top of page
  • Writer's pictureSabchu Rinpoché

About the Meaning and Value of a Buddhist Shrine

The goal is to practice to go from conceptual to beyond conceptual. The imagination can play a role in this. After all, in Mahāyāna practice, we wish to be offering for the benefit of all sentient beings. And that is huge. Larger than we can imagine really.

Oliver’s take on setting up a shrine

Oliver is a young man, 16 years of age, living with his Buddhist grandma in England. From his early youth he has had an inclination towards the Dharma, which is why his grandma one day introduced him to a teacher at a nearby Buddhist center. From the first moment that he encountered the teacher, this person had a special place in Oliver’s heart. His excitement for other things came and went away, but he always attended meetings with his teacher whenever he could. After many years of becoming familiar with Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, one day he decided to set up a Buddhist shrine in his room.

When the teacher heard about this through Oliver’s grandma, he became quite intrigued and was interested in hearing about it. So he jotted down some notes, preparing to ask Oliver a couple of questions in order to test his knowledge upon meeting him the next time. When they met again, the following conversation took place:

Teacher: Oliver, you have been a Buddhist practitioner for a big part of your life. Now you have decided to set up a shrine. What does it mean to you?

Oliver: Well, you know I have been inspired by the teachings of the Buddha pretty much ever since I can think, I have taken refuge in the Three Jewels, and I try my best to regularly practice the teachings of the Buddha, engaging in the Three Trainings, as they say, the training of ethics, meditation and wisdom. That’s what you’d call the Three Trainings, right?

Teacher: That is right.

Oliver: Now in order to keep up these Three Trainings, of ethics, of meditation, and of wisdom, I rely upon the supports that are available to me that are my refuge, so I set up a shrine, the representations of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. I had been toying with the idea for a while and then I wasn’t quite sure: wasn’t sure if I would be prepared for the maintenance factor, but now I am really happy that I have started it. Having a shrine that is visually present in my home helps me to remember my Three Trainings, to set my mental attitude back on track, and it reminds me to act more in accordance with the Dharma, too.

Teacher: That is great. What did you put on your shrine?

Oliver: I have just one statue: of the Buddha, my ultimate hero. But I also have a bunch of images, such as Amitābha, Chenrezig, Tārā, Padmasambhava and Milarepa. I have those, because I could relate to their stories particularly well, or I just really like what they stand for. And they all drew me closer to my greatest hero.

Teacher: Earlier you said they are your support. Tell me what are they supporting?

Oliver: You know, when I was young, I had my LEGO, and I built my own worlds of what I loved the most and what I found exciting: A physical set-up for the adventures of my imagination. Now my shrine is also a physical setup. It’s a place for me where I can approach what I find the most exciting and rewarding now: I wish to understand Buddha's ultimate wisdom. But these things are rather abstract, aren’t they? And I liked those explanations you gave once, where you said something along the lines of “We need a bridge to go from something that is physical to something that is not physical”. Or when you talk about Chenrezig as an outward representation of a quality of my mind that I want to discover within myself. This point of “outside representation” totally made sense to me, kind of explained why I always love being in the shrine room at our center. So now I have set up this physical reminder at my own place: the physical representations that remind me of the non-physical qualities of the enlightened mind, such as loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Yes, I think, that’s for me what “support” boils down to: It’s a reminder to live up to my epectations, to be my best. My shrine represents my goal, my path, and who I truly am.

Teacher: Impressive and insightful answer. When you compare setting up a shrine to your LEGO, I imagine that you probably took some liberties with setting it up. Did you? Or did you read up on it? Did you set it up in a traditional way, like we do here at the center?

Oliver: Well, I kind of figured that the shrine is a personal space, so I guess some variation would be allowed for. Also I have seen quite a bit of variations at different centers or at other people’s places, or also if you see what’s on the internet, if you look for pictures of Buddhist shrines: I found some pretty amazing stuff, going all out on decorations and offerings and flower garlands. Definitely looks like a full-time job, some of this. And then I see how other practitioners do it, like my grandma or my buddies from the Buddhist youth camp. They often have just one statue. But it means a lot to them. And I mean you’ve got to start somewhere, right? My grandma has a lot of framed pictures and even some hand-painted thangkas with all the brocades and all. That’s also nice, but you know: I have a largely different style in a lot of things. So I framed my prints in a much more straight-forward way.

