An altar can have different meanings according to what the practitioner needs, and the level of his understanding and practice. Be it for the beginner, understanding the benefit of making offerings as well as needing a reminder and inspiring place for his practice; or, for the more advanced practitioner, another mean of accumulation.
Offerings are an important part of every practice, before, and during the sadhanas offerings are mentioned, to help the mind to focus on the proper attitude, or to be used as an inferential reminder for extensive inner offerings.
They are usually made every morning prior to any meditation, prayers, or daily activities, to start the day in an appropriate way. They help us to open our mind to beneficial thoughts, cut trough the Self-cherishing thoughts from early morning, remembering the qualities of the Buddhas
, the beings dwelling in Samsara
and our resolution to help them.
Making offerings on the altar is a great source of accumulation, depending on the method used and the attention given to it. It is said that the 7 water offering are a cause for accumulating the 7 limbs, or qualities of the Enlightenment
state. For somebody living in pure renunciation without means it is not absolutely necessary to have all the different items which are usually displayed. But if we have the possibility to find them we should try our best to prepare a place for it, and make offerings everyday.
An altar shouldn’t be made too low. We should try to arrange a clean place, the size not being very important, it can differ according to each one’s possibilities.
We usually try to do not make the altar in the same room where one is having intimate relationship. The place should be clean and tidy, but doesn’t need to be richly decorated. Simple materials, arrangement and decoration are enough if one doesn’t have means for more. The attention we put on keeping the altar tidy being more important than how richly looking it is.
What to put on it and why?
Traditionally the altar should contain the traditional offerings of 7 bowls of water and a light offering. This number can be reduced to 5 bowls and a light offering by grouping some of them. We can then add a representation of the Buddha, by an image, a statue, a painting, or as many as the space allows. We then put on the altar a representation of the speech of the Buddha with a Buddhist text, and a representation of its mind with a Stupa
. If we do not have a stupa, we can also try to find a picture or drawing and put it there symbolically.
All those items represent the body, speech and mind of the Buddha in front of which we make our offerings.
Before to actually start to make the offerings it is good to reflect on the motivation, to think that we are doing this practice in order to complete the necessary accumulations to be able to benefit all sentient beings
. We also think about the kindness and great Compassion
of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas
, combined in the form of our kind and most precious Guru
, who is guiding us to actualize Enlightenment.
We then try to see in front of us all Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Dakas, Dakinis
, making the visualisation of the refuge tree, or the Merit
field. If it is not possible we try to visualise Buddha Shakyamuni as being the essence of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
In front of this visualisation we start the offerings.
Before starting the offerings it is good to make three prostrations, visualising that from the three points of all the Buddhas in front of us rays of lights of the three colours come and enter our crown, throat and heart.
How to offer the bowls
When putting the bowls on the altar it is better before to fill them to put them upside down, to do not offer empty bowls.
If it is possible to light one stick of incense, the bowls can be held upside down on the incense smoke to purify them, before to be filled.
We then actually take the first bowl, fill it with water while saying “Om Ah Hung”. While keeping this first bowl in hand, we take the second bowl with the other hand, pass it over the incense smoke if we can, then fill it with almost all the water of the first bowl, while reciting “Om Ah Hung”.
Then we put back the first bowl on the altar and we repeat the same operation.
When all the bowls are ready, we fill them almost till the top, reciting “Om Ah Hung”. We have to visualize that we are actually not pouring common water anymore, but very pure nectar. It is actually best to offer saffron water.
Filling the bowls correctly can help us to gain Wisdom, while filling them over the edge - or to less - may as a result create some mental hindrances, such as agitation or dullness of the mind.
In the same way, we have to visualize that we are doing very extensive offerings, to as many Buddhas as possible. This recitation of the three syllables, purify the offering we do, and the visualization extends the merits greatly.
It is also possible to replace the water by rice in some of the bowls, to offer some flowers, put fruits, incense, a music instrument (small cymbals, drum, Bell
…). The offerings can also be done aside of the usual bowl offerings. They have to be done as many as we can and of the best possible quality.
The bowls have to be separated from the distance of a grain of rice, and should be lined as straight as possible. offerings
Taking out the bowls
At the end of the day, it is necessary to take out the water from the bowls. It is good to collect the water in a clean recipient, dry the inside of the bowls and turn them upside down. The water should be disposed in a clean place. It can be used to water the plants in one’s apartment, or outside.