Recently, I was chatting with a coworker who’s a fellow Buddhist and he was asking about how to make a Buddhist altar. It turns out that English-language books usually don’t explain such things, focusing on the more cerebral, dogmatic details. Great if you want to know Buddhist philosophy, but kind of lousy when you just want to know how to practice Buddhism in daily life.
So, that night, I consulted some Japanese language books I own:
I compared books and found some common details in Japanese Buddhism:
- Where feasible, place the altar in a high place, even if that’s a bookshelf. It works best when it is roughly eye-level if not slightly above. The key is to not place it too high up or too low. A height where you can reasonably face the altar and bow is sufficient.
- The honzon (本尊) or object of veneration can be either a hanging image or a statue. You can also do both: hang an image and place a statue before it.
- In addition to the honzon, there are a minimum of 3 things you should have:
- Candle (shokudai, 燭台) – place this one step below and to the right of the central image. Real candles or LED candles are fine. I use the latter for safety reasons.
- Incense holder (kōro, 香炉) – place one step directly below the central image. If you can’t get an incense holder easily, a small bowl with baking works well. I have seen Japanese people use this in a pinch.
- Flower vase (kebyō, 華瓶) – place one step below and to the left of the central image. Real flowers or fake (available at any craft store) are fine.
- Objects like rosaries (juzu, 数珠), sutra books (kyōten, 経典) and bells (rin, リン) are placed separately in front of the altar when possible.
Try out these suggestions, get to know the tradition and then feel free to adjust according to your circumstances.
If you are absolutely crunched on space or resources, you can even get by by just printing out an image of the Buddha and hanging it on a bookshelf, inside a box lid (which you can then stand up) or fold it so it stands up. From there, gradually build the altar as time and resources permit.
Namu Amida Butsu