An interview with Ven. Tenzin Yignyen by Gail Birnbaum

Why have an altar? 

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—to develop these qualities in oneself so as to be able to fully benefit all sentient beings.

Where should an altar be placed?

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.

What do the objects on an altar represent?

A proper Buddhist altar holds symbols of enlightened body, speech and mind, traditionally represented by displaying a statue or photo of Buddha Shakyamuni, a scripture, and a stupa. 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 requisite, 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), 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 should be placed highest on the altar, above the Buddha statue. If the altar is on one level, the order should be, from left to right: scripture, Buddha, stupa.

The mind of the Buddha is traditionally represented by a stupa which should be placed to the right 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.

What’s the proper way to make 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.

It is best to offer things that you already have or can obtain without difficulty. 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 you are offering is in nature your 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 be relieved of hunger, and offer water with the wish that all beings be 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. 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.

How should I arrange offerings on the altar?

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 face before approaching the altar—this is a sign of respect for the object represented there.

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 distance between the bowls is traditionally measured by the width of a grain of wheat. The bowls should be filled up to the space of a grain’s width from the top—neither too little nor too much. Pour water like the shape of a wheat grain—in a thin stream at first, then gradually more, then tapering off at the end. 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 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.

Dedication is crucial. 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.

On the altar is Tsongkhapa in the Lama Temple of Beijing, China

What’s the proper way to remove offerings?

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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