I began by asking the group, “Who has an altar at home?” (it was most of us) and then, “What’s on your home altar and why?” The replies were interesting and varied. Common items were plants, a Buddha, candle, incense and water. More personal items were an elephant, an attractive stone, a picture of someone special, a dead mother’s rings, and coins from a dead father’s suit pockets. For some the items could not easily be explained (“It’s a soul connection”), but in other cases the choices – a link with parents or ancestors – echo the description of a Soto Zen temple altar with its ancestor memorial tablets.
What do the common elements flowers candlelight and incense signify for you I asked? Jim pointed out that flowers represent impermanence – they bloom then fade. This is mentioned by several authors, as is the idea that flowers represent generosity.
Chris felt that the statue of Buddha or Kanzeon represented something more permanent and remind us of our true enduring nature.
What about candles? Suzie replied, “Light dispelling the darkness of ignorance,” and this, too, is widely described – candles represent illumination and wisdom.
Incense was more surprising. Jenny offered the simple idea of smell, a pleasant fragrance. (To mask the smell of a room full of people on sesshin perhaps?) It also represents, according to Tibetan and Zen practitioners, moral discipline. Boddidharma apparently wrote, “Incense is not worldly physical incense; rather it is the transcendent Incense of the True Teaching which perfumes one’s foul-smelling evil deeds, thoroughly fumigating them until they vanish.” Another author has suggested that the morally upright person is ‘perfumed’ with virtue.
The significance of water and its life giving properties seems clear. Tibetan altars have two bowls of water, one for washing the face and mouth, another for the feet. But I am still a little unclear about the significance of water on a Zen altar and would welcome ideas about this.
Libby suggested that the items on the altar link to the ancient idea of the four elements: incense (air), candles (fire), water bowl (water), and plants (earth).
My last question was do we need an altar to do zazen? Has anyone sat without an altar and what does this feel like? Iris suggested that you don’t need an altar when sitting zazen outside but there was wide agreement by the group that it simply doesn’t feel right indoors – there’s something missing. So clearly it seems that we need a focus, a central point for our meditation.
The Faithless singer, Maxi Jazz, has a lyric in Liontamer: “If you place a thing in the centre of your life that lacks the power to nourish it will eventually poison everything that you are and destroy you, even as simple a thing as an idea…”
So, to my final questions: do you have an altar at home? What’s on it and what do these things signify for you? How does your altar nourish you and what does it feel like if you sit without one? Anything missing, and if so what?