Where should a Buddhist Altar be Located?
- It is best to locate your altar at a relatively bright, clean and quiet location. The back of the Buddhist altar should not be against a window. The altar must be placed against a wall, and there should not be any mirrors in its surroundings.
- The best location for the altar is sitting south and facing north (for the Southern Hemisphere), or sitting north and facing south (for the Northern Hemisphere). However, if your current living conditions do not allow you to place the altar facing these directions, then other directions are also acceptable.
- Do not locate the altar near or opposite a toilet (close the doors of your toilet at all times)
- You should not place the altar on a balcony extending out from the building (i.e. not attached to the ground). However, if the balcony is inside the building then it would be fine, e.g. sunroom.
- You should not place the Buddhist altar in the bedroom of a couple (the bedroom of an elderly couple may be acceptable).
- The Buddhist altar must not be directly facing the kitchen.
- The altar must not be placed on top of the television, refrigerator, or directly below an air conditioner.
- The foot of a bed should not be directly opposite the Buddhist altar and its headboard should not be placed directly behind the altar. It is acceptable as long as there is some slight offset in the placement.
- Given that circumstances do not permit, and the only option to position the altar is the couples room or next to a television or when the surroundings are chaotic or the family is in a complicated state of affairs, etc, you may use a cupboard with doors or curtains (red colored) for the altar. When you are not offering incense, you may close the door or let down the curtain. Do not a glass dome to cover any statues or images of Bodhisattva.
- The Bodhisattva is to be enshrined on a single level (for example, do not use a bookshelf or cupboard with shelves for this purpose).
- You may stick the yellow landscape painting from Oriental Radio on the wall to the Buddhist altar to ward off any negative energy.
- The Buddhist altar should be at an optimal height (not too low; not too high). It would be best if the statues or images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on your altar are slightly above eye level (the Bodhisattva’s eyes should be higher than the person). If the height is too low, you may use a delicate and proper box to elevate the Bodhisattva’s image.
- You may use a yellow cloth to cover the surface of the Buddhist altar.
Accessories Required for Buddhist Altar
Incense Burner (Compulsory Item)
It is compulsory to have incense burner on a Buddhist altar. This is because if a person do not offer incense then they will fail to have the presence of Bodhisattva, hence the altar cannot be regarded as a Buddhist altar.
- The ideal incense burner is one that is made of porcelain. Avoid using one that is made of metal. It should not have any letters or symbols (eg the word “ 佛“ or any auspicious animals – dragon, phoenix, etc. or other animals. It should not have imprints of sutras/mantras. Letters like 福 (fortune) or 寿 (longevity) are acceptable but the most preferred one would be one that comes without any letters.
- Unless certain circumstances dictate otherwise, use an incense burner for each Buddha or Bodhisattva that you enshrine in order to show due respect.
- Should the incense burner lack ashes, you may temporarily fill it with rice before disposing of them when there are enough ashes. Alternatively, you may also obtain some ashes from other Buddhist friends.
Incense (Compulsory Item)
One must offer incense on their altar if they wish for the presence of Bodhisattva. If incense is not offered for an extended period of time, it will not only be disrespectful but also attract foreign spirits.
- It is best to use smoke-free sandalwood incense as that will serve to invite Guan Yin Bodhisattva. Do not use an incense coil, aromatic incense, pagoda incense, etc. This is because each type of incense will serve to invite different Bodhisattvas. Note that you should consistently use the same type of incense unless you were using an improper type.
- You may offer either 1 or 3 incense sticks. However, it is the most respectful to offer 3 incense sticks.
- Do not offer broken incense sticks.
Water Cup (Compulsory Item)
- There are 8 different auspicious meanings of offering water. Hence, offering water to the enshrined Bodhisattva is integral.
The cool and refreshing water symbolises one’s ability to uphold the precepts, their morality and purification from defiling illusion.
The sweetness of water symbolises that one will be able to savour a great variety of delicacies.
The lightness of water symbolises good health both physically and spiritually.
The softness of water symbolises the gentleness of one’s thoughts.
The clarity of water symbolises one’s thoughts are clear, bright and extremely pure.
