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Sacred Space: How Do I Use My Altar?

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Working Skillfully With Liturgy

photo by Eric L

When I created my first altar in my tiny Brooklyn apartment over a decade ago, my primary intention was to create an inspiring space in which to sit zazen at home. I had a friend who is a designer help me pick out fabric for an altar cloth, and together we purchased a blown-glass vase in the shape of a bird and a silver incense bowl. Everything looked perfect with the white ceramic Kannon bodhisattva image my neighbor had given me. I offered incense at my new altar and sat down to do zazen, not knowing that I was beginning an important relationship to my altar, to liturgy, and to working with my mind.

Several years later, I stood in front of another, much more humble altar in a house in the Catskills and did my first liturgical service—alone. I’d taken part in countless services at Fire Lotus Temple in Brooklyn and at the Monastery, but I’d never done liturgy by myself, and at first it felt strange. I felt strange. But something about it beyond my self-consciousness felt true and right. 

By this time I’d offered incense many times, yet now offering meant something different. It wasn’t just the thing I did before a period of zazen. Now, it was a way of connecting to the Buddha, and to all the teachers who'd come before me and taught a wisdom tradition that was helping me to study my mind. It was a way of offering gratitude. And offering also meant things deep in my being that couldn't be put into words. I held my hands palm-to-palm in the universal mudra of unity, or gassho, and spoke the words I’d written over the course of several days. Refined in the concentration of my daily zazen, these were words that expressed my intention for the life I wanted to live.

To this day, I begin each morning with a personal service, and the practice feels completely natural to me now. I have chanted the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts, the Buddha’s Words on Lovingkindness, and other formal Buddhist liturgy. Some mornings I’ve stood before my altar in silence, listening intently for a sense of peace, or internal settling. I have asked questions, offered wishes for the health and healing of friends and family members, and asked for help from the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

Let your own daily practice at your altar evolve as your practice evolves. Here are some things to keep in mind as you build your altar:

  1. As my teacher once said to me: Take it out of the box. Use your altar and what you do there to nourish your own spiritual practice. While there are traditional forms of Buddhist liturgy, there are no rules. You can write your own services and dedications, or use prayers or liturgies from other traditions that speak to you.
  2. Offerings can be an aspect of your practice at your altar. Traditional offerings include flowers, candlelight and incense. But speaking words of gratitude can be an offering, as well as objects that are meaningful to you or the people you might be honoring.
  3. Sometimes you may need the stillness and stability of zazen, or other formal prayer or meditation practice. At other times you may need to move your body. For example, doing a bowing practice can be a way of working with excessive pride or anger. In this talk, Shugen Sensei, abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, talks at length about offerings and bowing practice.

Finally, I leave you with a couple images of personal altars that readers kindly sent in. May it offer you inspiration to ask deeply and discover what you need to support your practice of cultivating 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 Take Care of My 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.

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