Creating a Basic Tibetan Buddhist Shrine
We’d like to start the course with helping you create a space in your home to serve as a focal point for your spiritual efforts. In Tibetan homes, the shrine serves as a central symbol of the Buddha, a constant reminder of the infinitely good qualities of the Buddha that as Buddhist practitioners we aim to cultivate. Making offerings at our shrine, we honor the Buddha’s Body, Speech and Mind, and cultivate generosity and wisdom, for the sake of all sentient beings.
Since this is a course for beginners, we assume that either
- You don’t have a shrine
- You have a shrine, but you are not sure if it is “right,” or respectful or appropriate.
Where to Begin?
One thing that is important for you to know is that there are just a few rules or instructions on how to set up your shrine, and that you do not need any hard-to-obtain or expensive objects to do it “right.”
There is a beautiful story of one of the Dalai Lamas looking down from the Potala Palace and seeing an old man praying the Kalachakra mantra every day on the Potang shakhor, which is the prayer path around the Potala. His Holiness noticed a cluster of Kalachakra deities gathering around the old man as he prayed, which was wonderful. He also noticed that the old man was not saying the mantra correctly, so to help him he called the man to him, and instructed him in the correct way to say the mantra. The old man was very disappointed in himself, and of course began to say the mantra the correct way, as he had been instructed. But the next time His Holiness saw him praying on his kora, there were no deities around him. Although “correct” his joyful spirit of prayer was gone. As the story goes, His Holiness recalled the man and told him to go back to saying it as he had before.
Truly, the most important element of creating a perfect shrine is a sincere motivation to cultivate the qualities of enlightenment and generosity.
The Basic Elements of a Tibetan Buddhist Shrine
- Buddhist scripture, to represent the speech of the Buddha, which we also think of as his teachings, or the Dharma. It’s best if you can get a traditional sutra or other Tibetan Buddhist root text. As an example, you can use a copy of the Heart Sutra. The form may be as a book, or perhaps in the form of Tibetan-style scripture (pecha or chape), which are usually formatted as a stack of long, loose pages that are wrapped in cloth.
- Statue of the Buddha Shakyamuni to represent the Buddha’s body. In addition, you may have other important Buddhist figures, like Tara, Padmasambhava, Manjushri, or Avalokiteshvara, but the only essential one is of the Buddha Shakyamuni. If you don’t have a statue of the Buddha, it is fine to have a photo or a thangkha with an image of the Buddha.
- A stupha (in miniature), to represent the Buddha’s mind. (A photo is fine.)
- See the Practice Tools for Week One in the sidebar for downloadable versions of all of these.
These first three elements — the statue of Buddha, scripture and the stupha — form the spiritual heart of your altar.
One of the prime purposes of having a shrine is to purify our delusions and to generate the seeds of enlightenment by practicing generosity. We do this through making offerings.
The basic offering is seven bowls of water. The bowls can be as beautiful or as simple as you like. These go on the front edge of your shrine. (In week three we go more in depth about how to make your water offerings. You can hold off until then on setting up your water offering bowls on your shrine.)
The seven water bowls are typically thought to represent the basic Seven Limb Practice undertaken as a preliminary Tibetan Buddhist practice. The Seven Limbs (or parts) are:
- Homage and Prostrations
- Making Offerings
- Confession of non-virtuous actions
- Rejoicing in the positive actions of oneself and others
- Requesting the Buddhas to teach
- Requesting the Buddhas to remain in this world
- Dedication of merit
Seven Shrine Offerings
There are seven shrine offerings associated with these seven practices, in order, and if you wish, you can add these to your shrine, though simple water offerings are completely fine. In our home, for example, we only have the water offering bowls. The additional seven shrine offerings are:
- Drinking Water
- Cleansing Water
- Flowers (can be artificial flowers placed in an offering bowl full of dry rice)
- Incense (usually sticks of incense placed in an offering bowl full of dry rice)
- Light (in the form of candles or butter lamps. Please never leave a candle or butter lamp burning unattended on your shrine. )
- Perfume (can be offered as a drop of perfume in a bowl of water, or a small bottle of perfume placed in a bowl filled with rice.)
- Food (often offered in the form of fruits or candies)
Additional Optional Items
In addition to items representing the Buddha’s Body, Speech and Mind, the water offerings, and the seven shrine offerings, you might like to add some of these:
- A photo of your spiritual teacher(s). For Tibetans this almost always will be an image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. There can be others in addition.
- A thangka, which is a Tibetan scroll painting, usually with elaborate brocade edges, and usually portraying the Buddha Shakaymuni or other Buddhist deities or scenes. (This is typically hung above the shrine.)
- A vase of flowers
- Butter lamps or candles (Collectively known as chomay — which means, roughly, “dharma fire” or “light”). You might have only one or as many as you want. Please never leave a candle or butter lamp burning unattended on your shrine.
- See this post for the additional items you might place on a Losar (Tibetan New Year) shrine >>
Offerings and the Practice of Generosity
Note that you might only have a few of these objects to offer at your shrine and virtually no family will have all of these, or even most of these.
The most important aspect of your offerings is the practice of generosity and sharing, and not how nice or expensive the objects are, or how beautiful or impressive your altar is.
What the Tibetans call jembay tsultrim encourages us to give in a way that is unmotivated in wanting anything in return.
Venerable Tenzin Yignyen of Namgyal Monastery offers a very nice description of the motivation for offering in an article that can be found in full at Khandro.net:
It is best to offer things that you already have or can obtain without difficulty…
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 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 of their negative edge of the ultimate nature of reality is satisfied.
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.
Where to Place the Objects on Your Shrine?
Assuming that you have only one level in a simple shrine, you should place the image of the Buddha Shakyamuni in the middle, and the Buddhist text on your left as you face the shrine, with the stupha on the right of the Buddha as you face the shrine. Your offerings will go along the front edge of the shrine.
If you have two levels, place the offerings, such as the water offering bowls and flowers or candles, on the lower level, and your statue, stupha and Buddhist scripture on the upper level.
If you have multiple levels, the lowest level will have your offerings. The next highest level will have your statues and your stupha. Finally, at the highest level will always be the Dharma, the Buddhist scriptures.
Where to Put your Shrine
- Many Tibetans have a separate room for the shrine, but His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has said recently that he doesn’t consider this important, especially if you never go in this special room, or if it is just for show. Your shrine can go either in a separate room or in any clean, quiet area of your house so that you can use it for spiritual practice and meditation.
- Generally speaking, you can make your shrine on any clean shelf, bookshelf or tabletop that is higher than the level of your head as you sit facing it.
- If it is necessary to put it in your bedroom, that is okay, but put it at a level higher than the bed, and at the head of the bed rather than the foot, since feet are considered dirty and low in Tibetan society.
- Never put your shrine:
- in the bathroom or in any dirty place.
- On the ground
Caring for your Shrine
- At a basic level, keep your shrine clean and fresh and not dusty.
- See the lesson for Week Three for notes on how to perform your water offerings.
You are ready now to do the practice for Week One. Please see the sidebar to the right for practice tips and for a bunch of items you can download to use for your shrine if you would like to.
We are so happy to have you with us, and grateful for the opportunity to deepen our spiritual practice together!
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