Common questions

How should lay Buddhists set up an altar at home?

 This is a frequently asked question, which also implies another question: Is it necessary for lay Buddhists to set up an altar at home? If so, how should they do it? The answer really depends on the individual situation. If the dwelling is small, or if you live in a dormitory, share a room or a house with co-workers or classmates, it would not be convenient to set up an altar. In such cases, if you worship regularly at a fixed time, you may place a sutra where you would normally place a Buddha statue. In this situation, it is not necessary to burn incense or candles, or offer water or flowers. Before and after worshipping, it would be appropriate to bow with joined palms, and prostrate to show respect and sincerity. If your roommates or housemates are also Buddhists, it would certainly be all right to set up a common altar or a worship room. If you are the only Buddhist, then you should not be so particular as to insist on setting up an altar; as it may court others’ resentment and dismay. 

 If you are the only Buddhist in the family, it’s also necessary to follow similar guidelines as if you live in a dormitory; otherwise, it may create discord in the family. Don’t let your Buddhist practice lead to ill feelings and resentment toward Buddhism within the family. If the whole family believes in Buddhism, or you are head of the household, or both spouses practice, and there is space, it would be the best to set up an altar or a worship room. When setting up an altar in the living room, select the side of the room where the main furniture would normally be. There should be no window behind the statue, and the statue should face a door or window, so there would be plenty sunlight, and the altar is clearly in sight when people enter the door. 

 The altar is the heart of a home; it should generate a sense of stability and security. As for the locations and directions suggested by geomancers, they can be used as reference for consideration; but one should not be superstitious and feel constrained by them. It would be fine as long as the Buddha statue does not directly face the bathroom, the stove, or a bed. If you set up a worship room, choose a quiet quarter where children or pets don’t roam in and out easily. The room should not be a place for receiving guests, chatting or entertaining; it should be used only for worshipping, chanting, and Chan practice, not for anything else. However, if there are already non-Buddhist pictures, plaques, and statues used for worshipping, such as Guangong, Matzu, earth gods and ancestors, we should not do away with them right away, just because we now practice Buddhism. They should be removed step by step, gradually. 

 The first step is to place the Buddha statue in the middle of the altar, flanked by statues of the non-Buddhist deities, and ancestors’ memorial plaques. It is not necessary to set up an incense burner and candle holders. The reason for this arrangement is because all benevolent deities and ancestors will protect, support, and be drawn to the Three Jewels. After the altar is set up, they can also become disciples of the Three Jewels and benefit from the Dharma. The next time you move the altar or worship room, you may then remove those non-Buddhist deity statues and store them away as keepsakes. As for the ancestors’ plaques, they don’t need to be placed or worshiped at home; they can be moved to the hall of rebirth in a temple or monastery. If one insists on continuing to worship them at home, they can be either placed on the level below the Buddha’s statue. Or, they can be moved to another location onto a smaller altar and be worshiped separately.

 In larger temples, for instance, there are halls of rebirth specially for placing ancestors’ plaques. Smaller temples usually allow ancestors’ plaques and longevity plaques to be placed along the side walls of the main hall. In this way, it not only expresses our prudent filial piety and reverence to our ancestors, but also shows our sublime faith to the Buddha. In such a way, it distinguishes our sublime faith to the Buddha from the filial piety to our ancestors. 

 At home there’s no need for multiple statues of the Buddha and bodhisattvas, as that would add to clutter. One statue of the Buddha can represent all buddhas, and one bodhisattva statue can represent all bodhisattvas. Apart from statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, most families choose one from among Guanyin Pusa (Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva), Amitabha Buddha, and the Medicine Buddha.

 If you have both Buddha and bodhisattva statues, then the Buddha statue should be placed in the middle or on a higher level in the back of the altar, while the bodhisattva statues are placed on the sides or at lower positions in front. In other words, the Buddha statue should stand out to show his revered prominence. The size of the statue should be in proportion to the scale of the altar and the worship room, not too big or too small. If a statue is small but made from one of the seven precious treasures (gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, agate, ruby, carnelian), then a specially carved, multi-leveled shrine can be used to set off the statue’s unique grandeur. 

 After acquiring a new Buddha or bodhisattva image or statue, many people would hold an initiation (“opening light”) ceremony to consecrate it. However, from the Buddhist point of view, such a ceremony is not necessary. Buddha and bodhisattva images and statues are tools for practice. We use them as objects for reverence. Although the buddhas and the bodhisattvas are omnipresent, without statues and images, we won’t have a focus to receive our prostrations, offerings, and respect. It is through such reverential practices that we receive benefits of cultivation and responses from the buddhas and the bodhisattvas. But the most important thing is our faith, sincerity, and a sense of respect, not the statues or images themselves. Therefore, an initiation ceremony for the images and statues is not that important. 

 When Shakyamuni Buddha was still living, he went to the Heaven of the Thirty-three Devas for three months to give sermons to his mother. His disciples missed him, so they sculpted his image for worship; yet, there was no account of any initiation ceremonies. In subsequent generations, sutras, images, Buddhist articles, pagodas and even temples, became representations of Buddha’s presence and his continuing transformation of the world. Nevertheless, solemn ceremonies often generate deep respect and faith in people. Gradually, many kinds of rituals related to worship and offerings came into existence; the initiation ceremony was one of them. Therefore, to this day, when a temple installs a new Buddha statue, followers gather together to have an initiation ceremony. Similar to a new firm opening for business, or a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new building, a ceremony is a way to make a solemn announcement to the public. 

 However, when individuals set up Buddha and bodhisattva statues at home, there is no need for an announcement, hence, no need to hold an initiation ceremony. As long as you set up the statues with sincerity and respect, and make daily offerings of incense, flowers, and fruits, keeping the offerings and the altar fresh, clean, and tidy, you will have a sacred and holy atmosphere to induce the dedication of practitioners. To keep the indoor air fresh and clean, the incense burned at home should be of refined grade with delicate, light fragrance. When burning incense at home, it’s good to burn just one stick at a time. Do not pollute the air in the house with too much incense. Natural sandalwood and agarwood incense are of great quality; it is not good to use synthetic chemical or animal-based incense sticks.

 In the worship room of a modern home, candles can be replaced by light bulbs. It is necessary to clean the offering table, incense burner, candle holder often, and keep them dust free, and free of withering flowers and rotting fruits. Every day we should set a specific time to conduct the practice, at least burning incense and offering water every morning and evening. Before leaving and after returning home, we should prostrate to Buddha to express our gratitude, respect, and remembrance.