Setting up a shrine

Setting up a shrine in our home

Geshe Tashi Tsering

It is very conducive to our Dharma activities such as meditation, reading Dharma books or doing recitations, if we have an object to focus our mind. Traditionally setting up a shrine in the home has been widely practised, not only within the Tibetan tradition but throughout the Buddhist world. A Theravadin monk’s lifestyle is very simple compared with a Mahayana monk’s, keeping their possessions and environment to a minimum because they follow the monastic code very strictly. But even they have some Buddha rupa (statue) or something in their room as an object to focus their mind. Having a representation of their aspirations as a focus in their room is very important.

As you know, every Tibetan family, even if they only have a tent to live in, will always set up a shrine with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s photo or something like that. In the monasteries the monks have shrines in their own rooms, often elaborate ones – sometimes too elaborate!

Having a shrine in your home is very good but it is not compulsory. When Westerners first come into Buddhadharma and have to come to terms with a new culture there’s no doubt there are lots of difficulties, not only not knowing the Dharma and the culture but also being hindered by lack of understanding from the friends and partners. Lack of space is often a problem, too, for people in big cities where space is scarce and expensive.

If you do have the space and the support of your family or partner, then you should think whether you want to set up a shrine. It doesn’t have to be a separate room but you should choose where you have it carefully. Traditionally, it is not supposed to be in a bedroom because we normally associate a bedroom with sleep and it is not a very respectful area. If your space is limited, however, your bedroom might be the only available area. It needs to be a place which you can comfortably sit in front of to do your meditation and your recitations. It should be a place where you can do your Dharma practice quite easily.

When you have the space, choose the altar. It should not be very high so when you sit it is easy to focus your mind, nor should it be very low, which is considered disrespectful. When you sit on the floor you should be able to focus your eyes on the objects of meditation easily without having to stretch your neck to look at them.

Choosing what goes on the shrine is also important. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition we tend to put our own lineage masters in the centre. In the Gelugpa tradition it’s Lama Tsong Khapa and his two disciples; in the Ningma it’s Guru Rinpoche, in the Sakya it’s Sakyapandit the founder of the Sakya lineage and in the Kargyu it’s Marpa or Milarepa. Our own master goes in front of the main figure. As some of you know, however, when you visualise the merit field it always says your own guru is in the aspect of Buddha Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, Buddha Gautama. I myself remember this very clearly. In the Two Truths course books I talked about how at Sera monastery we had Lama Tsong Khapa as the central figure of the shrine in the first two assembly halls we built. His Holiness the Dalai Lama commented that Buddha Shakyamuni should be in the centre, so the present Sera – and all the other Gelugpa monasteries are starting to do this – the Buddha is in the centre. I think this is very, very beneficial and I strongly recommend we all do this.

This is very important for many reasons. Of course the spiritual masters we have received teachings from are very important for our practice. But still Buddha Shakyamuni must be the most important because he is the founder; he is the one who started this religious practice. As a Buddhist, regardless of the various traditions, paying respect to a common image as our mutual founder will promote lots of harmony. If we are focus too much on an individual tradition, there is a risk we will lose the founder of the religion and through that we may lose his teachings and end up reading commentary after commentary but not managing to study the actual teachings of the Buddha himself. And we could forget his kindness and what he did in this world. So for many reasons I think it is a very important to have an image or photo of Buddha Shakyamuni in the centre.

Then, if you’d like to elaborate a little bit, on Buddha Shakyamuni’s left you could put photos or statues of the masters you received the ‘profound view’ from, the emptiness or wisdom teachings. And on the right of Buddha Shakyamuni you could put photos or statues of the masters you received the ‘method’ side of the practice from – such as bodhicitta, compassion, generosity and morality.

If you have a tantric practice commitment and you have received initiations, the traditional arrangement is called la-ma yi-dam sang-ye chang-sem. La-ma is one’s own root guru and yidam is the meditational deity you are practising; sangye is the Buddha and changsem is the Bodhisattvas. Even then, I still feel you must put Buddha Shakyamuni in the centre. Then you can have a meditational deity on the left and your own guru on the right. If you have a stupa put it near the deity, and you can put scriptures on either on the right or left.

Setting up offerings is very useful. Traditionally, offerings are seven water bowls, set up from the right as seen by the Buddha. They represent:

  • water for drinking
  • water for washing
  • flowers
  • incense
  • light
  • perfume
  • food

(Many shrines have an eighth bowl representing music.)

Arrange the bowls very nicely, neither touching nor with a wide gap – about 1cm apart is best.

As you fill them, say the mantra om ah hung.

And of course they should be as straight and as nicely set up as possible. That’s the traditional way. If you look at some other traditions, such as Thailand, Cambodia or India, offerings are often real food and drinks, flowers and incense. Of course flowers and incense are universal offerings.

If you find setting up water bowls in your home is difficult then put some fruit or flowers there because these are easily available and in Western culture homes often have flowers beautifully arranged and bowls of fruit. When you buy them for your home you can buy some for your shrine as well.

When you set up the shrine there’s one recitation that is good to do which describes the nature of the offerings you have set up. Whatever you offer, although they have a function of being beautiful sounds, smells and sights, they don’t carry any intrinsic identity as an offering from their own side. If we have a clear understanding of this, it is a very effective way of making offerings. The recitation is called the offering dharani. There is a Sanskrit recitation as well as the translation.

om namo baghavate vajra sara pramadana tathagataya / arhate samyaksam buddhaya / tayatha / om vajre vajre / maha benze / maha tedze vajre / maha vidya vajre / maha bodhicitta vajre / maha bodhi mendo pasam kramana vajre / sarva karma avarana / bisho dhana vajre soha //

Recite that three times then you can recite it in English:

By the power of the truth of the three jewels,
The power of the inspiration of all the Buddha and Bodhisattvas,
The power of the great might of the completed two collections
And the power of the intrinsically pure and inconceivable sphere of reality,
May these offerings become suchness.

Having a shrine and making offerings to it is a way of focusing our mind in a powerful and positive way. Your shrine becomes a sacred place. It is said that Bodhgaya is the most sacred place on Earth. It is a place we go on pilgrimage to because it is so special. And this is because Buddha Shakyamuni not only spent his days there but actually became enlightened there. Other places are sacred too, such as Limbini where he was born, or Varanasi where her first taught. We Buddhist practitioners feel they are sacred because of the Buddha and because many great masters visited afterwards and made prayers and did practices. It is because of all this that the places have become sacred. From their own side they are not sacred. I think in some ways it’s the same with your own shrine at home. It is important only because you do your spiritual practices in front of it. It can be a holy place. Because of that power of the blessings of so many people those places in India have become holy places. Day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, if we do prayers and practices in front of our own shrine, that place will become a sacred place. It will become very helpful for our minds.