Mirror of Zen Blog

Personal Altar

Sometimes people ask about having a home-altar: Should there always be a Buddha or a Jesus? What kinds of pictures are appropriate or not? What if I want to have momentos from a dead relative? Is it OK to have symbols of different religions?

It is all a matter of taste and experience. There are no “right” or “wrong” arrangements. Basically, an altar is a mandala, a highly personalized structure or architecture of the direction and the path of your mind through a suffering life.

Mine is very simple: Gratitude to the Teachers. There are many, many teachers – – an infinite number, if your mind is really open. I have chosen just three to represent here – – or, they have chosen me. At least that’s what I feel.

The altar doesn’t represent “worship“ or even veneration. It represents gratitude. There is a side altar in my room, which carries the representations of other significant teachers (including my truly saintly Mother). There is an altar in the kitchen of the Zen Center that carries teachers from literature and the arts who also woke up my mind: Beethoven, Shakespeare, Schopenhauer, Rilke, Emerson, Katka, William Blake, and John Lennon, representing all revolutionary modern popular music, which would definitely include The Clash and even Kraftwerk. But then we are going down an endless road of representation, and there will always be something missing. Someone mentioned to me once that there are no women on our public altar in the kitchen. Yes, this is so. Perhaps it is an oversight, but this is just what I was exposed to, and exposed to profoundly enough to open my mind to bring me to this work.

The altar in my room, right next to my sleeping mat, represents a Trinity of Gratitude. I guess I should probably have Jesus on there, but I feel he gets shown enough on all of the churches and artwork here in the west, in Bavaria and in Regensburg.

These three monsters really tore everything all up for me — I am still slightly frightened by the gaze of all of them. So they are the first ones that I see when opening the eyes, and the last ones I see when I close them every day.

For whatever it is worth, it is offered here. If I have time, I will go into a more detailed sense of some basic principles for constructing a home altar which can make it more powerful for you. But simplicity and directness and forcefulness are always most helpful. No need to collect a seashell from every significant visit you took to a Greek beach or something, some piece of wood picked up on a significant climb up a mountain. Represent the things that impress on your mind the most. The altar shouldn’t only reassure you; it should also frighten you a bit. That’s why these three got their place there.

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