A Buddhist home shrine can be a refuge, a gentle invitation to return to the moment, and a reminder of our higher principles. In this article, I will share my family’s process of creating a Buddhist home shrine, discuss what we learned, and share the resources I gathered to help us along in our process.
Making a Buddhist Home Shrine for the First Time
As is so often the case when studying aspects of Buddhist practice, the information and advice I gathered as my family began this process was varied and flexible. Home altars range from simple, even sparse, to elaborate and ornate. I will highlight five components that are consistent amongst different traditions:
- Central purpose of a shrine
- Characteristics of the space (and mindset while creating the shrine)
- Most basic objects to include
- How to source and arrange objects
- Upkeep and tidiness
We’ll explore each of these aspects in the sections that follow. We’ll also look at some examples of Buddhist home shrines, and I’ll share my family’s process of creating our own.
1. What Is the Purpose of A Buddhist Home Shrine?
The primary purpose of a Buddhist home shrine is to aid one’s practice. This is accomplished by creating a space that is calm, pleasant, and free of distraction. The specific objects we choose to include give us visual cues that remind us of our principles, goals of practice, teachers, and more.
How does a Buddhist home shrine aid one’s practice?
It is very easy to get carried away by our thoughts or to get wrapped up in the to-do list. We all experience stress and have interactions that leave us feeling frazzled, frustrated, or angry at times. The serene, inviting, and positive space that exists around a shrine can call us back to the present moment, reminding us to return to our breath and creating space to calm down. Specific objects on a shrine remind us of particular principles we are working to embody and/or teachings that are dear to us.
The mind likes to reinforce common thinking patterns as a matter of expediency. When we care for an altar and spend time sitting near it, we create a memory of the psycho-emotional state elicited by that practice. Each time we repeat the practice, it becomes easier to enter that state, and after a while, simply looking at or thinking of one’s altar can elicit a similar experience.
Pictures of one’s teachers are often present on home shrines. Our teachers often bring out the best in us, so these can serve as inspiration to live in accordance with our higher values.
The article, Setting Up Your Home Altar, in Tricycle magazine gives a thoughtful perspective on the intentional psychological and spiritual states one can create or encourage through the purposeful construction and arrangement of a Buddhist home shrine.
A shrine can act as a focal point for balancing and uniting the family.
While my wife, Trang, and I have had makeshift altars in the past, a primary factor motivating us to create and tend a more formal shrine is the desire to engage our 8-year-old daughter, Ixora, more consistently in Buddhist practices.
A primary motivation for us to create a shrine was the desire to engage our 8-year-old daughter more consistently in Buddhist practices.
The objects, images, and concepts associated with a Buddhist altar provide a framework for discussing important life lessons, centering after difficult interactions, clarifying goals, and more. As such, an altar provides a physical space where we can regularly model and lead Ixora in sitting with things as they are and approaching life with the mind of compassion.
Routines and familiar places are important for children, and the nature of the routines and the particular characteristics of those familiar spaces have a profound effect on psycho-emotional development. We find that having an intentional practice of meditation and reflection, along with a space that is conducive to the mental state brought about by Buddhist practices, is very helpful in teaching and reinforcing ethics and skills for self management and self love.
Additionally, we intend to use our home shrine to remember and honor loved ones who have passed, especially those our daughter will not remember unless we tell her stories about them.
Interestingly, I learned from my explorations for this article that ancestors are not generally included on Buddhist home shrines, except in certain cultures. But, I’m getting ahead of myself…we’ll return to this topic later in the article.
Self Objects & Self Concept
A home shrine can be a powerful way to reinforce one’s understanding of one’s nature as wisdom and compassion.
The objects on a Buddhist home shrine can be thought of as self objects–the things and people in our lives that produce our self concept, the way(s) we think about ourselves and understand our lives in relation to the outer world. If we want to embody Buddhist principles, then having a home shrine can be a powerful way to reinforce one’s self concept as an embodiment of wisdom and compassion, thereby encouraging behavior that is in line with those ideals.
2. Where & How Should a Buddhist Home Shrine be Situated?
A wise way to begin the process of deciding where to put one’s home shrine is to make sure that a Buddhist shrine would be appropriate and helpful in the place we have in mind.
When Not to Set Up A Buddhist Home Shrine
An article on the Dharma Drum Mountain Global Website explores a number of ideas around Buddhist home shrines, including when and/or where it may not actually be appropriate to install one. The author invites us to consider the purpose of our home shrine and whether the construction of one in our space will actually be conducive to our aims, namely the cultivation of wisdom and compassion in order to relieve suffering.