Teacher: Well, you are right. There is definitely no one way of going about it: Inspiration takes different shapes for different people.

Oliver: The way I set it up now, I definitely feel that I can relate to it. And I’ve got to be able to relate to it, don’t I? That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Teacher: When standing in front of a mirror, I see my reflection. But I am not the mirror, nor am I in the mirror, but what I see is also not Alex, Scott, or Amanda. I point my finger at the mirror and I say, that's me.

Oliver: I am not sure if I can follow you there. The shrine as a mirror?

Teacher: Our basic capacity and qualities are already inherent in the obscured state, but clouded by sets of associations that we have made from beginningless time. And these associations are the reasons for us to go round and round in confusion. So now, when you look at your shrine, what do you see?

Oliver: Oh, now I get it! I see the ambassadors of my obscured innate capacity and qualities, I should see my future self, because my goal is to be free of obscurations and confusions, uncovering this innate potential. The path to this would imply freeing myself of ego and of strong preferences. Hm. Maybe I will reconsider how personal this shrine still needs to be or not...

Teacher: Oh, really, I do not think that this is something you should need to worry yourself about. These things will develop quite naturally. The main thing is: You know why you are doing it.

Oliver: Well, kind of. I must say, when I started, it was more theoretical. But as I am doing these simple chores like the water offering, or keeping this special place clean, I realize it does something with me to be doing this “shrine maintenance”. It’s really maintenance for the mind, isn’t it? When you think of all the things we do for maintenance of our body, like brushing our teeth two or three times a day, or grandma putting on her day cream and her night cream, the hand cream and the special cream for the cuticles, we might as well put a bit of regular effort into taking care of our mind, right?

Teacher: For sure! Taking care of the shrine is a wonderful practice in itself. And I am glad to hear you have taken to water offerings.

Oliver: Yes, I do those on a daily basis and occasionally I set up fresh flowers in a vase. But right now, in winter, when all you have, in terms of flowers, is the florist and I don’t really have the kind of money to buy flowers at the florist’s on a regular basis, I am really glad that there is such a thing as water offerings. Works well for my pocket money budget.

Teacher nods and smiles.

Oliver: Like this I can have this daily activity through which I express how much I cherish and venerate my supports, which is equal to venerating the Three Jewels. And it connects me with you, too, actually. My Buddha Śākyamuni statue has been filled by you. And, you know, that also means a lot to me. So

sitting in front of my support, I meditate. And it has become easier for me to sit more often since I have the shrine set up so nicely. It’s like a wonderful invitation.

Teacher: Sounds great.

Oliver: Yeah. I love it. And I found those neat battery-powered lights which I put on the shrine, symbolizing my wish to unveil the virtuous qualities for myself and for all sentient beings. Buddha says we all can awaken ourselves as he did. And so until I do that, my shrine is my mirror, my support, my bridge to my better...

Oliver (smiling, air quotes): ...“self ”.

Teacher: Well said, smartypants!

The teacher lovingly tussles Oliver's hair and slowly crumbles the prepared sheet of questions.

Oliver (observing the teacher crumbling his sheet): So I passed the test, did I?

Both laugh.

Teacher: You did, for sure!

Oliver: I do have at least one more question about this, though. One thing is: I heard there is a special way of taking away the offerings. That is: You don’t put them in the garbage, do you? What exactly is one supposed to do with them then?

Teacher: Oliver, let us first inquire into what the act of offering might actually mean to us. Let us look at the attitude, at the mindset. I have been thinking that maybe one way of approaching this would be by looking at what happens when you build a LEGO house, like you did when you were younger, or, for that matter any kind of child’s play, really. Such a LEGO house is a house and not a house at the same time, isn’t it?

