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.
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…