The Tibetan Buddhist Altar

tibetan altar

The body of the Buddha is represented by the image of Shakyamuni Buddha as displayed in the thangka painting in the center. He is known as the historical founder and source of the dharma (teachings). The speech of the Buddha is represented by the scripture book, and the mind of the Buddha is represented by the stupa.

Offerings on the altar are an expression of the practitioner’s devotion to the principle of enlightenment. It is customary to offer seven bowls of water which represent the seven limbs of prayer: prostrating, offering, confession, rejoicing in the good qualities of oneself and others, requesting the buddhas to remain in this world, beseeching them to others, and dedicating merits. The butter lamp symbolizes wisdom, eliminating the darkness of ignorance. Offerings to the deities such as incense, flowers and food are made that are pleasing to the five senses, accumulate merit, increase generosity and reduce stinginess. The bell and the dorje are used together during Buddhist ceremonies. The bell represents the feminine principal of wisdom and the dorje (Sanskrit: vajra) represents the masculine principle of skillful means.

A photo of the His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people, is commonly found on home altars. The chemar bowl is used for Tibetan New Year’s (losar) offerings as a wish for good fortune for the coming year. One side is filled with wheat grain, the other side with barley flour with wheat and barley stalks sticking out of the top. Also placed on the altar at losar time is the torma. The torma is a ritual cake made from dough. They can be of various shapes and sizes and have different symbolic functions. They either represent deities associated with particular ritual practices or may be used as food offerings made to various deities. In ritual contexts, they are also thought to absorb, transform and eject aspects of negativity.


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