Dharma Demystified: The Significance of A Buddhist Shrine

The setting up of a shrine for the purpose of worship is perhaps one of the most common Buddhist practices and yet, one of the least understood, and its significance is not fully appreciated.

Contrary to popular belief, being Buddhist is not just about worshiping the Buddha and hoping to be granted a boon or a wish. The practice of setting up a shrine and worshipping the Buddha is ultimately to purify negative karma and to build up merits for our spiritual attainments in reliance on the Buddha.

Merit is a potential, or positive vitality, which supports and drives us forward in our spiritual journey and is particularly determined by the intention and motivation of our actions, speech and thoughts. Setting up and maintaining a shrine is an efficacious way to generate merits because the intention of the shrine is to honor and venerate the Three Jewels and it is before the shrine that our body, speech and thought are most focused on the Dharma.

Therefore, the shrine becomes the field of one’s concentration and practices and because the object of veneration is a Buddha and because of the auspiciousness of making offerings to a Buddha, the shrine facilitates the collection of merits. In order to understand how worshipping the Buddha accumulates merits, we must first understand the significance of the Buddha’s body

The Buddha’s body possesses 32 major and 80 minor characteristics, which are the physical culmination of three eons of virtuous and contemplative deeds. Therefore, when we make offerings to an image of the Buddha, we are making offerings directly to his great deeds spanning across countless lifetimes that led him to become a fully enlightened being.

In other words, the object of the veneration is literally enlightenment itself in the physical form and the act of making offerings becomes an act of accumulating merits. Merit is accrued in reliance on the power of the object, which is a fully awakened Buddha.

A typical Buddhist shrine would have representations of the body, speech and mind of the Buddha. The [our] body, speech and mind are the three doors through which we create karma and are very important to chart our path to a higher or lower rebirth. Therefore, we take refuge, make offerings and supplications to the Buddha via the three doors so that we create the direct causes to acquire the same qualities as the Buddha.

The Buddha’s body contains 112 marks of a fully enlightened being

The Buddha’s body is represented by a Buddha statue, thangka or tsa-tsa (small votive Buddha figure in relief), the Buddha’s speech is represented by a Dharma text like the Lamrim, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra or any other Dharma text and finally, the Mind is represented by a Stupa, a votive mound-like structure.

Besides being a representative of the Buddha body, the Buddha images on the shrine are also excellent visual cues for those who have trouble visualizing and meditating on a complicated Tantric Buddha like the 12-armed Heruka and so forth. On top of that, there’s an order to which the representations of the body, speech and mind are traditionally placed on a shrine.

The Buddha statue or the Buddha’s body is the central figure on the shrine while the Dharma text or the Buddha’s speech is placed on the left side and the Stupa representing the Buddha’s mind rests on the right side of the shrine. The left side of the shrine is also traditionally reserved for images and statues of deities that are Yidams, like Tara and the right side of the shrine, usually for Dharma Protectors like Dorje Shugden.

By tradition, the Dharma text represents the speech aspect of the Buddha

A stupa is placed on the altar to represent the Buddha’s mind

Besides having images of the Buddha, one of the most important images to be placed on the shrine is that of one’s main spiritual Teacher (also known as one’s root Guru). It is through the Guru that we receive the knowledge of the Dharma and it is also the Guru who is the perfect embodiment of the Three Jewels – the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

The image of the Guru is usually placed in a prominent position, such as in the centre of the shrine in front of the statue of the Buddha. The Guru’s image may also be hung on a wall behind the shrine. Having the image of one’s Guru makes it easier to visualize the yidam (meditational Buddha) and the Guru as one, which is a potent way to empower our meditations with the blessings of the lama. If there’s space, images or statues of lineage masters are also excellent objects of veneration. They create a powerful link to receive the blessings of the lineage that will help one’s practice to be successful.

Types of Offerings

The shrine is incomplete without offerings. Just as there is a certain order in the way we place the Buddha and Guru images and the representations of Speech and Mind on the shrine, there is also a certain approach to the type and placement of offerings.

Examples of traditional Buddhist offerings include water, flowers, incense, light, fruits, mandala offerings, sensory offerings and so forth. Each of these different types of offerings carry a deep meaning that is significant to our spiritual practice.

One of the simplest yet meaningful offerings is to offer bowls of pure water to the Buddhas in accordance with a tradition that descended from Atisha, a great Indian Buddhist master of the 10th century who revived the Buddhist traditions in Tibet. He recommended offering water because of its inherent qualities that resembled the qualities of a fully awakened mind. The offering of 100,000 water bowl offerings to generate tremendous amounts of merits is one of the preliminary practices that aspirants wishing to engage in Tantra should perform. This reflects the tremendous merits that are accumulated with this practice. Just like the clarity of water, one would be bestowed with a clear mind that would be able to absorb the Dharma easily. On top of that, this practice also creates the causes towards attaining livelihood easily.

The offering of flowers is symbolic of the beauty of Samsara and its impermanent nature. This offering creates the karmic causes to realize the inherent nature of reality and also create favorable conditions to be reborn in places and situations that are pleasant and conducive for spiritual practice.

