Thursday, July 05, 2007

How to Set Up A Tibetan Buddhist Shrine, or Altar

After studying the search queries that bring visitors to these pages, I learned that many people want information on how to establish a shrine in their homes. With this in mind, I want to offer a few words of advice. I also want to encourage you to consult other sources. There is a wrong way, a right way, and then there is my way. Hereinbelow you will read "my way," which is not necessarily the right way.

(1) Direction.

Most shrines in America are erected facing West, toward Tibet. The lama will invariably sit with the shrine on his left, in which case he will be facing South. I have read advice to the effect that the shrine should be on the West wall, facing East. Overseas, I had one shrine set on the North wall facing South. My feeling is that Padmasambhava pervades the ten directions, so any position is by definition, inherently auspicious.

(2) Central Figure.

Many people ask if it is appropriate to place Padmasambhava as the central figure, or Shakyamuni as the central figure. I usually arrange Padmasambhava as the central figure, with Shakyamuni behind him and slightly higher. This reminds one that there is fundamentally no difference.

(3) Lama, Yidam, Dakini, etc.

I put my teacher's picture directly in front of Padmasambhava. On Padmasambhava's right (my left), I put a scripture. On His left (my right) I place a stupa. On the second tier down, I put (from left to right) Manjushri, Chenrazigs, and Vajrasattva. On the next tier down I place (from left to right) my yidam(s), dakini(s), and protector(s).

(4) Offerings.

The offering bowls are (from left to right) drinking water, bathing water, flowers, incense, light, perfumed water, food offering, and music offering. You can also put a row of butter lamps behind these, and then replace the "light bowl" with a mandala. I have seen this but I do not do this myself. I like to put up mandalas by themselves. I think the nicest way is to put three levels of offerings: a row of tormas and mandalas, then a row of butter lamps, then the row of bowls. I like to arrange these in tiers.

(5) Fixtures.
I think it is essential to use nice cloth beneath the images and offerings. You can purchase shrine cloth, umbrellas, and so forth from many places, and these may be as simple or elaborate as your budget permits.

(6) Structures.
The homes and temples in Tibet are being systematically looted of furnishings. Please do not encourage this by purchasing antiques. You can purchase all sorts of tables locally, or you can purpose-build cabinets on your own. It is traditional to have cabinets made with niches for the various images, and then you can have tiered tables in front of these for the offerings.

Do a Google image search on "Tibetan shrine," or "Tibetan altar" and you will see numerous examples.

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