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 like 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), or Lord Shiva (eastern God). I’ve also seen Christian altars in the homes where meditation is a part of their life with an image of Mother Mary resided. 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 two different important things about altars here; this first article we’ll talk about the altar itself, what it’s made of, how it’s shaped and ideas of how it can be used. Then in the second article we will explore what the difference is between a traditional altar and how it’s used and respected vs. a ordinary structure (table, bench, dresser etc.) that is just used for visual focus or in an aesthetic way. Either is acceptable and depends on your discipline or beliefs.
Remember, you do not have to be ‘religious’ to have an altar, and it can be used in whatever way you chose, because as mentioned before, this is YOUR space. On the other hand, if you do have spiritual beliefs and disciplines an altar is the perfect and appropriate, traditional 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, what size it is, or what’s it’s made of. 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, and is usually made with bottom doors with shelves inside to store incense, water offering pitcher, extra candles and to store 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.
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.
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’, and in the morning a new offering of substances (water, or the seven offering bowls) are made each day.
If your really serious about Tibetan Buddhist practice and want to create an altar in your home, 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 skill as I’m just a practitioner myself, so please know I’m just 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. It 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 teak wood 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 altar 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 idea of it being used as an altar. They are usually inspired by devotion and connection with spiritual practices and works perfectly. www.dharmacrafts.com has an excellent selection of altars such as the one pictured here.
I have an altar that was created by 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 altar 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). They can be purchased from any fine furniture store. I got mine in a damaged section of a major furniture showroom for only $150.
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). I like the one at the top of this article from dharmacrafts.com because it shows a collapsable bench used as an altar, and how beautiful it can look once it has sacred items placed 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.
I found 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, the altars 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 an altar.
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 altar 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 a small altar style that looks like a cabinet with an altar inside. You can close the doors when the altar isn’t 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 too.
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: Meditation Room Altars – Part Two – What to place on an altar, and how to use it respectfully.