The offering of sweet-smelling scent to the Buddhas is an age-old Buddhist practice and symbolizes the results of holding one’s vows. Monks who hold their vows well naturally emit a fragrant scent and upholding one’s vows is one of the most powerful ways of purifying tremendous amounts of negative karma and accumulating a lot of merits to support one’s practice. Therefore, the offering of incense to the Buddhas creates powerful causes for us to hold our vows well which will be the most pleasing offering the Buddhas.

Another popular type of offering is the offering of light. Light offerings can be in the form of candles, butter lamps, oil lamps, electric lamps and so forth. Just like how a flame dispels darkness, the offering of light bestows wisdom that banishes the darkness of ignorance.

The offering of fruits or any type of food symbolizes sustenance and this offering creates causes to be reborn in places where it is easier to acquire sustenance and livelihood and provide the same for others. This offering also creates the karma to be sustained by the Dharma in terms of gaining spiritual realization and attainments.

A mandala set like this can be offered on a Buddhist shrine

Yet another powerful offering is the offering of a mandala, which represents the entire cosmos according to the Buddhist worldview. Mandala is a Sanskrit word for center or circumference representing the Buddhist abstract view of the cosmos.

The offering is usually a mandala offering set, which consists of a round base and 3 concentric rings that are filled and piled ritually with rice, beans, grains or precious stones. The pile is then crowned with a symbol of the victory banner. The mandala offering represents the entire cosmos filled with the most precious and beautiful offerings, which also represents our attachment and desire. We offer this to the Buddhas so that we can generate large amounts of merits to see the impermanent nature of what we find attractive and desirable, and by that realization, cut our attachment to them.

Last of all, there is an old tradition descended from India of laying out sensory offerings to the Buddha. This is in accordance with the Tantric tradition of making historical offerings to the Yidams that were the same as those given to welcome great mendicants, teachers, princes and kings of old. The offerings begins with Argham – scented water to freshen the face, Padyam – scented water to cleanse the feet, Puspe – a gentle spray of flower buds, Dhupe – a waft of sweet-smelling incense, Aloke – oil lamps to illuminate the way, Gandhe – anointing the body with a gentle rub of perfume, Naividye – a platter of sumptuous food and Shabda – divine music to welcome the most important of guests.

These sensory offerings are symbolic of our attachment to the 5 senses, and by offering them to the Buddha, we creates the causes to develop control over the senses and thus lead us towards developing renunciation. On the shrine, the sensory offerings are usually set out in the above order from left to right.

This is the order in which the sensory offerings are laid out on the shrine

The traditional offerings have been described above but with Buddhism becoming more widespread all over the world, making offerings takes on new meaning according to the culture and customs of the time. Lama Yeshe was famous for his modernist approach towards making offerings by having a toy airplane on his shrine and the use of spray perfume in the place of incense.

Offerings can be also placed directly on the Buddha statue – for instance, offerings of gold leaf, jewels, necklaces, khatas and even garlands of flowers in the same manner Indian devotees venerate their deities.

In other words, we can offer almost anything to the Buddha especially if it appeals to our five senses. Some lamas even recommend offering whatever gifts we receive from others on the shrine before using it. This is to ensure we keep our attachments in check while accumulating merits.

Maintaining a Shrine

An important aspect of having a shrine is to keep it clean and tidy. The practitioner should always maintain cleanliness of the shrine as the act of cleaning it with the proper motivation and visualization creates tremendous benefits for one’s practice.

As stated in the Lamrim, it is part of the preparatory practices to clean our shrine, visualizing it to be our mind in the same manner as Lamchung (Tibetan) or Chudapanthaka (Sanskrit), a dim-witted but devoted disciple of the Buddha who followed the instructions of the Buddha to clean the gathering place of the Buddha’s monastic disciples. While cleaning, he recited a mantra, “Dupung Drima Pung”, which is Tibetan for “I am removing dirt. I am removing dust.” The Buddha taught Lamchung to visualize the temple grounds to be his mind and the act of cleaning to be the act of removing impurities from the mind.

Therefore, the act of cleaning the shrine becomes a powerful purification practice. It is with this practice that Lamchung became spiritually attained as an arhat. It would benefit the practitioner to recite the same mantra or Vajrasattva’s mantra while cleaning the shrine along with the same visualization that the Buddha had taught.

Another point to bear in mind is that offering bowls and other vessels should never be left empty because it is inauspicious to have empty vessels offered to the Buddha. When the vessels are unused, they should be cleaned and upturned or kept away. It is bad practice to have dusty, dirty or rotten offerings left on our shrine. Therefore, when we plan to travel, it would be good to remove all offerings and keep the offering vessels in a clean and dry storage place.

Traditional Types of Shrines

Our personal shrines can be as elaborate or as simple as we want it to be. The guideline for our personal shrine should be in accordance with our lineage and the deities that we practice.

Here are some traditional shrines examples that could inspire our own shrine setup. We can follow any of these or we can mix and match them according to our practices.

