How to Set Up a Small Buddhist Altar

A Buddhist altar, like this example from the Tibetan tradition, can easily be set up in the home.
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An altar is important to Buddhist practice, because it provides a point of focus for meditations and serves as a tangible reminder of the example of the Buddha for worshipers to emulate. The Venerable Tenzin Yignyen calls these representations of the Buddha’s person and ideals “reminders of the goal of Buddhist practice.” There are some cultural differences in the construction style and appearance of Buddhist altars, but all have some consistent principles which you can use to set up your own small altar.

Clear a table or shelf. Wipe it clean and, if it is a shelf, clear the wall behind it as well; there should be nothing to distract from the items on the eventual altar.

Wash your hands.

The chief component of a Buddhist altar is a statue or picture of the Buddha.
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Place the image of the Buddha in the center of the cleared space. If it is a two-dimensional image, you may hang it on the wall; a statue may be placed on the surface.

Double-check the symmetry of the space by measuring to each side of the Buddha image, then secure the image so that it will not be knocked over by wind or motion.

Place the candles symmetrically to either side of the Buddha image. If your tradition calls for incense, place the burner in the center, but lower than the Buddha image.

Most Buddhist traditions calls for placing one or more bowls of water on the altar.
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Place the bowls symmetrically on the altar. Some traditions call for a single bowl or water; some for one of water and one of rice; some for seven bowls of water.

Put the bell or chiming bowl symmetrically on the altar; its specific placement will depend on the other items your tradition requires and on the size of the altar surface.

Place any other items on the altar, as required by the specific tradition you follow, being sure to keep the altar symmetrical. Some traditions call for written sutras, fruit, flowers, a coiled rosary, or a stupa.

Jennifer Spirko has been writing professionally for more than 20 years, starting at "The Knoxville Journal." She has written for "MetroPulse," "Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times" and "Some" monthly. She has taught writing at North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee. Spirko holds a Master of Arts from the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-on-Avon, England.