Home Buddhist Altar Bullshit

I may be a little late getting on this bus but I was excited to see that The Worse Horse and Nate over at Precious Metal brought up Home Altars and asked for some pictures.  This is a particular topic that I have wanted to write about for a while now since it was one of the more uncomfortable decisions in determining to make my practice public.  Whenever someone walks into my house they will eventually see what will look like an altar and make assumptions about my spriritual practice – whether it is flaky, new agey, hipster, authentic…etc.  And while it doesn’t mean that much to me now, it did then…

So I went exploring for “authentic” altars I came across this picture…


and the complexity of the whole process intimitated the hell out of me.  Now granted that this image is representing a Shingon altar but the concept is sound and comparable to some Zen practice.  All I saw were dollar signs dancing in front of me.  I need to purchase these objects and these trinkets to make this thing real and tangible to my practice.

Pure horse-shit.

An altar should serve as a reminder of the goal of our practice – to develop and strive – to benefit others and not to brag, impress or to boast – to reduce ones attachements and mental formations.

So I let my altar grow on its own.  It started with small gifts from friends.  Pieces from around the house.  A card from my brother-in-law that had an image of Jizo.  Shakyamuni, Hotei and Kuan Yin.  A piece of Black Hills pegmatite. A small Cthulhu statue (you can never be too careful).  Flowers, sage or prairie grass in the spring.  A candle I only burn occassionally since it has long since been discontinued.  It is growing in size…but shrinking in significance.

I set the routine.  Before beginning my practice in the morning, I wash, stretch and do some yoga, prepare my cushion for my sit, offer candles and incense. Then sit, breathe, and chant the Heart Sutra and the Identity of the Infinite and Absolute followed by my vows and a prayer for peace. Take refuge and the start my day.  But even with the preparation and ritual it seemed empty.  Something was missing from my altar. 

Bingo.  The statue is just a statue.  It gets put on the floor when I need to clean.  Its importance and reverence is not inherit – it is acquired.  The true altar is the inherit beauty of the Buddha Nature and the luminous shine of Impermanence, the smile of a child, A life spent striving for benefit rather than the harm of others.  That is reverent and relevant.  In Zen, the concept of a God or any deity is not central.  This is not to say that it isn’t important.  It is just the central theme or really afforded all that much attention.  The emphasis is on our own being and connecting with the thread that runs through all of us and removing the separation or discrimination that we create.  An altar can help focus that energy but it can also hamper it when we rely to greatly upon it.  The flowers must be fresh, the icons authentic, the incense blessed…

Of the two Buddhas in the picture above.  My reverence is placed upon the one that shits itself and occassionally calls me “yucky”.  The other one is just a piece of painted epoxy.

So, while beautiful and ornate – colorful and impressive – many of those items that grace altars everywhere are just shells of a fumbling practice and devoid of meaning. The Buddhist way is to strive until it becomes our nature to strive without through or impression.  In the context of altars, this is a great focus for our practice but hardly worth the time and effort in created it rather than being earnest and sincere during our daily activities. 
The home altar is a great spring-board to practice but it doesn’t mean anything.  Those things are just things.  After time and experience doesn’t this life and this moment become our altar? Offerings provided whenever we act to do no harm and to benefit others?

That being said, I do think my altar needs a bit of color and quick dusting…




17 thoughts on “Home Buddhist Altar Bullshit

    • Any sincere portrayal of the Buddha, no matter how simple or crude, even a lump of clay, is a full, glorious and perfect representation of Buddha-nature.

    • Reading the description made just as much sense too! Although I am thinking that a Buddhist Steampunk altar would be awesome.

  1. Very nice, I feel the same way, especially when flipping through a glossy practice oriented magazine with all the beautiful ads for all the beautiful things. We had a family altar in childhood and when I left home, I still always found a way to have a small corner. Here’s the oddest part – the more intense / involved I got in my spiritual practice, the less heartfelt my altar became because I got so tied up in what it ‘should’ be and remembering the symbolism of each item etc. With me it’s partly about this weird pressure since taking my vows about whether it is / should be an authentically ‘buddhist’ altar, this desire to please the imaginary buddhist police somehow also takes away a little from the meaning of it all.
    Anyway, like everything in life, it’s a constant (r)evolutionary process, but so far, the one thing that really makes a difference (when I remember to do it) is to have a fresh flower or a small potted plant – the act of mindfully picking / arranging / watering the little, beautiful, living thing seems to have the same effect for me as lighting the incense / candle or ringing the bell. Plus it’s odourless and silent so ideally suited for practicing around sleeping non-meditators. It’s just kind of a nice way to start, we’re not that much different from plants after all, especially when we’re sitting rooted in the earth and drinking in the silence 🙂

  2. From what I’ve seen at our center, with my own alter, and comments reported about our root teacher Katagiri Roshi, alters should change and evolve, in great part to serve as reminders of impermanence. The placement of fresh flowers on a weekly basis is part of the ritual at our center, just to give one example. Static, fixed “authenticity” is kind of silly when it comes to Buddhism if you ask me.

    Good post!

  3. “…hallowed and hung o’er the altar;
    it hath done meritorious service.”

    ~Wm. Shakespeare,

    • Thanks. Speaking of altars, I plan on ordering a large print of that picture as well as the one below to hang behind it.

  4. Until I get back on my financial feet after coming out of prison, I’ve been staying with my dad and stepmom. Although my dad could care less, because of my stepmom’s Catholic faith, I was prohibited from making a Buddhist altar in my room, or even having a statue of the Buddha in the house. (“False gods”, etc., etc.)

    Observing the ancient Chinese proverb that “when staying under another’s roof one must bow one’s head” I accepted the prohibition without complaint. It’s what my stepmom was taught and she’s not about to change her ways now. I’m just glad to have some place to stay.

    And while adhering to the letter of the law, for my meditation sessions I still wanted some aspect of my prison sangha practice so after everyone went to sleep I would close my door and burn some incense while meditating in front of a little stupa I made by piling a few river stones atop one another in the Zen tradition as a representation of the Buddha. To this stupa I would bow and recite the sutras I’d learned over the years.

    Unfortunately, my father suffers from a mild form of emphysema and despite me closing the door the incense smoke still gives him breathing issues so, no incense either. Now, I just sit with my pile of stones and a candle. And that’s cool, too.

    All too often, Buddhists, whether Western or indigenous, forget that all the trappings of Buddhism, the altars, the incense, the statues, the rituals, all the things that separate “Buddhists” from everyone else, don’t actually make one a Buddhist (whatever that means). To think otherwise is like focusing on the rocks but never seeing the mountain.

    • Mister Yojinbo, you make an excellent point!

      Me, my altar isn’t really much of anything at the moment either. Incense and a little plastic statue of Buddha BUT thats not what is important as I got from your post.

  5. Pingback: Free Buddha Prints for Altars « Sweep the dust, Push the dirt

  6. Enjoyed this post & follow-up comments – got here searching for altar advice & agree wholeheartedly!

    • Oh, that makes me so happy. I always hope that people find some information and help here! Thanks for leaving the comment. It means much.


  7. This made me smile. I too was one of those people who worried about what others would think about my alter. I worried about if it looked “real” or if my Christian friends would be offended. I was at the stage of my practice too that I wanted everyone to know “I AM BUDDHIST” — 9 years later that all seems funny to me. I meditate best sitting on my bed–not in my meditation room. My alter has evolved and at times became stagnate just like my practice. My daily practice is breathing.

    Thank you for the breath of fresh air.

  8. “The statue is just a statue”? Let me guess… you also believe that statues of Jesus *can’t* see and hear everything you’re doing. HERETIC!!

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