Oliver: Agreed: It is a house and not really a house. But I am not sure I understand what you are getting at.

Teacher: As a child, you construct your LEGO world, and at the time of constructing it, you are well aware of the fact that you are being a LEGO builder, building, constructing, and of the LEGO house as being your construction. But then as you get more involved in your play, later on, a child might actually get so absorbed in the play that the LEGO house is actually quite seriously a house to the child, not just a constructionof blocks. But then the child will also remember that it is the constructor of the house. Remembering that the house is a construct adds a layer of meaning to the house. And it allows for a whole lot more room for the imagination, too. The house might be the gangsters’ headquarters or a hospital. It might even change its function within a split second. Only the person who built it would know the true purpose of it. The adult entering the room, however, might have a very limited conceptual notion of either “house” or “LEGO house”. But I am sure that when you used to play, there was a lot more to the scene than met the eye.

Oliver: Oh my god, yes. Those were the days!

Teacher: Similarly the offerings can be something larger than life or just water in bowls or bundled botanical specimens... or they can be both ordinary and extraordinary. The goal is to practice to go from conceptual to beyond conceptual. The imagination can play a role in this. After all, in Mahayana practice, we wish to be offering for the benefit of all sentient beings. And that is huge. Larger than we can imagine really. So one of the notions in Mahāyāna practice is to cultivate the wish to be offering immeasurable quantities. Obviously we can use the term and the concept here, but really the immeasurable is inconceivable for our mindset that will cling to its practical notions. So in a way the thought of immeasurable quantities and qualities explodes the box of what we can conceive of. We use our imagination and terms like “immeasurable” to let go of the very limiting concepts that we start out with. And then we might come to an intuitive understanding also of how these concepts of “immeasurable” are really beyond the scope of our imagination, and how, really, this shows us the limits of the conceptual level of things, pointing us, once more, to what is beyond the conceptual.

While we set up the shrine offering, we must, in some way, and ideally in a non-conceptual way, remember that. And while we take down the offering, we must also remember that. But while we aim to be in the non-conceptual sphere, we must also honor the validity of conceptual norms. Do you follow, my dear?

Oliver: I can kind of follow you about making it larger than life, but how does the validity of conceptual norms tie into this now?

Teacher: When you were younger, I remember, you used to sneak into our kitchen, grab a handful of your favorite cookies, and then gingerly go under the seats, your ‘kingdom’ as you used to call it, and enjoy the fruits of your labour. Remember? Do you still do that?

Oliver’s surprised grin turns into a chuckle.

Teacher: No, right? Why not? It is not because you have become a full grown man and you do

not fit under the chairs anymore. It is because you have learned more about the conventional norms of mankind. We do not eat under the chairs, under the beds, under anywhere. We eat in a specific place. We sleep in a specific place. There is a place and a style for each and every human activity. Those are our norms. While we know we could eat where we sleep and sleep where we eat, we do not do that. You do not go under the seats anymore. Oliver, concepts can bind our mind’s boundless ability to recognize our deeper self. Do not be bound. But also do not be anti-society, anti-laws, or anti-norms, for that matter. Bodhisattvas are other-oriented, not self-oriented, because our aim is to benefit beings. If your behavior is similar to that of a crazy person, you burn the bridge of the concepts and shared norms which you could use to reach out to others and for others to reach out to you. Fit in, while standing out. Stand out, while fitting in. Do not carry the whole weight of this bridge of shared concepts and norms, but do not burn this bridge either.

Oliver: Ooooh-kayyy??? Umh, I mean: Thank you, that’s very deep advice. But weren’t you going to tell me about how to take down the offerings? Like: practically, also?

Teacher: Oh, yes. I digressed. Maybe I am getting old. Or maybe I just find that it is an incredibly valuable point that was impressed on me in my youth, that your conduct must not be an expression of the radicality of your view, or as Padmasambhava said:

Though the view should be as vast as the sky, keep your conduct as fine as barley flour.