If we live in a shared space with others who are not Buddhists, then any animosity or discomfort that may arise in response to the creation of a Buddhist shrine would be counterproductive. This is equally true if one’s living space is so small that the addition of an altar would make things more cramped.
Siting a Home Shrine
Once we have determined that our general space is suitable, we can decide the precise placement of our home shrine. The general guidelines for altar placement seem to be fairly consistent between sources:
- A clean space that is free of distraction (distractions could be anything from general clutter to children’s toys, pets, a computer, a TV, etc.)
- Facing a door or window
- Plenty of light
- In plain view when entering the room
- Not in front of a window
- Not in the bedroom
- Not facing bathroom, stove, or bed
We had very few options given the layout of our home, so choosing a location for our shrine was easy, even though we could not adhere to all of the guidelines (as you can see, the site we chose for our altar is in front of a window).
Thankfully, this process is meant to be flexible and practical, so we won’t worry about it.
What kind of attitude should one adopt while creating a home shrine?
Setting up a Buddhist home shrine should be done in a state of calm reverence; wait for a better time if the participants are unable to engage with a helpful mindset.
Admittedly, my family’s first attempt at putting together a proper Buddhist home shrine was a lesson in recognizing when NOT to persist. It was the end of a long, tiring day, and we were starting to become hurried and irritable in an attempt to finish the process and get to bed. Instead of slogging through, we decided to wait until a time when we could all approach the project with better attitudes. This allowed for a much more enjoyable and intentional activity and, ultimately, a better feeling around the shrine itself.
3. What Objects Belong on a Buddhist Home Shrine?
Once we’ve clarified our purpose, chosen a site, and decided that the chosen environment is appropriate for a home altar, we can gather the materials/items that we will arrange on it.
I appreciate how a Shambhala Times article summed up the components of a Buddhist home shrine: “[T]he basic shrine logic is that there are representatives of sacred world, of enlightened mind…And there are offerings to that…”
The following are common components of a Buddhist home shrine regardless of the specific tradition or lineage (note that the first two bullets are representatives of the sacred world or enlightened mind, while the third bullet gives examples of offerings):
- A statue of the Buddha;
- Statues of bodhisattvas or lower deities
- Offerings, including, water, light, flowers, and incense
Other common, but not universal, components of a home shrine include the following:
- Depictions of the Buddha’s body, speech, and mind, which are represented by a statue of the Buddha, a sacred text (sutra), and a stupa, respectively
- Offerings of rice (sometimes a bowl of which is used to hold an incense stick upright), fruit, or other foods
- A bell
Less common, or more lineage-specific items included on some home altars:
- 7 bowls of water
- Picture of one’s teacher(s)
- Pictures/plaques of deceased ancestors
While a simple shrine works well for many Buddhists, some traditions have much more elaborate shrines with a greater number of ritual objects, all rich with meaning.
Details of Tibetan Buddhist Home Shrines
Tibetan Buddhist home shrines are often ornate. This article from Shambhala discusses in detail what the various objects on a Buddhist home shrine represent, some of which are universal, while others are specific to the Vajrayana tradition.
The seven bowls, mentioned above, that are placed on a Tibetan Buddhist shrine each signify a different type of offering: water for drinking, water for washing, flowers, incense, light, perfume, and food.
The picture below shows seven offering bowls, arranged with what the photographer had available at home. (The photographer’s daughter also added some personal touches of her own to the shrine, in the form white rolls of clay that she made as offerings to each Buddha statue.)
Thangkas, as seen below, are sacred art. They are depictions of the Buddha or a bodhisattva surrounded by images that either tell a story or act as a representation of the deity’s realm. Each color, shape, figure, item, and pattern present on a Thangka conveys a specific meaning.
If you are interested in Tibetan Buddhism in particular, take a look at this article, which gives detailed information about the process of making offerings on a Tibetan Buddhist shrine, the associated mindset, and the meanings of the offerings themselves.
Vietnamese Home Shrines: Venerating Ancestors of Blood and Spirit
My wife, Trang, is Vietnamese. She grew up watching her mother tend their home shrine or Bàn Thò. She has also seen relatives in Vietnam tending their home altars and altars constructed for specific ceremonies.
Trang shared with me an important aspect of Vietnamese home shrines: Pictures or other representations of ancestors are placed on the shrine (or a separate shrine constructed just for the ancestors). Blood relatives and spiritual ancestors can both be included.