The odourless water symbolises one’s thoughts that is free from all obstacles.
Water nourishes the throat, hence accomplishes one’s coherence in speech.
Water nourishes the stomach, hence, for many who suffer from stomach ailments, water is their only option for drink.
- It is compulsory to offer a cup of water to each Bodhisattva that you enshrine on your Buddhist altar.
- The most ideal cup to be used are those with lids and are plain (with no letters). Avoid using transparent cups. Do not use cups with the imprint of Heart Sutra, or any letters eg ‘佛’ (Buddha) or those with images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
- Use drinking water for this purpose (hot or cold).
- The water is to be changed on a daily basis. Once a cup has been used for offering water to a Bodhisattva, reserve its use exclusively for that particular Bodhisattva.
- You should not drink the Great Compassion Water directly from the cup used for offering on the altar. The water should be poured into another cup for drinking. Your mouth should not touch the offering cup.
Oil Lamps (Compulsory Item)
The oil lamps serve to invite Buddhas. As such, all altar with Bodhisattvas enshrined ought to have oil lamps or Bodhisattvas will never be present. Refill the oil in the oil lamp on a regular basis as this will benefit your eyes, allow you to gain wisdom, be sharp-eyed and clear-headed.
There are two parts that make up the oil lamp. Firstly, there is the wick of the oil lamp, which metaphorically represents Mount Sumeru. Why does the wick of the oil lamp take on the form of a lotus at times? It is because there are many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on Mount Sumeru. Secondly, there is the oil in the oil lamp.
The oil represents the water within vast oceans and hence it is also a symbol for how one’s heart should be as vast and magnanimous as an ocean. As such, one should always strive to encapsulate the Mount Sumeru of our mind with the magnanimity of our hearts. This is how we cultivate the Buddha and Bodhisattva within our hearts; this is the essence of embracing the flow of the universe within our minds.
- You may use glass or ceramic oil lamps. Avoid black-coloured lamps. Do not use oil lamps with Buddhist scriptures or images of Bodhisattvas on them. It is best to use oil lamps free from any inscriptions.
- You may choose to have just one oil lamp, a pair of oil lamps, or an oil lamp for each Bodhisattva enshrined on your altar.
- Oil lamps are usually placed on your right. In other words, place it to the left of Bodhisattva.
- Only use liquid vegetable oils for your oil lamp. These include: olive oil, rapeseed oil, corn oil and lotus oil. Do not use solid vegetable oil, animal oil, overly fragrant oils that will overpower the incense (e.g. sesame oil and peanut oil) and overly viscous oils that will not burn well (e.g. soya bean oil).
- Do not leave the oil lamp lit up when incense is not burning. This is because the oil lamp is for inviting Bodhisattva. Hence, it would be disrespectful if incense is not being offered. Once your incense has finished burning, you may extinguish the oil lamp.
Offering of Fruits (Optional)
- When conditions allow, you may use fruits as offerings although it is not compulsory.
- Offer only fresh fruits for example apple, orange, mango, pineapple or watermelon.
- Do not offer fruits like peach or banana.
- Fruits are to be placed on a platter. Never leave an empty fruit platter on the altar.
- Platters used must be brand new; ensure they are used solely for this purpose. It should not have imprints of scriptures, letters or images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
Offering of Flowers (Optional)
- If conditions allow, you may offer fresh flowers or plants e.g. lucky bamboo, lily, orchid, daffodil, etc.
- It is best to use a porcelain vase without any inscriptions. Avoid using one that is transparent or one that has a hollowed-out design. It should not have imprints of scriptures, letters or images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
- Roses are not suitable for offerings due to their thorns. You can tell whether a flower is suitable for offerings or not by its Chinese name. For example, flowers such as peach blossoms or Japanese morning glories are not suitable offerings. Additionally, do not place potted plants with soil on Buddhist altars
Step-by-step Guide on How to Set Up a Buddhist Altar
STEP 1 – USING BOTH HANDS, RAISE EACH OF THE BUDDHIST ALTAR ACCESSORIES SLIGHTLY ABOVE YOUR HEAD BEFORE PLACING THEM ON THE ALTAR
- Statues/images of Bodhisattvas. The numbers shown below represent the sequence in which the statues/images are to be respectfully placed on the altar from your perspective: ③ Tai Sui Bodhisattva ② Nanjing Bodhisattva ① Guan Yin Bodhisattva ④ Guan Di Bodhisattva (Guan Ping Bodhisattva, Guan Di Bodhisattva, Zhou Cang Bodhisattva)
- Place the incense burner(s) correspondingly
- Oil Lamps
- Fresh flowers
STEP 2 – RESPECTFULLY INVITE
- Light up the oil lamp. If you have an electrical lotus lamp, turn it on prior to lighting the oil lamp.