And there are a few things I have not mentioned to you about offerings that are expressions of this discriminating ethical strand of your mind’s workings. For example: One does not offer poisonous plants. You choose the materials that you consider the best. Like you would for your most cherished guest. I mean, one could get the idea from all this “going beyond the conceptual” that it did not matter what you offer. But you are still buying into the concepts of “good, better, best” in the rest of your life, whether you choose a mattress or clothes, or the way you want your coffee prepared for you when you go out. So we work with our notions of “good, better, best” also when we make offerings. And it does matter at this stage, when you choose what to offer. Just like ethics keep being relevant in your day to day experience.

So, where were we? Yes, disposing of offerings, right. If it is water, you can dispose of it in the garden or in the flower pots. If it is grain or similar produce, you can store it and dispose of it when you go for a walk in nature, in a park or alongside walking trails. And you can think of this as an act of sharing the merit or the blessings that come from such positive conduct as offering to the Three Jewels, with all sentient beings, making wishes for them. If you put it where animals might find it but people won’t step on it, that would be considered beneficial.You can also keep a small amount, perceived as a blessing, if you like. Those are the traditional norms. But you can also think of other creative but equally respectful ways of disposing the old offering materials. You are always invited to think outside the box. But, as I said before, Oliver, I want you to know the box first. I want you to know where you are, in relation to the box. Some day, when you say “I’m thinking outside the box”, I will know that you are truly thinking outside the box. Those who think outside the box, do not usually denigrate or underestimate the value of the box. In fact, there is really no “outside” or “inside” for that matter.

Oliver: So, the ‘in the box’ is the relative world that we live in and how we perceive of it, our way of taking it for granted. The ‘outside the box’ is the anticipated version of how everything truly is, like the way an enlightened person would see things. And the true realization of that surpasses the binary notions such as inside and outside?

Teacher: Lad, you have grown up! And I thought you were the one who insisted on stories!

Both laugh.

Oliver: Well, I’ve been taught to unpack them, too, I guess. And I still like stories. And riddles. And levels of meaning to what people say. I don’t think one can get very far with one’s wisdom quest, if one isn’t willing to take some of the wisdom in story form. It would be rather dry, without stories and metaphors, wouldn’t it?

Teacher nods and smiles: Well, I appreciate your still appreciating them.

Oliver: But to get back to our shrine topic: I am really glad I asked about this. Now I definitely have a completely different perspective on how those materials are passed on afterwards. Much better than just chucking them. Now there is a whole different dimension to that, too! That’s awesome! And it makes so much more sense. Like, in a way, that was lacking, there was no symmetry or logic in it: First it’s a heartfelt offering, then it becomes garbage, that would be kind of weird in a way, wouldn’t it? Now for it to remain an offering and to be shared with sentient beings, there is really a lot more beauty in that.

Another question I have regarding offerings, although it might seem a bit trivial to you, is: I am a little bit short of space, really, on this table that I turned into my shrine, so I was thinking of adding another smaller table below, because I have seen that in some places they have some objects – I think mostly the offerings, right? – on a lower level. Is that how it is handled?

Teacher: Oh, that is a valid and important question, too. And yes, that is one way in which it can be done. However, we should probably look at the topic of heights before you start investing into furniture.

The height of the shrine table is traditionally measured from the point of view of standing position, not sitting. Standing up on your bare feet, look forward. If your shrine set up requires that you look down, tilting your head down, then it is below the prescribed height. Increase the height to a point where you are looking directly or a tad higher. So, depending on how high your first table is, you might want to get a taller one, rather than a shorter one, and perhaps use the one you already have as a slightly lower one, for offerings. That being said, some people like to have visual support while sitting also. When you practice Chenrezig, you can place a smaller image of Chenrezig on your table with your practice text. Because the general guidelines about meditation posture require you to place your gaze slightly downward, having a small image related to a given practice right there perfectly fits within that spatial relationship. Apart from the image and practice text, you can also place a container or a pouch for storing your mala on the table.

Oliver: I think I might have seen people having pictures of people there too, not necessarily teachers, also just generally people, maybe family or so.

