THE CIRCULATING ALTAR
- Water Bowl
- Offering Bowls
- Incense Burner
- Family Memorial Tablets
A simple home altar can express a wealth of Teaching. The diagram shows a “circulating altar”—one of the simplest ways of setting up an altar. There are usually seven types of items on this altar: 1. Statue(s) or picture(s) of a Buddha or Bodhisattva; 2. Water bowl; 3. Offering bowl(s); 4. Incense burner; 5. Candle; 6. Flower vase and flowers; 7. Family memorial tablets (and/or pictures of the deceased).
This is called a “circulating altar” because there is a symbolic clockwise movement of offering to, and receiving help from, the Buddha Nature. This diagram shows one way of setting up such an altar. There are many other ways. The below show some variations on the theme: click them for larger views.
Regardless of the particular aspects of training and enlightenment personified by any Buddha or Bodhisattva, the deeper meaning of all such images is that they represent the Buddha Nature Itself. The “upward,” or offering, side of the circulation is represented as follows: The incense burning in the incense burner can be viewed as representing the offering upon the fire of faith and resolve of all that is pained and confused, needing transformation and enlightenment. The offerings in the offering bowls and the flowers in the vase, represent all of life seeking its True Refuge and, more particularly, the offering of all aspects of our lives in the service of the work of reharmonization with the Buddha Nature.
The “return,” or help, side of the circulation is represented by the water—the cleansing, healing Water of Compassion flowing to all the sources of suffering—and the light of the candle—the illuminating Teaching (Wisdom) coming directly from our own True Nature, dispelling the darkness of ignorance.
In our monastery, we use artificial flowers or a living plant on our altars in order to avoid cutting flowers. Our offering bowls contain artificial fruit or, sometimes, a real piece of fruit or other food item that has been donated to the monastic community (such offerings are later eaten by the monks). Individuals often place little non-food items having special meaning to them in the offering bowl or bowls on their home altars.
Other items commonly placed on home altars include memorial tablets (ihai); photos of deceased friends and relatives; a picture of one’s teacher or master (whether deceased or still living); and a picture of a friend or relative for whom merit is being offered.
Click the photos below for larger views of example home altars.