Altar Instructions (requested)

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Posted by Sergio ( on April 18, 2000 at 11:10:35:

A lot of people had requested me instructions about setting up a Buddhist altar. Here is the instruction. Please forgive me, but I hadn’t had time to do this before. This is a very long mail so take your time. I hope it be useful and not boring.

When we set up a Buddhist altar we are strengthening our refugee in the 3 jewels: The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. I’d like to talk a little about the refugee before talking about the altar, because it’s main important. I’m a Tibetan Buddhist, so I’ll explain this in term of Tibetan Buddhism, Other Buddhist traditions are almost identical about altars.

First at all, we must ask ourselves which kind of refugees we use to take in our lives. Do we take refugee in sensorial pleasures?. Do we take refugee in people?. Do we take refugee in our jobs?. Which kind of refugees do we use to take?. If we are honest with out selves, we take refugee in all kind of external stimulus in our search for happiness. But we want secure refugees. What is a secure refugee? A secure refugee is something that can give us permanent happiness, a refugee which will never fail us, a refugee that will never change. However, the refugees we use to take in our daily life are not of this kind. We love to take refugee in sensorial stimulus, as eating or having sex, or going to the cinemas. We love to take refugee in people, and we look for someone to get in love. We are always taking refugee in all these kind of external factors which are no secure refugees, because they cannot give us what we are looking for: permanent happiness. We eat and in a few minutes we are full. If we do not accept this reality, then we will continue eating and you will feel pain. So eating give us a few minutes of happiness. What about having sex? We get a few seconds of orgasm and that’s all. What about getting in love?. This is the worst refugee. There is no person in the world able to give us permanent happiness. Our perception of people makes that we get in love, not the person itself. If there were a person with power to create happiness, then all people that interact with this person would feel satisfaction. But your girlfriend or boyfriend doesn’t create this kind of happiness in all people, so the reason you feel like that is your perception, not your girlfriend. And with the time the relationship ends, because everything ends, and you suffer for that. So your girlfriend is not a good refugee either.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t get pleasure from food, sex and people, I’m just saying that as secure refugee, they are very bad. In terms of permanent happiness, they fail. And if we get attached to them, we will suffer because they will end in any moment. So it’s very dangerous to take refugee in these external stimulus. In the Buddhist tradition, it’s said we must give up 4 mundane refugees, because they only bring us pain:

1. Refugee in wealth
2. Refugee in sensorial pleasures
3. Refugee in the idea of fame
4. Refugee other’s acceptation.

So the Buddhist reasoning begins when we ask ourselves the quality of our actual refugees. It’s sad, but must people never transcend the level of immediate sensorial stimulus as their structural refugee in daily life. We are in love of our attachments, because we do not perceive the objects of our addictions as impermanent. We do not realize in a no-conceptual perspective that all these refugees are not sources of happiness, and we perceive them as if they were. We work for years to accumulate wealth, paying a high cost in terms of health and time, and when we are finally rich, we have no life anymore, we are old, and we didn’t enjoy this life. And now we suffer taking care our wealth, paying a high cost in energy. If wealth was a source of happiness, all rich people were happy. Are they?. I’m not saying that we must not work or enjoy poverty, I’m just saying that as a secure refugee wealth is very bad because it can’t give us permanent happiness. Wealth can’t save you from death and illness.

Buddha knew this and he took a path between a complete sensorial stimulus and the lack of it. He taught the middle way, a way in which you do not take refugee in these 4 mundane refugees but you don’t regardless of them either. You can enjoy of all mundane pleasures you want, but enjoy them without attachment, without taking them as refugees.