Teacher: You can also place images of your loved ones there or of whomever you have a positive bias towards. You get yourself triggered by the appreciation that you actually feel for certain people, and then you can use this as a catalyst to expand the dedication to all sentient beings. So again: We start with something concrete here: with the compassion that we can actually feel.

Oliver: Like the concrete offering of a flower or a few grains of rice can stand for all the immeasurable offerings that you can offer in the mind?

Teacher: Exactly. In this case we might have some people that we find it easy to relate to in a compassionate way, and we use this as a starting point for expanding our compassion towards limitless beings. This way, the enormity and vastness of sentient beings in the six realms is approached from our heartfelt, although biased compassion. Eventually we come to realize that our biased compassion is only a thread in the universal woven fabric of a greater, unbiased compassion, which we hope to experience in an as truthfully heartfelt and intuitive way as we feel towards those close to us now. You see, these are very helpful techniques to go from biased to unbiased, just like, earlier, we talked about going from physical to non-physical.

Oliver: Talking about bias: I have this bias towards you. Where would I put a representation of my bias towards you now, in this context of setting up a shrine?

Teacher: Well, Oliver, that is indeed a big topic. I will try to answer this by sketching out some possibilities. It depends on the context and on how you perceive the teacher, what the teacher means

to you. If the teacher is someone you like, a nice, possibly older, possibly wiser person who inspires you, then you can put the teacher’s picture on the table with your practice text along with pictures of

your loved ones.

If you perceive the teacher as kalyanamitra, as characterized in Mahāyāna Buddhism, you can put the teacher’s photo on the front or side wall, in the periphery of the shrine. If somebody sees the teacher as a representative of Sangha, the assembly of Bodhisattvas, then it can be appropriate to place it on either side of one’s shrine. If somebody perceived the teacher as vajracarya, as characterized in Vajrayāna, then this person would place the teacher’s picture in a relatively central position. These are different customs of how the importance is expressed in the spatial arrangements, depending on the way in which somebody values the teacher. And we both know as transient beings in a transient world, we change a lot, so you never know, in the course of a lifetime in one particular teacher-student relationship that same teacher's picture might at various times of the student’s life take different positions.

Oliver: Well, knowing you makes a big difference in my life, for sure.

Teacher: Yes, but I think with the ways that I have taught you to practice so far, you can consider placing the teacher of our era, Buddha Śākyamuni’s image, in the central area. Your hero, right?

Oliver: Yep.

Teacher: All teachings originate from his speech, including tantric teachings. So, in that respect, though there may be different manifestations of the Buddha that different tantric teachings entail, none of these are separate or beyond Tripitaka, the Sūtra and Tantra, and since Tripitaka is the historical Buddha’s speech, having Buddha Śākyamuni in the central position is a correct placement, isn’t it?

Oliver: Is that why Buddha Śākyamuni is the prominent figure in many Buddhist temples in many Buddhist countries?

Teacher: That is right. That being said, however, having Buddha Amitābha, or for that matter, Chenrezig, or any other bodhisattva figures as a central figure is also absolutely acceptable. There is no fault in that, principally and culturally. By putting Tārā in the central area, you are not undervaluing Buddha Śākyamuni.

Oliver: I see there are so many points of view to consider! Historical, philosophical, cultural, personal, and economical, too. For example, I would like to, but I cannot afford to purchase more beautiful statues. So I keep reminding myself, “Oliver, your shrine is not lacking in its function. It is supporting you just fine”.

Teacher: Right. And that is how we started into this, Oliver. Now we have come full circle, and look at all the topics we have covered in between! But what you just said, that remains the main point. It’s a support for your practice, a material representation of what you value and what you want to find to be your own potential and true nature.

Oliver: It’s become quite an interesting field for practice now with all this explanation. Thanks a lot.

Teacher: You are most welcome. And remember: Essentially, it is not complicated at all.

They smile and share a few moments of silence.

Teacher: If you want to, we could go through some of the details of how objects can be arranged on a shrine.

Oliver: Oh, that would be great!

Here are, for those interested in setting up a shrine, some illustrations of how objects can be arranged on a shrine:


bottom of page