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Sacred Space: Altar Images

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Choosing an altar image is a very personal matter. Sometimes, your altar image finds you.

My first altar image was a spontaneous gift from an elderly downstairs neighbor in my Brooklyn apartment building. He’d been having trouble with his phone line, and I sorted the issue out with the phone company for him over the course of several service calls.

“Here,” he said, handing me a dark and dusty statue as I walked out of his apartment. “This is for you.”

When I cleaned her up, she turned out to be a stunning white ceramic standing Kannon bodhisattva. I had just started practicing at Fire Lotus Temple in Brooklyn, and it seemed fitting that this image should have come to me without my even seeking her out.

At The Monastery Store, we offer a range of Buddha and bodhisattva (enlightened being) images, each a personification of particular enlightened qualities. Seated Buddha images evoke a feeling of equanimity, stability and groundedness. Kannon (or Kuan Yin, or Avalokiteshvara, as she’s also known) is the bodhisattva of compassion. She’s often seen holding a vase of medicine that cures the sickness of delusion and suffering. Royal Ease Kannon reclines in a posture of relaxed and wakeful fearlessness before the suffering she sees. Jizo is the bodhisattva who blesses children and travelers. You can read more about the canon of Buddhas and bodhisattvas in the Buddhist tradition in Taigen Dan Leighton Sensei’s excellent book, Faces of Compassion. If you’re not a Buddhist, you might choose a different kind of image altogether—an image of Christ or Mary or one of the Christian saints, or of a god or goddess within your tradition.

A couple important considerations in choosing an altar image are:

  • What enlightened virtue do you most need or want to remind yourself of? Compassion, wisdom, fierceness, fearlessness, groundedness, equanimity, lovingkindness? Your altar image can help you to focus on and cultivate a particular quality—one that feels present but you’d like to strengthen, or perhaps a quality that feels faint or distant but that you’d like to cultivate.
  • Resonance. It’s important to feel a connection with your image. You may feel this immediately, or it may be something that develops over time as you spend time sitting or praying or doing services in the presence of it.

My personal altar has gone through several changes since my initial gift of the white Kannon. A few years after that, I remade my altar entirely and was drawn to the female body of this seated Manjushri statue. Manjushri—usually pictured in male form—is the bodhisattva of wisdom whose flaming sword of discerning wisdom cuts away delusion. (I gave the white ceramic Kannon to a friend and fellow practitioner in our sangha; things have a way of finding their true home.) My current altar image is three river stones from the stream that runs alongside the road between the Monastery and The Monastery Store office building. Stacked on top of each other, they look very much like a seated Buddha, and for me they evoke the stability and groundedness of the mountain that I live on. 

A friend of mine told me that after years of doing zazen in front of a Buddha image at her personal altar, she realized in a visceral flash that she could no longer identify with a male Buddha image. She began looking for a female image. The practitioners in our National Buddhist Prison Sangha program are typically not allowed to have statues as altar images in the facilities where they’re incarcerated. Instead, we send them a beautiful photograph of a Buddha statue to use as their altar image. One of the monastics here at the Monastery has a Buddha image on his altar carved in great detail out of deer scat. 

The point is: there are no rules. While some people may find it helpful to create a traditional altar with a traditional image, for others, it may be important to “take it out of the box” in order to find an image and configuration that speaks to the heart.

Do you have a question about altar images, or creating a sacred space in your home? Please feel free to contact us directly at dharmacom@dharma.net or at (845) 688-7993.

We’d love to hear about your altar, or sacred space. Better yet—we’d love to see a photo or video of the sacred space you’ve created in your home. Please send your photos and videos to dharmacom@dharma.net.

This post is the first in a series on creating sacred space in your own home. In future posts, we’ll be looking at incense, flowers and other offerings, how to take care of your altar, and what practices you can do at your altar to help nourish and sustain your deepest aspirations for a life that is authentic, loving and wise.

See The Monastery Store's selection of Buddhist statues.


Shea Ikusei Settimi, MRO is a novice monastic at Zen Mountain Monastery. She currently serves in Outreach & Communications for Zen Mountain MonasteryThe Monastery Store, and Mountain Record: The Zen Practitioner's Quarterly.

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