So which is a good refugee?. Which refugee can give us permanent happiness?. Buddha said: only a refugee that develops your mind, because if you develop your mind and train it to see things as they are, suffering will be destroyed. Suffering is a point of view. The mind is the source of happiness and suffering, not something external. If your change your mind, you change your reality, because mind is the one who creates reality. All cognitive perception in our human existence is created by the mind. Something you see red can be seen by other being like blue. So the experience of the color is internal, is a matter of the mind, a characteristic created in your cognitive experience by specific filters, not a characteristic of the object. If you change these internal filters then objects appear to you in a very different way. Everything is subjective. So if you train your mind to see this, and you make your mind so strong and perfect as a Buddha, then you will get permanent happiness (in terms of nirvana). And the 3 jewels are the perfect refugee to get this: The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The “Buddha” doesn’t mean a particular person, but the concept of Buddhahood. To take refugee in the “Buddha” means to take refugee in the kind of mind you want to get. You can also take refugee in the Buddha as a person, but you must see this as an entity able to guide you in the knowledge of your own mind, not as a being able to modify your problems and satisfy your mundane desires. This is VERY important, because as westerns, he have a Christian or Jewish heritage based in the belief of a being able to solve our problems (God). You can say you do not believe in God, but due to the culture you proceed, you are deeply rooted in these devotional habits, even if you do not realize it. If you want to set up a Buddhist altar as a challenge to your family, then you are wrong. If you want to set up a Buddhist altar to feel that you changed of religion then you are wrong. You must set up a Buddhist altar only when you have taken refugee in the 3 jewels convinced of what it means. If you haven’t taken refugee in the 3 jewels, then you MUST NOT set up an altar. So taking refugee in the Buddha doesn’t mean to take refugee in your new god, but taking refugee in your own Buddha Nature (tatagata garva). You will not use this as a new devotional way to vomit all your neurotic requests to Buddha as you used to do it in the church with an altar of Christ. Remember that the main Buddha’s argument is that only oneself can get liberation, working hard, without the intervention of someone else. As Jewish or Christian this is not the right way to think. Christians and Jewish always emphasis that you must trust in God, have faith in him and he will make all the work. You just must sit and wait your death, doing what He said you should do and not doing what he said you shouldn’t do. He will do the rest and he will give you eternal life. Please, this is not Buddhist. It doesn’t matter how much you pray to the Buddhas, if you do not meditate you will not gain the Buddha’s state and your suffering will not stop in this or future lives. In fact, the idea of reborn is very important to be Buddhist and to take refugee in the 3 jewels. If you do not accept this idea, and you are just opened to it, then your refugee is not strong. Obviously, you will not think that it is important to meditate to get Buddha’s state if you don’t think that you could lose this kind of existence some day and perhaps reborn as an insect. As westerns these ideas are very difficult to digest. It’s easier to us to feel that Buddha’s is going to help us than feel that we could become an insect some day if we do not work with our minds. In the Buddhist countries the idea of reborn is not a problem because they born with this idea, nobody doubt of it. But for westerns is not easy to pass from the idea of eternal heaven to the idea of potential insect. This is very difficult to digest. So if you are just opened to the idea of reborn, but not convinced, then you might need a more few time to take refugee in the 3 jewels, but you can do it if you want to. But to set up a Buddhist altar being not sure of reborn is like to set up a christian altar not convinced of the existence of God. Which is the sense of that?

To take refugee in the Dharma is to take refugee in all methodologies created by the Buddha or by other Buddhas to remove suffering. To take refugee in the dharma is to take refugee in the 4 nobles’ truths, specially the 3 and 4. A deep and perfect understanding of the 4 nobles’ truths is indispensable to take refugee in the dharma. You will not take refugee in something you do not know well, will you?. This kind of understanding can be got only by the intervention of the spiritual master. It’s necessary the presence of the spiritual master, because he makes you see things as a Buddha does. This is not easy to get in a book, or by other way. The 4 nobles truths must be explained by the spiritual master.

And to take refugee in the Sangha, means to take refugee in those who are trying to get the Buddha’s state, and in the classical Buddhist tradition these are the monks and nouns. But they can also be friends, because they give you force to keep your fly to enlightenment. But it cannot be any Buddhist people, as a Christian or someone like that. But it doesn’t mean that we cannot be inspired by any Buddhist people, as mother Teresa, who is an example of the altruistic mind, so important in the Buddhist perspective.

