Sunday, October 14, 2012

Altars: a why and how-to guide

(My home altar) 
I love Buddha statues, and I especially love Buddhist altars. To me, an altar is an external expression of an internal state. It's a reflection of the Buddha Mind. Like a mandala, an altar's every precise detail can mirror the inherent wisdom and perfection of our true nature, our original minds.

When I first decided to assemble my first Buddhist altar several years ago, I was very surprised at the scarcity of information on the internet. If you run a quick web search, you will find very few articles or posts about Buddhist altars. A Google image search will yield plenty of pictures, but few (if any) that lead to purchasable altar sets. So if you're looking for altar ideas, then images are helpful; but when it comes to actually designing your altar, you'll need to be a little more creative.

Here are a few suggestions I have for making a unique Buddhist altar:

1. This is implied, but design your altar around your Buddha statue. The Buddha is the centerpiece, so for aesthetic purposes, all of your adornments should accent it. Choose a statue that resonates with you on a spiritual level. There are plenty statues to choose from, so don't settle. On the other hand, don't stress yourself out about finding on. You are, after all, choosing a statue, not a life mate.

2. Don't waste your time searching the internet or ebay to buy an altar set. TRUST ME, you can waste many hours searching and find nothing.

3. Instead, go to your local thrift store for incense and offering bowls, candle holders and candles. What could easily cost you well over $100 dollars, you can purchase for less than $20 at these places. Check out garage sales too; you can stumble upon really great treasures there.

4. Don't buy an "authentic" Buddhist altar cloth; they can be quite expensive, and arguably overpriced. Instead, use a satin or silk shawl, scarf, or wrap. You can find these practically anywhere for very cheap. Ebay sells them for less than $10.

5. Use dried flowers. I prefer to buy a bouquet, hang it upside down for two weeks, and presto, you have flowers that will last years. This saves on upkeep, and not to mention, plenty of $$$. If you prefer fresh ones, then by all means use them, but the price can add up over the years.

6. Have fun with it. Designing an altar can be great mindfulness practice. Slow, meticulous attention to detail is excellent Buddhist practice. Try to enjoy it. Just as the final product--the altar--is an expression of an inward state, so too can be the journey of assembling it. Gathering the items piecemeal, as opposed to one all-at-once purchase, can be challenging practice, especially for anxious people like me who don't like loose ends. Plus it's fun, kind of like a scavenger hunt.

I hope these altar-hunting tips help. If you think of any I've missed, please feel free to add them below.


  1. Hello, I regularly read your blog and enjoy it. Thank you. I was wondering if you had any insights into the practice of images of the Buddha (venerating, collecting etc)with regards to different views on the matter, norms from Buddhavacana, ideas from different schools. Thank you very much for your time.

  2. Hi Skippy,

    I don't have much experience with different images. I know that esoteric schools explore deep symbolism of each deity, Buddha, and Bodhisattva; but unfortunately I don't know much about the subject. There are some beautifully illustrated books about Tibetan Bodhisattvas, if you're interested in them. One title that explores this in a roundabout way might be Anagarika Govinda's "Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism."

    Sorry I couldn't be of more help. If anything pops into my mind, I'll let you know.

    Thanks for reading. Gassho.