At first glance, this looks like a fairly standard Buddhist altar. There’s a Buddha, candles, and incense holder. There’s a meditation bell-in-a-box at Buddha’s right knee, and a supply of incense at his left. There is a baseball-sized moktok–a hollow wooden percussive instrument–draped with meditation beads at six o’clock, a black and brown striped stone draped with meditation beads at nine o’clock, and a snail shell draped with a wooden rosary at three o’clock. Yes, I like beads of either a Buddhist or Catholic sort: in good ecumenical (or heretical) fashion, I used to count my Buddhist prostrations with a Catholic rosary. (Lord Buddha and/or Jesus help me.) From this up-close view (and you can click the image to look closer), the only striking thing about my altar are the two bouquets of dead carnations in old, moldy water. A good Buddhist would take better care of her altar flowers…and she’d dust more often.
Viewed several paces removed, though, the meditation altar in my home office looks a bit less conventional: a bit more funky. Yes, that’s Jesus on the cross (in a triumphant resurrection pose) hanging above Buddha, and a stereo underneath. In front of the right stereo speaker are two chanting books (one falling apart from age and use; the second its replacement) and a pocket-sized copy of the Dhammapada. On top of the stereo is the CD case for Peter Gabriel’s Passion, the Islamic-infused soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ. Above my meditation mat and cushion, a banner says “Buddha,” but the overall statement here is “Eclectic! Ecumenical! Eccentric!”
My corner of the blogosphere has been buzzing with talk of altars–home altars–those quiet corners of our abodes where we display whatever sort of objects and amulets remind and return us to our practice. It started with Dave and moved to Rachel, with various other bloggers and blog-readers contributing to comment threads along the way. Whether you see an altar as a site of sacrifice or a point of visual focus, it seems quite a few of us have actual altars–or shelves of precious mementos that function like altars–that point to the sacred nature of home and hearth.
In last year’s post on Buddhist iconography, I explained that Buddha statues and the altar accoutrements that accompany them aren’t the trappings of idolatry. Instead, Buddhist altars are points of visual focus: fancy or funky reminders of our own intrinsic awakened nature. In thinking more about home altars versus the fancy type you see in churches and Zen Centers, I realize that our altars are a kind of alter ego: a visual expression of what we cherish and value. Looking at my home altar, you can tell I’m ecumenical not orthodox, I’m a bit funky or even eccentric, and I’m not particularly particular when it comes to housekeeping. Perhaps there’s a coffeetable book in this notion of Altar Egos: My Altar, My Self.
So, what’s on your altar?
UPDATE! As either fate or chance would have it, Fran blogged her home altar yesterday, and her post reminded me that I’d forgotten to mention Augustine’s colorful contribution from July 15th. It seems I need all sorts of reminders, altar-oriented and otherwise, to keep my forgetful mind on track.