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​Sacred Space: Taking Care of Your Altar

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Keeping the Elements Alive

An altar is alive. It’s made up of the same elements that make up our own bodies—earth, water, fire and air. And these elements of an altar, like our bodies—like all things, for that matter—are impermanent. The flowers die, the water offering evaporates, the candle and incense stick burn down. This is why an altar flower person and an altar attendant are assigned to take care of the Monastery’s altars.

Your home altar requires the same care and attention. Even if your altar isn’t made up of the same elements as a traditional altar, attending to your altar—keeping it clean, in order and alive—is an essential aspect of the practice of liturgy.

Flowers

One important difference between arranging altar flowers and regular decorative flower arranging is that altar flowers are an offering. Exploring what this means for you on your altar is a deeply personal practice. Each week at the Monastery, or more often if necessary, the altar flower person collects the flower vases from the altars around the building, cleans them out, sorts out the dead flowers from the ones that can still be used on residents’ personal altars, and creates fresh arrangements. Here are some guidelines about creating altar flower arrangements:

  • The flowers are a way of bringing the seasons into your practice; use what’s available where you live.
  • Traditional altar flower arrangements have an odd number of flowers.
  • The arrangement should not be higher than the altar image.
  • There should be a mix of greens, which ground an arrangement, and flowers. If they’re available, you might add cattails, pussy willows, apple blossoms, or other seasonal accents.

With some practice, you can use your flower offering to intentionally bring energy and life to your home practice.

Water Offering

If you have a water offering on your altar, in front of your altar image, you’ll notice that the water starts to evaporate, even after a single day. Using a small pitcher to slowly add water until the surface bulges over the rim of the vessel is how you maintain your water offering.

Candles

Before making an incense offering or doing any other practice at your altar, you should light the candle. Lighting the candle “activates” the altar. At the Monastery, a candle burns on the altar throughout blocks of zazen. To keep the candle burning evenly, the altar attendant trims the candle after every block of sitting. This involves trimming the top of the candle so that it’s flat (be careful with a just-extinguished candle; the wax will still be liquid) and trimming the wick:

Leaving a lit candle burning unattended is a serious hazard that can result in property damage or worse. Residents at the Monastery are not permitted to use candles in their cabin spaces because of the risks. It’s part of the altar usher’s service position to extinguish the candle after services. We recommend that you integrate extinguishing your altar candle with the liturgy of practicing at your altar. (The Monastery Store sells a candle snuffer that you can use for this purpose.)

Incense

As you burn incense, the bowl become cluttered with fallen ash. The unburnt nibs of the incense sticks that lie below the surface of the ash start to accumulate. You can attend to your incense bowl on a regular basis to keep it clean and fresh. First, use tweezers to pick out the unburnt incense nibs from the ash:

You can use a sieve to sift the ash and save it to refill your incense bowl, or start a new incense bowl. We save all of the incense ash at the Monastery. The ash, in a sense, represents time—the time spent sitting in zazen. Hojin Sensei, one of the teachers at the Monastery, used to incorporate ash from the Monastery’s altars into the clay she used to make incense bowls in her pottery studio. You can either discard the unburnt incense nibs, or, as a reader researched and related to me, they can be composted. Some students save their unburnt incense nibs and burn them a few times a year.

Next, stir the incense ash with the tweezers to aerate the ash in the bowl, and gently shake or tap the bowl on a hard surface to level the ash. At this point, it’s very close to done. The ash is free of nibs and is light and airy. To finish the incense bowl, use a flattened spoon to smooth the ash. (You can bend and flatten a spoon yourself, or they are included in our altar cleaning kits):

As the monastic who trained me to do this said, “The ash should be smooth like a skating rink and soft like a cloud.” There is a tendency in the beginning to either overwork the ash, or to press it so that it’s packed hard. With practice and patience, you can create a very smooth surface and a soft pack so that when you offer a stick of incense, it drops effortlessly into the ash.

Caring for your altar is an aspect of liturgy itself. It’s a concentration practice—smoothing the ash, arranging flowers. You can bring the same mind of concentrated awareness and generosity to these tasks as you do to your sitting practice. The way that you care for the tools you use to tend to your altar is part of this. The cleanliness and orderliness of the tools themselves and the area where you work is all part of liturgy. This is how we begin to see that our practice of seated meditation is not separate from our everyday activities.

You can find a range of altar supplies, including candles, incense, incense bowls and burners, water offering cups, flower vases and an altar cleaning kit at The Monastery Store. If you have questions about maintaining your altar, we’d love to hear from you. Give us a call at (845) 688-7993, or send us an email at support@dharma.net.

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.


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.

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