Once you are sure that you want to take refugee in these 3 jewels, then you assist to the ceremony of the refugee, which is developed by the spiritual master, and he gives you the percepts of refugee. This step in your Buddhist spiritual development is main important, because you can say your are Buddhist only after this. Only a person who has taken these precepts can be called “Buddhist”. The rest people are “interested in Buddhism”, not officially Buddhists. If you do not have a spiritual master to get this refugee ceremony, you can do it yourself in front of a Buddha’s statue or a Buddha’s paint, and do it again when you find a spiritual master. An altar would be the best. You make this ceremony in the presence of the Buddha, because all Buddhas can manifest in your place just thinking about them. In this ceremony you bring an offering to the Buddha(s), specially something beautiful you want to offer to them, or something important to you, as a sign of no attachment and to cultivate generosity. Then you make the following vows for the rest of your life:

1. Never take the life of other sentient being.
2. Do not lie
3. Do not have a sexual conduct that could damage.
4. Do not take what is not yours (to rob).
5. Do no take intoxicants.

There is a text that most be read during this ceremony, which I don’t have here right now, but if you are interested I can mail you. In the case of not taking intoxicants, you can negotiate alcohol as a social need. For example I didn’t promise not drinking alcohol, but I promised do not get drunk. This is because I have a social need, which has been accepted for westerns. But cigarettes, drugs or any other substance toxic to your body is not allowed, including marihuana. If you are not ready to give up any of these substances, then you CANNOT take refugee. The same for the rest vows.

These are promises you make to the Buddhas, with an open heart, convinced that you are taking these precepts because in your own experience you have founded that these are actions that create suffering to you and to others. Your are not looking for acceptation or recognition. Since you take refugee, all the time you do not make any of these actions, you create positive karma because of the power of the vow (if you do not take refugee you do not create this karma all the time). But if you fail in one, and you do not regret and purify the action, the negative karma is exponential. So please be careful if you are serious in taking refugee.

There are 6 things that you must do as a Buddhist practitioner each day (by lama sopa rimpoche):

1. When you wake up in the morning, you must clean your altar. The altar must always be cleaned. If you invite someone to your home, your clean your house. So of course that you will clean your altar when they are invited, won’t you?. When you clean your altar you must think that you are cleaning your mind, cleaning it from the obscurations (ignorance, attachment and anger). To clean a place where Buddhas and Boddhisatvas are generates a powerful positive karma. In the altar you represent the body, word and mind of all Buddhas. The statue of Sakyamuni Buddha (Siddharta Gotama, the creator of Buddhism) must always be in the center, and it represents the Buddhaood, the Buddha’s body. You can put in the bottom of the statue a Buddhist text, specially the heart sutra, which represents the word of the Buddha. The heart or mind of the Buddha is represented by a stupa, which is a golden tower which represents the presence of Buddhahood in the world. The altar must be in the highest place of the room. The statue of Buddha must be higher and bigger than any picture of a master. An altar can be as big or as small as you want, the size is not important, but the details.
2. The second thing that a Buddhist must be is to make offering to the altar. This is to keep a mental state of value to the 3 jewels, and to generate generosity. The common offerings are fresh food, water in small containers, fresh flowers, incense or something pure. When we make offerings we must avoid 2 negativity:
1. To offer stolen things or things got without ethics.
2. To regret of having made that offering.

When we make the offering we must do it with a great generosity and without attachment or greed. It doesn’t matter the value of the offering, but the motivation of the person who makes the offering. In Asia there are people in tows who offer expensive things to get approval from the society, without an authentic and sincere motivation, but searching acceptation and fame. This creates a very negative karma. When we talk about an altar, the karmas are or very negative or very positive. It is said that once a man didn’t have anything to offer to his altar, because he was very poor, so he offered a handful of sand, but with a great feeling of devotion and altruism to the Buddhas. Because if his mental motivation, he reborn as the king Asoka, who was king of India and propagated Buddhism in all Asia. So it is important that you offer things to the altar with the motivation of get enlightenment to be of benefit to all sentient beings.
The simplest offering is the 7 containers of water. To make an offering of water doesn’t generate attachment, and water is something very pure. These containers must be clean (you do not give water to your host in a dirty container). They must be perfectly aligned, which represents a feeling of impeccability. They must be separated form each other by the distance of a grain of raise, no more no less. It is said that if they are very distance from each other, you will be separated from your master in future lives, and if they are too close, you will get a closed mind. If you fill the containers with a lot of water, it is said that you will have a big ego in your future lives, and if it is very empty, you will be poor in future lives. All must be as in the middle way.
You can eat the offerings of food and water you made to the altar in the morning at night, but you must not make offerings of food you like just because you know you will eat it at night. When you eat this food you must remember that they are blessed by the Buddhas, and when you eat them you must visualize the Buddha in the middle of your heart, and the food as a white nectar of blessings that you are offering to the Buddha in the center of your heart. In the altar you can use candles and incense, and other statues of Buddhas and Boddhisatvas. But they must be Buddhas or awaked beings, not other beings.

