Sacred Space: What is an Altar?

by Shea Ikusei Settimi

Creating a Sacred Space in Your Home Is A Form Of Contemplation

In preparation for this post, I photographed a number of personal altars belonging to monastics, residents and lay practitioners of the Monastery. Some of you also sent in photographs of your altars; the photo above is one such image. I offer them here as inspiration for you to create your own sacred space at home. 

In monasteries and churches, the focal point of the main practice or worship space is an altar. A traditional Zen Buddhist altar of the type we have at Zen Mountain Monastery includes an elevated central altar image, a water offering, an incense bowl, a vessel of flowers, and a candle. But if you consider an altar to be a space you consciously create to remind yourself what’s most important in your life, the idea of what an altar can be gets much larger.

The elements of a traditional altar represent the four elements which make up everything—including us! These are earth (flowers), fire (candle), water (water offering), and air (incense smoke), and they are arranged in a particular configuration. The water element sits in front of the altar image, the incense bowl in front of that. The flowers and candle are in the same line as each other, with the flowers on the left and the candle on the right. The elements and configuration of your altar, however, may take a non-traditional form.

It can take time for an altar to develop. Perhaps you purchase the elements of your altar, or you may let your altar evolve slowly, over time, with elements you’ve found, made, or been given. Your altar may change as your practice develops and changes. During a period when I was experiencing a lot of struggle and upheaval in my life and practice, I asked one of my senior monastic brothers at the Monastery for his advice about what to do with my altar; I just couldn’t seem to figure it out. He said, “Take everything off of it. Start over. Take your time. You’ll know what to do.” It was good advice. Over time, my altar re-developed to be what I needed.

You may end up establishing more than one altar in your home, for different purposes. My partner and I each have our own personal altars, and we also have a couples’ altar, where we offer incense and do services when one of us is away, or when we need guidance or grounding about an issue in our relationship. Some people have a separate altar for their ancestors—both familial and/or spiritual. An ancestors’ altar can include photographs of parents, grandparents or other family members, as well as spiritual teachers who are part of your practice, or who have inspired your practice.

Arranging your altar can be a form of meditation in itself. Deciding what to place on it, where to place things and how—this is all a part of liturgy. Grounding yourself in your meditation practice, so that the process evolves out of your concentration can be important to the process.

A few things to note:

  1. Many of the things on my altar are gifts I’ve received from friends and sangha members. While there are some things that I purchased—like a pine incense box and my full mala—the elements I’ve been given remind me of my connection to the sangha, or Buddhist community, and make my altar feel unique and personal.
  2. Feathers, rocks, shells, animal bones, and other elements from nature can serve as reminders of the miracle of the natural world. They can also help ground you in the place where you live, or remind you of a place where you’ve experienced a feeling of peace or sanctuary.
  3. Artwork is another common element on my and others’ altars. Art practice is part of our formal training at the Monastery, so handmade gifts and cards can end up being a reminder of our unique human capacity for creative expression.

The point is: Your altar is a place to remind you of what’s most important, of what lies beneath the mental, emotional, and situational ups-and-downs of everyday life. It may be the equanimity and wisdom of the Buddha, or the compassion of Kannon, or your connection to nature, or to family and loved ones. There are no rules, and no one is watching. So make it personal and meaningful so that each time you return to it, it helps return you to your deepest aspirations and to your innate stillness, silence, wisdom and compassion.

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 part of 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.

Next up in the series: How Do I Use An Altar?


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