“A home altar is a way to pay respect to our ancestors and the world around us. It reminds us that whatever we love is also within us.”Thich Nhat Hanh
Check out this article if you are interested in learning more about the various types of Vietnamese home altars and how they differ depending on the religion(s) practiced by the family and the traditions of the particular locale.
In a 2021 article in Tricycle, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us in his typically gentle and practical way that the feel of our space and the intention with which we set up the altar itself are the most important pieces. If we choose meaningful objects and construct and tend our shrine mindfully, then it will be supportive of our practice regardless of whether it meets a specific set of guidelines.
4. How To Source and Arrange the Items on a Home Altar
The central focus of a Buddhist home shrine should be a statue of the Buddha. Other objects should generally be arranged below and/or be smaller than the Buddha. The specifics of how to arrange objects on your shrine will differ depending on its size and shape and the particular Buddhist tradition to which you belong. Thubten Chodron does a good job of showing and explaining the arrangement of ritual objects on her shrine in this video.
If you would like to see some of the different approaches to arranging items on Buddhist home shrines, each of these articles offer their advice on the subject:
- Introducing a Buddhist Shrine by the Bristol Buddhist Centre
- How Should Lay Buddhists Set up an Altar at Home? from the Dharma Drum Mountain website.
Does the source of our objects/materials or how we obtain them matter?
Because a home shrine should reinforce characteristics like integrity, honesty, compassion, mindfulness, and so on, it is important that we feel good about how we obtained the materials used to make our shrine and the objects we place on it. It would not be helpful if every time we looked at an object, we had a memory of something negative or unjust connected with its acquisition.
The article Tibetan Altars by Shambhala Publications speaks directly to this idea of only using things you can obtain without difficulty or negativity (after clicking the link, scroll to the section titled, What’s the proper way to make offerings? The short paragraph in the middle of the section focuses on this topic).
Using found, inexpensive, and repurposed objects and materials
Trang, Ixora, and I searched the property where we live for materials we could use to build our home shrine. We thought we had found a perfect rock, large and flat, to make up part of the structure. When we saw it up close, however, it turned out that it had some kind of motor oil on it, and there was a dead animal laying just behind it. We decided this was probably not the sort of thing we wanted comprising the base of our shrine. We are still looking for stones, stumps, and/or pieces of wood that we could use to make our “permanent” shrine. For now, a small, old tote covered with a cloth will do.
5. Care & Upkeep for a Buddhist Home Shrine
Caring for a Buddhist home shrine includes making offerings and keeping the space tidy and clean.
What Kind of Upkeep Should I Do for my Buddhist Home Shrine?
The last paragraph of each of these articles (article 1 & article 2) describe in detail how and when offerings should be removed, as well as how to care for your home altar in general. Guidelines include the following:
- Change water daily;
- Dust and tidy regularly;
- Remove fruit/food before it spoils;
- Keep flowers fresh;
- Remember, the most important thing you are offering is your own intention.
Examples of Buddhist Home Shrines
Now, let’s take a look at some examples of home altars. The Brooklyn Zen Center put together a wonderful page (Home altars | Brooklyn Zen Center) describing and showing pictures of numerous home shrines used by members of that community.
At the time the article was written, some of the shrines had been in use for years, while others had been constructed quite recently as a response to people’s desire to create a space supportive of practice at home while social distancing in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic (credits for each of the following pictures are available at the above link).
These, along with altars shared through links presented earlier in this article, show a wide range of approaches to creating a Buddhist home shrine. That each is unique, composed of traditional and/or personal objects, is a testament to the unique and universal aspects of each individual’s path and practice. We can use home altars as a way to focus our attention on the symbols, teachers, and teachings that are most helpful to us in our quest to develop wisdom and compassion and a life filled with joy and purpose.
How did our process go?
At the outset, it seemed like creating a Buddhist home shrine was going to be a larger undertaking than it turned out to be. I imagined there being more concrete rules for some reason. In actuality, the process has been rewarding and enjoyable, and I think all of us will appreciate adding to and tending it over time.
As of the time of this writing, our home shrine is still a work in progress. Notably, we have a very small buddha (although, the piece of driftwood the Buddha is sitting on looks a bit like a meditating Buddha), and we have yet to print pictures of loved ones and teachers.
We have already begun making offerings of food and water at our shrine. Each time food is offered or removed, and every change of the water gives us a chance to interact with and be influenced by the altar and its objects. The immediate effect of this simple act is centering and calming. May you find benefit in the process of creating and tending your own Buddhist home shrine.
This article is part of the Shambhala.org Community Blog, which offers reflections by Shambhala community members on their individual journeys in meditation and spirituality.