- Light up the incense (use the oil lamp to light up 3 incense sticks and in a vertical position, raise it up above your eyebrows and bow 3 times. Place the 3 incense sticks (all at once) into the incense burner. The tip of the incenses should not point towards the direction of Bodhisattva.
- Light up the “big incense” (sandalwood stick) – 3 times. This is to be done on the special days of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. After lighting up the oil lamp and incense, light up the sandalwood stick using the oil lamp, and extinguish the fire (do not blow using your mouth) – the smoke generated is referred to as the “big incense”, the fragrance of Bodhisattva. You may repeat this action 3 times.
- Kneel in front of Bodhisattva.
- Sincerely invite (each Bodhisattva 3 times)
- State the following prayers:
- “Sincerely invite the Greatly Merciful and Greatly Compassionate Guan Yin Bodhisattva enter the image of Bodhisattva enshrined by me, XXX”.
- “May the Greatly Merciful and Greatly Compassionate Guan Yin Bodhisattva invite Nanjing Bodhisattva to enter the image of Bodhisattva enshrined by me XXX.” Recite 108 times of the sacred name of Nanjing Bodhisattva.
- “May the Greatly Merciful and Greatly Compassionate Guan Yin Bodhisattva invite Tai Sui Bodhisattva to enter the Bodhisattva’s image enshrined by me, XXX”. Recite 108 times of the sacred name of Tai Sui Bodhisattva; 21 times of the Xiao Zai Ji Xiang Shen Zhou.
- “May the Greatly Merciful and Greatly Compassionate Guan Yin Bodhisattva invite Guan Di Bodhisattva, Zhou Cang Bodhisattva and Guan Ping Bodhisattva to enter the Bodhisattvas’ image enshrined by me, XXX”. Recite 108 times of the sacred names of the Bodhisattvas.
- (Note: If the Bodhisattvas’ images enshrined have been consecrated by Master Lu, they may be enshrined directly onto the altar and the above recitation step can be omitted.)
- Complete the ritual by reciting 7 times of the Great Compassion Mantra, 7 times of the Heart Sutra.
- Perform kneeling prostrations; generally once to each Bodhisattva, a total of 7 prostrations.
STEP 3 – AFTER WHICH MAKE YOUR PERSONAL VOWS OR WISHES
- Vows: Refrain from the act of killing, practise vegetarianism, offer day and night incense, help others to be awakened spiritually, sponsor the printing of scripture booklets, make copies of CDs (the vow is to be made based on individual’s determination and circumstances). As the state of mind of every person differs, one should assess one’s capabilities and act accordingly, as such there is no one vow that can be made universally.
- Make a prayer request. Based on one’s circumstances, make reasonable prayer request(s), for example, you may pray for good health, smooth-sailing career, harmonious family, etc.
STEP 4 – PERFORM THE ACT OF PROSTRATION IN GRATITUDE
Lastly, thank all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by performing 7 prostrations and recite the below prayer:
“Deepest gratitude to The Greatly Merciful, Greatly Compassionate Guan Yin Bodhisattva”;
“Deepest gratitude to Namo Nanjing Bodhisattva; deepest gratitude to Namo Tai Sui Bodhisattva; deepest gratitude to Namo Guan Di Bodhisattva, Namo Zhou Cang Bodhisattva and Namo Guan Ping Bodhisattva (and all Bodhisattvas that you may have enshrined).;
“Deepest gratitude to all Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Dharma Protectors.”