Assembling a shrine is a highly creative act. It is one that not only supports one’s Buddhist practice (or any practice) but provides a basis for positively altering one’s entire way of life. Creating a shrine is to manifest one’s intention and to remind oneself of one’s highest priorities. Creating a shine is also a physical act – it might require lumber, glass, bowls for incense and water offerings. And sometimes a curious cat might temporarily become part of one’s shrine.
Shrine vs. Altar
As Buddhism has come to the West, custom has favored the word “shrine” over “altar” for these places of intention. Though both are appropriate and interesting words, usage has probably avoided the word altar because of its strong associations with Christianity – though the root of altar is the Latin word altus, meaning “high.” This might be the first guideline for creating a shine (or altar): elevation. Common sense inclines us create a shine on a table, shelf (or specially constructed box) so that it is off the ground and prominent in the room or environment (an automobile dashboard is also a good place for a shrine).
Our word “shrine” comes from the Latin scrinium meaning “chest for books” – thus a shrine is a place for the sacred word (Hebrew, Sanskrit, Pali). Traditionally, a Buddhist shrine might contain a dharma book, perhaps wrapped in cloth. What book should one choose? This question strikes at the heart of creating a shrine at all. The choice of a book – or any other object – should be a genuine act, which means an act of the heart, an act of affection, and not one of obligation – and hence guilt.
Typically this would include a photograph of one’s teacher(s), a candle (or two), a dharma book, perhaps bowls of offering water and a statue of the Buddha.
On the other hand, one’s shrine could be ultra simple: merely a candle, merely a photograph. Interestingly, in Islam, the “shrine” or altar of a mosque, called the mirab, is simply an indentation in the wall, in other words, an activated space. To create a Buddhist shrine, in its most universal essence, is to create a space one will practice in front of. In a sense, where ever one chooses to meditate could already be considered a shrine.
Shrine As Reminder
This brings us to another meaning of a shrine: a reminder. Everything on one’s shrine could be a consciously chosen reminder; a reminder of one’s faith, one’s affection, one’s love.
On some level, looking at one’s shrine is looking at oneself: from candles to a statue or thangka, the ritual objects express one’s own Buddha nature.
As one travels the Buddhist path, invariably one’s shrine might develop and conform to certain practices one’s teacher has empowered one in, such as ngondro or the practice of Vajrayogini – in the latter case, the shrine includes nearly a dozen offerings and representations of the enlightened deity of Vajrayogini.
A shrine becomes alive for many reasons, and as we look upon it, it looks back at us. Since a Buddhist shrine personifies our relationship to practice, it haunts us in the same way our teacher and own awareness does, to be awake. Our resistance becomes a guest the shrine seeks to drive out, so that we surrender to the open moment.
Keeping It Alive
Sometimes a shrine becomes strangely outdated, perhaps devoid of life, like a musty museum. In any case, over time, I can’t imagine any practitioner’s shrine remaining the same – I certainly don’t know of anyone’s who has. Some go from the elaborated and doctrinaire back to something utterly simple, like a photograph and flower arrangement. Shrines need housekeeping and occasional remodeling.
Shrines reflect our changing journey on the path.
Shrine As A Place of Offering
Another purpose of the shrine is as place of offering. This brings in the animistic or shamanic dimension (in all countries, Buddhism has absorbed and commingled with the indigenous), the dimension of ancestors, spirits and the invisible world (which is also the dimension on Buddhist lineage, of Dogen, Milarepa and Nagarjuna). It is innately human to offer to what we cannot see, to sublimate ourselves into gratitude, especially as a rite in the beginning of the day.
The shamanic may be the most important dimension of invoking one’s shrine, so to speak. I say “invoking” because of the relationship of sincerity to one’s shrine. The shrine is merely an orientation point, if it doesn’t evoke a shift in our attitude – and an awareness of gratitude – it means next to nothing. It is necessary to feel – and invoke – some relationship with the “invisible world.”
I once interviewed the late and highly venerated master Traleg Rinpoche and asked the following question, Rinpoche’s answer is worth some study and related to this dimension of one’s shrine, or relationship to the invisible:
Bill Scheffel: “If could ask you this question: two major pitfalls of the student or practitioner are eternalism and nihilism. I think there is, if not a consensus, a widely held view that in the west there is a lot of experience of nihilism. There is a kind of diminished sense of this kind of co-participatory relationship with the world at large and the (invisible world).”
Traleg Rinpoche: “I think so. I agree with you there completely and wholeheartedly. And it is a big problem and I think what has happened there is that people have embraced the western secular view of the world so totally that they have incorporated only certain aspects of Buddhism into their lives, and the other aspects of Buddhism that do not fit with that world view they have sort of ignored that completely, at their own peril. People can relate to Buddhist philosophy of shamatha and vipashyana and emptiness and even bodhichitta, I suppose, but anything to do with the other side of Buddhism – deities, and trying to make some connection with invisible beings – If we don’t see them then they don’t exist and if we live in the modern world they are not real.”
When I asked Traleg Rinpoche about his own practice he went on to tell me that he prayed frequently and made food and other offerings to the invisible dimension. He especially felt the need for this when he arrived at a new location, to make a relationship with the “local deities.”
Invoking the Invisible
Another way the invisible in invoked is through fire. Burning incense seems particularly Buddhist, but Tibetan Buddhism has many “fire rituals,” including lhasang, a practice of burning juniper smoke and making offerings to the dralas and other invisible beings. The lhasang is ancient, indigenous and predates the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet by probably milleniums.
One can easily perform one’s own lhasang each morning by simply burning juniper or sage (the native American traditions of smudging are akin to lhasang). The smoke that rises quite literally dissolves into the air and space element, thus linking the visible and invisible. Conversely, the strength of the invisible world descends the smoke into one’s own being.
Now we can begin to see that a shrine, perhaps above all, is a place where we make a ritual and literal connection to the “elemental” or fundamental level of life. The shrine typically contains water offerings in the form of one or more bowls filled with water; the candles, incense and/or lhasang express fire and air; the table, shelf or dresser the shrine objects sit on expresses earth.
To create a shrine is to consciously restore and empower one’s connection with the phenomenal world. What could be more creative than that?
Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teaching and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.