Not every meditation space needs an altar, but most use one for many reasons.
An altar helps focus your intention and inspire your practice no matter what it is. Placed on the altar can be beautiful things that inspire you. For instance an image of someone such as the Lady of Guadalupe, or Shakyamuni Buddha. Beautifully crafted statues of deities are traditional in the eastern world such as the Tara or Guanyin (the female Buddha). I’ve also seen Christian altars in the homes where meditation is a part of their life with an image of Mother Mary. It’s your preference, your space. As long as it inspires focus and a way to connect with your higher self.
So we will explore the altar itself, what it’s made of, how it’s shaped and how it can be used.
Remember, you do not have to be ‘religious’ to have an altar. It can be used in whatever way you chose, this is YOUR space. On the other hand, you may have spiritual beliefs, and an altar is the appropriate way to honor and respect that belief.
Part One – What Does an Altar Look Like?
There really are no hard and fast rules as to what an altar needs to look like. Whhat size it is, or what it’s made of is a personal preference. While in some disciplines there are traditional ways to set up an altar, for others the sky is the limit.
A traditional altar is usually a wooden structure that has been built specifically for a prayer room or meditation/sacred space. This can be structured from hardwood, or pine. They can be made with bottom doors and shelves inside . These shelves can be used to store incense, water offering pitcher, extra candles and sacred items. All things that are considered sacred can be stored and protected here with respect. It should be kept clean of dust, and placed in an appropriate place in your home.
What is Appropriate
By ‘appropriate’ means not in a place where you might pass by throughout the day with little respect. Or it could be where there is the possibility of water or sun damage. On the other hand, if the only way you can have an altar is on the dashboard of your car, by all means do it. If you know it’s the best you can offer with a heart that is pure in intention that’s great.
With a traditional altar it should always be considered sacred. You should avoid setting non-sacred items on the altar because anything you place there should be considered an offering. Respect for the altar will bring great benefit. You’ll feel the difference in the space, and will find it easier to use as a place of prayer or meditation.
Tibetan Buddhist Altars
A Tibetan Buddhist altar is usually created with multiple levels, where the Buddha’s reside on the top level, the second level is used most often for sacred objects such as bells, relics and other things. And the third is usually used for offerings such as water bowls and other ceremonial objects used in practice. In the Buddhist traditions the offering bowls are emptied each night and the altar ‘closed’. In the morning a new offering of substances (water, or the seven offering bowls) are made with prayers and prostrations.
If you are really serious about Tibetan Buddhist practice please find a qualified teacher to get deeper instructions. A local temple or center with ordained can also be very helpful. This little bit of information isn’t given with any real skill. I’m just a practitioner myself, and sharing the little I know.
This traditional Hindu altar is vintage and found on Etsy: “This is an example of a humble shrine found in a modest Rajasthani home. Its sophistication and beauty lies in its simplicity and function. Found in Jodhpur, India, this altar has a ton of character shown through natural aging on its gorgeous teakwood body.” Usually a traditional Hindu altar is very colorful and has a main deity in the center surrounded by pictures, candles, offerings and other inspirational items the owner feels is a beautiful addition.
Most altars are constructed of wood, but they can be structures that are created from bricks, stone or other materials. The easiest option of course, is a wooden structure such as a small dresser with drawers, a night stand works well, a small desk, or a wooden bench is great for those with small budgets.
Some of the most beautiful altars are those that are crafted and created with intention of it being used as an altar. They are usually inspired by devotion and connection with spiritual practices and can help to inspire your own practice. The website www.dharmacrafts.com has an excellent selection of ideas such as the one pictured here.
I have an altar that was created as a Bombay chest (see above), a traditional chest with drawers, which is usually imported from eastern parts of the world. While these have not been created as an altar, they make a perfect, respectful option that gives great storage space for all the items needed in traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice, or any practice with a lot of support items. On the top of this chest is a handmade, two step topper for the different levels needed for my discipline (read Meditation Room Altars Part Two). The Bombay chest can be purchased from any fine furniture store. I got mine in a damaged section of a major furniture showroom for only $150. The wooden steps on the top were handmade by a kind craftsman in my community.
Small Space Ideas
This image is from crystal-cure.com and shows a simple stool with a decorative tray sat on top that was purchased from an import store. A simple idea that looks beautiful and can hold crystals or other objects the persons is inspired by or feels a connection to.
Small stools or benches are a good choice for a simple altar. Low cost, and easy to find, they work perfectly for those sitting on the floor during practice (traditionally the altar should be at eye level or higher). The one at the top of this article from dharmacrafts.com is useful because it shows a collapsable bench, and demonstrates how beautiful it can look once it has sacred items on it. One note, this kind of altar does not have any space under for storage for incense or candles. But for those who find this isn’t a problem, this is a great solution.
This non-traditional altar on “A New Kind of Buddhist Altar” on ‘wired’. “Japanese designer Keita Suzuki wants to make it easier for city dwellers to hang on to Buddhist practice, so he’s recently rolled out Shinobu, a line of slick, shoe box-sized altars that would look right at home on Muji’s store shelves. Suzuki has updated the altars to match what are probably modern, minimalist homes. The tools—incense, candles, the singing bowl used during chanting—come in neutral metals and have basic cylindrical shapes. And instead of doors that swing open, these have bamboo blinds that don’t take up an inch of extra air space.” The designer says a chair has been over designed with hundreds of styles, while the altar is still evolving, so why not focus on designing a new way of seeing.
For those who travel, or live in a small space, or have a circumstance where an altar always in view isn’t what’s needed, a portable option is the perfect choice for you. A portable altar can be stored away, or closed off when not in use. Boon Décor has this portable mango wood altar for storing away when needed. One note; if you store sacred items inside, it should not have non-sacred items on top of it. Better to store the entire altar on a top shelf in your closet, and pull it out when needed. Or better yet, display a beautiful Buddha statue on top, and use the inside to store incense, candles and offerings when needed.
There is also another style that looks like a cabinet with the altar inside. You can close the doors when not in use, keeping your meditation times personal and private. Sometime altars can become cluttered and for those who are really into ‘neatness’ this alternative is a great choice.
Import and gift shops that carry Asian items often have cardboard, or small wooden altars with all the needed items included such as incense, candles and a picture or statue of the Buddha. These little altars are portable, packable and intended for those who travel and want to meditate or practice on the go without a lot of trouble and effort. They are a great alternative, and really a wonderful gift.
Coming up: Candles in Your Meditation Space