered to all Buddhas and their attendants, including the holy beings worshipped at your own altar.) If nobody else can do the offerings at home for you, you first visualize that all the holy beings on your altar melt into light and enter your heart cakra or the hand-held Dharma wheel that you usually use. Then remove the fresh flowers and those food that would become rotten, extinguish the candles and pour away the offering water. While traveling, offer your food to the holy beings in the Dharma wheel brought along with you before each meal, or visualize that you are offering the food to the holy beings in your heart while you are eating. After you have returned home, then visualize that the Holy beings come out as lights from your heart or the Dharma wheel and return to their images respectively.

When you are going to move or just to move the altar to another room, visualize that the Holy beings enter your heart cakra or a Dharma wheel in the form of lights before you move anything on the altar. After you have set up the Buddhist altar again at the new place, then visualize the Holy beings return to their images in the form of lights. If there is a virtuous Buddhist practitioner near by, an invocation ceremony may be performed again.

I. Concluding Remarks

The very brief introduction above is intended for practical applications so that explanations on the profound theoretical significances are omitted. I hope that the beginners would set up their Buddhist altars accordingly, start to do the preliminary practices, such as offerings and prostrations and form a habit of practising at a regular time and a definite place. And please do not be content with what you have learned from this, but study further the supplementary readings listed below so as to understand the differences between worshipping a Buddhist altar and a godly altar, the way to establish a proper relationship with the Buddhist images and the meanings and symbolizations at various levels of the multitude of offerings.


Writer in Chinese by Dr. Yutang Lin
Translated by Chien-Yun Hsu