by Joseph Hall
Home practice is hard. While it’s easy to talk about the rigors of monasticism, monks don’t have deal with the most difficult part of meditation - getting your rear end on the cushion. A bell rings at the monastery to wake you up and then you follow a trail of sound to the zendo. It becomes a reflex and if even if you do decide one morning not to follow your intention, the tenkin will arrive in your room with a gentle smile to ‘help’ you attain your deeper aspiration. Irritating perhaps, but the most challenging aspect of meditation practice is already taken care of for a monk.
If you live in a home, the path to your cushion goes right through the world of myriad things. There are notifications on our devices, children wanting to eat, every distraction does the dance of importance, and even when we do make it to the zafu, sometimes a face-licking dog seems to be siding with Mara - an ancient deity who incessantly pestered the Buddha and who’s primary motivation seems to be to keep us from meditating. It’s at least good to know that it’s not just us. Apparently, if there’s a deity involved in what we are going though, people have been trying to fit practice into a hectic life for a very long time.
It can appear that this sitting that we do would be easier in a temple - a sacred place that was built to support our practice. There are days when our sitting could use a lot of support. Kobun tells his students to look for Buddha in our hearts and if that’s where the Buddha lives, then that’s where the temple truly exists. The place where we find our peace and determination to sit exists within us too. But it can also be helpful to create an outward sign of our inward pratice, a small corner that is always sitting to remind us that we can access what is in our hearts whenever we choose.
Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist who made the study of spiritual practice his life’s work, was asked about how we can approach these challenges we face in keeping our practice alive in the midst of complexity and he put it this way…
“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”
He’s talking about time and space. And somewhere in our time and space we can create a place where our intention to practice always abides - no matter how far off the center we have traveled, we can always return.
Having a Zendo behind the house would be miraculous. It would sit out back and call to us through the window to enter it’s sanctuary and settle into the sustaining support of it’s being. But here’s the thing, we make our spaces sacred and our private zendo is really not inherently different than any other room in our house. It is the intention we bring to it that makes it a kind of sacred place. But while any room could be a zendo, most of us might look around and discover that empty rooms are usually in short supply. But here’s where our limited point of view can work in our favor - we may notice that it we face a single wall or even a corner, then what we are looking at appears to be the entire world. We can build our zendo anywhere we are are.
Let’s call it an altar.
For five letters, Altar can sound like a big word but when we look again, it really just an area where we place some things that speak to us in metaphor to help remind us that there is refuge in our heart. It is a place where we can make an offering if we want and it’s also a place that can remind us as we pass, “hey, remember that meditation thing you where doing? It’s really nice. Would you like to sit with me before all the traffic starts?” Altars take many forms. They can be gold and ornate (not too common in American Zen) and they can be just a rock set on bookshelf. Anything that you place with intention and say this represents the geographic center of my practice is an altar. That is is all you need and you are now finished with this post if that feels complete to you.
But, if you are like me, things sometimes somehow feel more natural if some sort of effort to reflect a little history is involved. Not this is any better that any of the very fine rocks sitting in temples around the world, but for me, a buddha just seems to tell the story better. So I will tell you what one of my teachers told me when I asked him how to set up an altar just in case this might be useful to you. I have heard a lot of ideas since then, but Kosho’s words were a good and simple place to start.
The most important thing is this. There is no right way to create an altar. Whatever speaks to you and reflects your intention is exactly perfect in its own being.
Some people prefer to face the altar east or inward toward the home so Buddha can watch over it. It can be located in a quiet room or on a shelf in your area of work. I use a wall altar and like to put where it is the first thing I see when I walk in the door and hopefully the last thing I see as I enter into the world. Yes, I need reminding.
Traditionally, a zen altar might have three different levels but a single flat surface is common too. If there is a little platform, that can be a good surface on which to place the central object - often a statue of the Buddha. Again, if this feels a little hierarchical, a rock to symbolize our inner stillness and occasionally implacable sitting works well here too. If there is a to be figure on your altar, it can useful to think outside the box and choose the one that speaks to you. Avalokitesvara sits on many altars, inspiring compassion through millennia.
Once we have the center of our altar, we can choose to reflect more of our practice around it. There is a tradition wherein flowers, light, smoke, and water can be offered on altar. Flowers are always better when they are fresh and placed in a vase, but some have discovered that artificial flowers can feel a little cheerier than dead flowers so once again you have a choice. Water is placed in a low bowl in the center and the incense is located right beneath the Buddha’s nose. A candle offers light and it good for lighting incense. Flowers on the right, Candle on the left, incense and water in the middle. But what does all this mean?
The Buddha/Rock/Avalokitesvara is the ‘reflective’ element. While it may look like a statue of a deity, zen has no deities and so it is empty. Attaining emptiness, it reflects and becomes its surroundings. So this is you, except you are empty too and thus the reflective element is you and not you and that is indeed a whole other post.
The incense is the ‘transformative’ element. In the midst of a world of karma, everything changes, and when we light this incense it becomes something else entirely, changing states of matter, entering our bodies, filling the room and vanishing. The smoke passes sweetly as it transforms and dances in emptiness.
The flowers represent the earth. These represent the ‘karmic’ nature of our lives, the myriad things arising as a garden for which we care. Amongst the flowers are the precepts through which we practice in the world - and hopefully, cultivate some beautiful things.
The light of candle, and also it’s potential when unlit, is an old metaphor and has been interpreted in many ways. Purity is a tricky word but light does seem to speak to the burning sincerity of our intention.
As you may be figuring out, what we are creating here is a kind of diorama. It’s a small area that has the potential to hold to whole of our intention and speaks to us in metaphor to help us to connect with the Buddha in our heart. Looking into this little temple that we have built, we sometimes become aware that there are other objects in our world that speak to us in this way as well. Yes, these objects belong on the altar too. Food is often placed on an altar, along with pictures of teachers and those that we love, sometimes even a little toy car that came to us in moment when the world seemed to open a little more deeply as it was placed in our hands. This is a place that speaks to you and so I will leave you to complete it.
But what do we do with with our altar? Most of the time, nothing. It is, after all, simply its own state of being, having something to say about awareness. Since dust will alight and incense will turn to ash, the act of caring for it offers us an opportunity to actualize our responsibility for the things in the world. It is a good place to light incense when we sit. There will be people who pass from our lives and those who who fall into ill health. Writing their names on a small card and placing their names on our altar nurtures our compassion and serves to remind us that our lives are intertwined. Some cherished objects, perhaps a rakusu, a gift we will give to a friend, or even a letter that needs to be reflected on with wisdom before it is sent, all seem to do well when they spend time on the altar.
Since the altar is, after all, just a symbol, there is no real need to create one. But, sometimes we feel a need to create things that are already there. If you you feel called to create one, I hope these words might have been of some use, if you have an altar, and you are still on this page, it is good to be on this path with you, and if you have no need of an altar, I hope that you were reminded of the true center of practice which exists in your heart.