A Buddhist shrine provides a focal point for Buddhists when they are meditating, practising puja (worship) and for gatherings of Buddhists studying together. Shrines can vary from a small, simple shrine in the home or garden of a Buddhist, through to the large, ornate shrines or temples found across the globe.
Buddhist shrines in different traditions and different cultures vary a little, although most shrines will consist of a Buddha figure (a ‘rupa’), fresh flowers and incense. Some Buddhist traditions have very simple shrine rooms, with mats for sitting and a simple Buddha figure. Other shrine rooms will be very ornately decorated, with ‘thangkas’ (richly embroidered wall hangings), ‘rupas’ (Buddhist statues) and shrines filled with candles and the air full of incense fragrance.
A shrine is likely to include the following:
A Buddha figure (or ‘rupa’)
Seven traditional brass offering bowls
Incense and an incense holder
The shrine may include a ‘thangka’ of a particular Buddha or bodhisattva
A vase of flowers
Ritual objects can also be placed on the Shrine. Shrines can be as simple or elaborate as you wish to make them. Here are two example
A step-by-step guide to building a Buddhist shrine
1. Find a stable table and place it where you want to build your shrine, preferably against a wall or board with blue tack or a hook for hanging the thangka. Alternatively, you can use a shelf or any other space in your home.
2. Arrange the shrine cloth on the table or use an alternative cloth of your choice.
3. Choose which thangka to use and hang that on the hook or blue tack it to the wall from the cord.
4. Choose which Buddha you wish to use and place that centrally on the table.
5. Arrange the seven traditional offering bowls in an arc shape around the Buddha.
6. Place the candle near the Buddha.
7. Place your flowers in a vase on the shrine, not too close to the candle flame.
8. Put a stick of incense in the incense holder or bowl of rice, making sure it’s held in place. Place it on the shrine.
9. If you wish, you may also place any or all of the ritual objects (vajra, vajra bell and mala beads) on the shrine. Or sometimes Buddhist books are placed on the shrine.
10. Your shrine is now built!
What do the objects on the shrine mean?
The Buddha figure reminds us of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
The backdrop to the Buddha, the ‘thangka’, is a beautiful painting of a Buddha or bodhisattva figure, which again reminds us of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Painting the thangka can be an act of devotion for the artist.
Candles represent the light of understanding which Buddhist teachings can provide in helping us to understand life.
As well as adding beauty, flowers remind us of the truth of impermanence; everything (including ourselves), being in a process of constant change.
Incense – the fragrance of a well lived and skilful life.
7 traditional offerings (in little brass bowls): water for washing, water to drinking, food hard and soft. Any food offering needs to be Vegan.
The Vajra is sometimes called ‘the diamond thunderbolt’ and it destroys all kinds of ignorance in the world and is itself indestructible.
The Ghanta Bell is topped by a vajra and on the shoulder of the bell are eight lotus flower petals with syllables on them; the lotus leaves represent Bodhisattvas (beings who wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient life). The bell can be rung to remind us of our purpose and is used to mark the beginning, end and stages within meditation.
The Mallah or Mala beads are used to focus ones’ mind on the recitation of mantras and to count how many times one has chanted a particular mantra during practice. Mantras are sacred words or syllables chanted during Buddhist meditation or worship, for example “om mani padme hum”, the mantra of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.
Alternatively, you can buy a Tibetan Buddhist Altar. These are beautiful items, often finished with traditional Tibetan colours, which are believed to have spiritual and symbolic significance. These colours may include red, which represents passion and fire; yellow, which represents earth and the elements; green, which represents water and life; and blue, which represents space and the sky. In addition to the beautiful colours, the Tibetan Alter may also be adorned with other Tibetan symbols and motifs, such as the Dharma chakra, the Endless Knot, and the Lotus Flower, which all hold spiritual significance in Tibetan Buddhism.
If you choose to use a readymade Tibetan Alter, there will be a space for placing your Buddha and you can adorn your other offerings on and around the Alter.
Whichever you choose, having a shrine at home is a beautiful focal point when practising meditation.
Bristol Buddhist Centre (part)