Setting-up A Zen Altar & Sacred Space
This guide is meant to assist in creating a home sacred space with an altar for your meditation/Zen practice. It is intended for the Ch’an/Zen practitioner, as the various Buddhist schools have different practice intentions that are reflected in how the various elements of a space and altar are utilized. As contemporary Zen teachers that work to find pragmatic lessons in all we do in life, we feel that how we approach our intentional ritual practice should be no exception. It is not what we do, but how our body-mind is during practice that matters.
An altar is one element of creating a sacred space where we retreat to quite the mind and sit in awareness. The environment associated with this special space is what matters, not what is in it. However, having meditation cushions or a chair, items that act to remind us of the importance of what we have dedicated ourselves to practice, and a consistent location is of importance. How we go about fulfilling these requirements will be different for each of us, depending on the various demands our private lives require. There will be as many options and materials to use as there are creative ideas. There are very few rules to follow.
Consider taking a chair/stool/cushion into different areas of your home or office and sit. Let your bodymind quietly experience each space. It may be the light, the noise level, the view, or just a vibe that makes a specific area “click” as the spot for your meditation practice.
Choose a location that is away from the more active areas of your home. This is often a bedroom. However, if you use a bedroom that is shared with another, make sure you talk this over with them in order to obtain a consensus. It is quite OK if the space is shared with others. The area should be able to be shut off from the other spaces in the home during meditation/practice sessions, if possible. A space with limited or low light, and that is well ventilated, is preferable. The idea here is to limit distractions, and create a space that is comfortable and inviting.
As mentioned, it is not necessary that the space be permanently set-up. You might keep your supplies in a container and the cushions stored in a closet or under a bed, for example. You can also acquire a wall altar that has doors that shut when not in use. This is an excellent alternative for small spaces. Many altars have been set-up on a bookshelf, and the meditation cushions brought out during practice time. So be creative. But the one basic requirement is that the space be consistent. As we train the mind to be quiet, having a familiar space helps.
A home altar is difficult to define. It acts as a focal point of our practice space. It is an anchor, and in many ways, represents our intentions. As such, it can be very personal, and what we bring to it gives special meaning as we practice with it. There are very few necessary elements that may be considered necessary; everything else are personal touches.
We recommend that your altar consist minimally of three tea candles to represent the Three Jewels, an incense burner, and a representation of an Universal expression. The Universal expression is where your creative imagination comes into play. Most often it is a statue of Buddha. For Christians it might be a cross or image of Christ. Other beliefs have their own sacred elements. It does not need to be Buddhist as we honor all Interfaith traditions. But this type of element is not necessary either. Other iconographic images can replace the central focus element. From a Buddhist perspective it can be an eight-spoke Dharma Wheel, an image of the mudra hand, a specific image of a column, a throne, flowers – especially the lotus, something like a fan with the Heart Sutra printed on it, maybe a rock or other natural element even. Perhaps a nice scroll or print on the wall behind your altar is something that you already have that you enjoy. Some altars have a ‘minimalist’ look with the candles, an incense bowl and a few flowers. Unlike the Tibetan or Pure Land Buddhist schools, it is not necessary to face your altar in a specific direction or level of the house. A basement space is fine, and often preferred. Don’t think your altar must be like what you see in temples and practice centers. A home altar should reflect your own needs for achieving a bodymind state of peace and contentment.
The layout of the altar can vary, but the one we use that is traditional within the Order of Engaged Buddhists and the epiphany ZEN Center is the Universal expression such as a Buddha and should be placed in the middle. Three tea candles are placed one to the left and right sides, and one in the center of this image. The incense burner is placed behind the central image. If you don’t have space behind the central image, place it in front but behind the central tea light. Other items can be placed on the altar but in a way that does not disrupt this basic layout. For example, You may want to keep a picture of your Zen teacher, or any image that brings a sense of calm to your practice and keep that to the far left, with a red votive candle next to it.
Place your altar along a wall or in the center of a room. Put your meditation cushions or chair in front of it about five feet back giving you room to light the candles and perform the incense offering ritual. If you have a chan bell, it should be placed to the left of the cushion, and a fish-drum to the right. This is not necessary at all. But as your practice matures, you will want to add these to your practice space in order to do bell meditation and chanting.