Basic Buddha Shrine

A simple Buddha shrine complete with Dharma text on the left and stupa on the right along with offering vessels in front

There’s nothing more beautiful, simple and complete than to have incense, flowers and water bowl offerings to the historical founder and fully enlightened one, Lord Buddha Shakyamuni. No other yidams and Buddha images are necessary and the simplicity and universal acceptance of this shrine would appeal to the masses.

Wisdom Shrine

A statue of Lama Tsongkhapa, emanation of the Buddha of wisdom, Manjushri. He is the central figure in a Wisdom Shrine

This shrine is in worship of Manjushri in the various manifestations of Lama, Yidam and Dharma Protector. In this shrine, we have Lama Tsongkhapa in the middle representing the Lama, Manjushri on the left representing our Yidam and Dorje Shugden on the right representing our Dharma Protector. This is a powerful and complete shrine towards achieving great attainments by means of wisdom, clarity and penetrative insight. On this shrine, it would be good to offer water and offerings of light as they symbolize the collection of merit and wisdom.

Traditional Gelugpa Shrine

A Green Tara image is part of a traditional Gelugpa Shrine

The traditional Gelugpa Shrine has Buddha Shakyamuni as the central figure in remembrance of his kindness of turning the wheel of Dharma for the very first time that brought Dharma to this world. Then, Lama Tsongkhapa sits on the left as the founder of the Gelug lineage and Green Tara on the right to bring swift activity to our Dharma endeavors. To these Buddhas, it would be good to offer water bowl offerings, sensory offerings, mandala offerings, incense and flowers.

Tantric Shrine

A thangka of Vajrayogini, the higher Tantric yidam that would be the main object of refuge in this Tantric shrine

This shrine is dedicated to a Tantric Buddha such as Vajrayogini. Her practice is recommended by Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche to be the most suitable for our time. This is because her practice is the shortest and the most efficacious of all higher Tantric practices.

This shrine would have her image in the center with the protector of her Tantra, Lord and Lady of the Cemetery, Citipati on the left to remove inner obstacles when engaging in her meditations and Dorje Shugden on the right to remove all other outer obstacles.

It would be good to have a shrine to Vajrayogini even if we have not received her initiation because each time we make offerings, we create the causes to receive her practice and accomplish her powerful meditations that can bring one directly towards enlightenment. With this shrine, it is recommended to have sensory offerings, water bowl offerings, flowers, incense and so forth.

Dharma Protector Shrine

A simple shrine to Dorje Shugden with offerings laid out

In temples, the Dharma Protector is usually enshrined in a separate room. Therefore, one can have a shrine dedicated to Dorje Shugden. One can have a picture of the root lama or a lineage lama placed above or prominently on the shrine.

For such protector shrines, we offer a serkyem vessel filled with tea, a row of wrathful sensory offerings, water bowl offerings and incense. We can also offer figurines of animals and little weapons, which represent the request to fight our negative karma and create conducive conditions for our Dharma practice. For those engaged in huge projects like building a monastery and so forth, offering large quantities of semi-precious jewels or crystals or water bowl offerings to Dorje Shugden would be beneficial in creating the causes to acquire the necessary resources needed for such an endeavor.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, our shrine is a powerful source of merit and purification for us. How much we invest in our shrine, how much we offer and how well we maintain our shrine reflects the merits we accumulate and the amount of karma we purify.

A shrine does not need to be expensive nor have the most exquisite statues and offerings but it should be offered according to our means. If we have the means, we should offer the best because that is the best way to cut attachment. That is because the money used would otherwise be used on our attachments. This would ultimately reflect in our Dharma practice and spiritual transformation at the end of the day.

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3 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Its very beautiful to have a shrine at home, with beautiful Buddha images and offerings made daily to collect merits. The Buddha images will blessed the environment, creating peaceful and happy energy surrounding it, and whoever who see it, it will plant a seed in them, so that one day they too will have the opportunity to receive the dharma, continue their practices and hopefully one day can achieve Buddhahood too.

  2. Buddhists seem to worship idols if one does not under what all the bowing and prostrations is all about. The iconography reminds us of what the Buddha is all about. So, it is more than a pretty piece of altar.

    To those who understand, diverting and listening to the children is good thing, The altar is more than a statue, it is part of our purification practice and also practice ot gain merits which is so very needed for collection of merits.

  3. Revisiting this article again, there are still things to learn.

    What was not understood at the first pops up in front of my eyes. It is also very good to have a special tantric shrine for higher aspirations and yet another separate protector shrine.

    And especially for the Protector we should offer figurines of animals and little weapons, which represent the request to fight our negative karma and to create conducive conditions for our Dharma practice.When engaged in huge projects like building a monastery and so forth, offering large quantities of semi-precious jewels or crystals or water bowl offerings to Dorje Shugden would be beneficial in creating the causes to acquire the necessary resources needed for such an endeavor. I guess these offering should be made regardless.

    Probably when i visit this page again, I will find new teachings that eluded me even tafter 2 visits.

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