3. A Buddhist must meditate everyday. You must take the adequate position for meditation, in a comfortable place and with comfortable sits. The mind must be clear and with disposition to the refugee objects. Youe must begin with 15 or 20 minutes of shamata (concentration), and then practice the analytic
meditation (Lam Rim, the gradual path). The analytic meditation is the most important. But before meditating, we must have a perfect motivation, otherwise is not a spiritual practice, just a mental practice. If you have the right motivation, you will get the right result. If the root is poisoned, then the fruits are also poisoned. But if the root is virtuous, then the fruits are virtuous. So the best motivation or reason to make the practice is to be of benefit to all sentient beings, not only for yourself. You must think that you have an incredible lucky existence, which should be used to benefit all sentient beings. If you make offerings with this motivation you will create an incredible amount of positive karma, but if you offer expensive things with the intention of get benefit just for yourself, you do not generate any karma.

4. To visualize the tree of refugee is the next step in the meditation, after samatha and before the analytic meditation. You must visualize your root lama, the person who has taught you most, the one who has touched your heart most. You must see him/her as the Buddha Sakyamuni, in front of you, on a throne, on a lotus flower, in the center of the visualization. It is made of the nature of light. In the right of sakyamuni you visualize Maitreya, on a throne and on a lotus flower, who represents methods to get the altruistic mind. On his left you visualize Manyusire, with the same features, who represent the cultivation of wisdom, the emptiness, a no dualistic perception. In front of them, a little down, we visualize all teachers from we have received teachings, even the one who taught us the alphabet. If they are alive, we visualize them on a safu, in they have died we visualize them on a lotus flower. If they are sick or with some physical problem or limitation, we visualize them without it. On the back of sakyamuni, we visualize Vajrayadara, an emanation of sakyamuni, who represents the experimental practice (from the lineage of Naropa, Marpa and Gampopa). Around this elements we visualize all Buddhas, boddhisatas, yogis, yoguinis, precabuddhas, dakinis, protectors and all kind of awaked beings. We must visualize in front of each being a text of his/her teaching. We feel happy of invoke the presence of all these beings, and we understand that they are happier because is not common in universe to find beings like us working to enlightenment and creating merit, that’s very rare. Due to their omniscient mind, they realize of our intention and effort and they are really happy, it’s not just in our mind. If you had the karma you could see them. Most beings in universe lose their time in negative actions or enjoying their temporal happiness while you are going to develop your mind. We try to visualize all enlightenment masters of all lineage’s, and we visualize them arguing about the different teachings. You must visualize this at the same time. If that’s very difficult, make your best trying, and at least try to feel their presence. With this visualization you can say the motivational “prayers”. If you don’t know them, just put your hands together, as praying. With that you are forming a diamond in your hand, which is the altruistic mind, and you offer it to the Buddhas. And you say: “I take refugee in the Buddha, in the Dharma and in the Sangha until get enlightenment. With the merit that I can accumulate with the practice of the paramitas as generosity, I want to get soon the state of a Buddha in all being’s benefit”
You say this 3 times. After this you can meditate in the analytic meditation. After that, you must feel a great happiness for the merit created, and you must dedicate it to the benefit of all beings. You should feel that this effort is gong to help other sentient beings.

I think this is enough about altars and refugee. This looks like a book instead of an explanation, but I’m sure that there are a lot of people interested in the topic (several people asked me about this), and a lot of you don’t have good sources about this. So I think this will be useful for everybody. You will probably have some questions, please feel free to ask them. I’m sorry for the redaction and broken English, but my maternal language is not English :)

Be happy!!


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