Saturday, September 29, 2012

My home altar

An online friend published a touching blog about his home altar and indicated he would be appreciative of others doing likewise.  In appreciation of his thoughtful effort, here is a picture of mine.

This is on the South wall, between two windows.  It faces my office, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom door, since they are all in the same room. ;-)

From the top, and then moving left to right, I will go through the items, their origin and significance.

The top is a thangka, a sort of scroll painting, that is cut-off at the top.  The image that is truncated is a bhavacakra (aka The Wheel of Life), a dharma teaching tool.  My mother bought this for me when we visited The State Fair of Texas in Dallas about five years ago.  It was a bargain.

Top shelf:  The bowl on the left is a Tibetan hand-hammered singing bowl that I intend to give to someone when they appear (I don't know who they are, yet).  It has a deep, beautiful tone.  It sits on a red pillow.

The the right of that is a clear vase for flowers.  When I am too lazy to get flowers this represents emptiness.

To the right is a buddha statue made of wood and painted gold.  I bought it at a retreat center on my very first silent Buddhist retreat 8 years ago.  It was also a bargain.  Around it's neck is a Franciscan rosary that was blessed by John Paul II, and a traditional sandle-wood Buddhist mala.

On the statue's right wrist are four commemorative bracelets for four 911 World Trade Center victims: two FDNY Firefighters, the chaplain for the FDNY (who was a dearly-beloved spiritual mentor for a close friend of mine), and a friend's friend who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald.  She was adorable, from Brooklyn, and a Mets fan.  In the lap of the buddha is a meditation timer that I find too complicated to use.

Usually directly to the right of the buddha statue is a candle, but I need a new one (I'm not dressing-up the altar for this picture, it's a candid).   Behind that, the tree-shaped thing is a wire-sculpture of a guitarist that a dear friend brought for me from the Dominican Republic.  It is there because I was touched by the gift at the time and the giver has a Christian practice that I deeply admire.  In front of it is my personal Tibetan singing bowl, the one I use for all ceremonial purposes.  It sits on an orange and print cushion.

Next shelf down:  Peeking out from behind the first photo on the left is my oryoki (ritual eating) set.  It is a set of bowls and utensils that are ceremoniously wrapped in white linen napkins. The picture is of me (on the right) and Steve Hagen, my teacher, taken at my precepts ceremony in April 2010.  To the right of that is a set of little books of Buddhist scripture, sort of an homage to the written dharma.  Next to that is the Dalai Lama, a man for whom I have a great deal of fondness and respect, particularly with regard to his personal insight.

Next to the left is a little Buddha statue that I used to hide because it has a tiny swastika on it's chest.  I thought it was a hideously unfunny joke.   I actually thought for a while that this statue was too offensive to even send to the landfill!  I wanted to burn it, but it is plastic.

I learned later that the Nazi's appropriated this ancient symbol from Buddhism, so in my chagrin I brought this statue out of the shadows to help the sangha reclaim it.  It's presence is meaningful for me on many different levels.  I says a lot about my journey as a dharma student.  I think in a sense humanity needs to reclaim itself from the 20th Century the way I reclaimed myself from my own ignorance (and still do).

Next on the right hand side is a picture of a friend with her first child when he was less than a week old.  While I do care for both these people, the picture is there because it what is says to me about something zen buddhists call "roshin," literally "old-mind," which translates best for me as "grandmother-mind."  This is the part of us devoted to caring for and giving to others.  It is the bodhisattva mind, the mind of an emotionally fully mature being.

The look in my friend's eyes connotes roshin for me, her son is surrendering to maternal comfort.  I like to imagine he was comforted by the sound of her beating heart when this picture was taken, connecting him to the life he recently left behind in her womb, maybe he's wondering why he can't go back to where that sound was much louder and deeper!  Welcome to human existence...

Since I know her, I can see that her face is still swollen from the trauma of childbirth so I find it particularly moving that she seems to me to be quietly suffering recovery from a prolonged physical trauma while completely transcending suffering emotionally.  This picture just takes my breath away.  It reminds me of the real concrete manifestation of the Bodhisattva's vow to live for the benefit of all beings.

Bottom shelf:  On the left-hand side of the bottom shelf is a jar with incense sticks and some boxes of incense.  The box in the middle houses my mala's (strings of ritual meditation beads), sutra books and other assorted tools for practice.  In front of the box is a small incense burner, which is another Buddha statue.  The ashes fall down over this statue.  I like that.  I like cleaning it.

On the right of the box is a small sake cup that shouldn't be there, to the right of it is a set of chimes that are useful on silent retreats for signaling time boundaries, and behind them is a couple of bookends minus books, symbolic of my move away from reading about the dharma to practicing it in 2006.

I regard this bottom shelf as supporting the altar, which is more above it.