The Meaning Behind An Altar

10 Nov

Dining Hall and Living Room

Here a picture of my altar to Lama Tsongkhapa in the living room of my apartment. 

Due to a request, I am going to share a thing or two about altars today. I think most Chinese families here in Malaysia have that little “Sun Toi” or ‘Altar to the Gods’ at home. That ubiquitous red altar to Kuan Yin, Buddha or Kwan Gong with glowing red lights and a porcelain incense urn containing burnt and half burnt joss sticks that’s placed right under the nose of the deity is pretty much a standard affair. I guess it’s pretty much a Chinese thing to blur the lines between Taoism, Buddhism and folk beliefs here if you know what I mean but I am not going to go there.


Absolutely love this beautiful altar with the Buddha, Lama Tsongkhapa and Kuan Yin. 

I am just going to talk about the Buddhist practice of setting up an altar. Yes, it is the focal point of the little bit of spiritual practice (mantras, offerings, prayers and meditation) that we do and it is also the place where we can collect spiritual merits. What are merits? They are causes towards achieving enlightenment. In the meantime, these causes helps us along the way to transform our minds towards virtue and towards becoming better people. Ultimately, all of us want to improve on our lives and merits helps us to do that. With merits, we  improve our careers, relationships, transforming nasty habits to better ones, gain spiritual attainments, contentment, happiness, harmony  and so forth. The reason for this effect is because the focal point on the altar is to an image of a fully enlightened being – a Buddha.

That’s the power of a fully enlightened Buddha. The reason the Buddha is able to do this is because he has become fully perfected and has overcome all limitations and possesses infinite wisdom and virtue. Therefore, any image of the Buddha can and will bless us in this most special of ways and whether we know it or not. When we make offerings and prayers, we are doing it towards the realizations that is in their physical form. That is why the image of the Buddha is one of the most popular interior decor item that seems to bring a sense of tranquility to a room. That shows that one doesn’t need to a be a Buddhist to experience the effects of the Buddha.


A modern altar with a statue of Lama Tsongkhapa in the center, a Dharma text on the left and a clear acrylic stupa on the right. 

On top of that, we are actually using money that would otherwise be used to feed our attachments and self gratifications and that would ultimately not help us in the long run. However, setting up an altar and presenting offering on it to the Buddha has far reaching effects especially when we do it with the right aspiration and prayer. It takes a special type of merit and wisdom to understand the immense benefits of setting up an altar. Also, if we plan to engage in a life-changing endeavour like a career change, starting a business, expanding one’s business or engaging in large projects, it would be good to make lots of offerings to create the merits and good karma to sustain such an endeavour. The same goes if we want to do charity or engage in more Dharma works, making consistent offerings creates many causes for our works to be successful.

The object of our offerings and prayers on the altar is not just a Buddha but also a Dharma text and a representation of a Stupa. Respectively, they represent the body, speech and mind of the Buddha. These are what they call the 3 doors from which we develop the thought resulting in the creation of karma and its repercussion. Hence, we make offerings the body, speech and mind of the Buddha, we are creating causes to develop the Buddha’s body, speech and mind. That means, we are literally creating causes to be enlightened and purify a lot of negative karma as well.

That’s basically it and what I have explained is just the tip of the iceberg but I decided not to write too long of an essay to bore the readers. There is much more to an altar which I will talk about in future postings but for now, this would suffice. For me, I have always loved setting up an altar even before becoming a Buddhist and I never knew why. Perhaps, I had done this before in previous lives or I am just a born idolater. Whatever it is, I know its immense benefits and so it has become more meaningful and beneficial.

Below are some of the significance of the different types of traditional offerings –

Candles/tealights/lamps ~  In the way light dispels darkness, offering of candles to enlightened beings enable us to open our minds towards wisdom and clarity of mind. It is through wisdom that opens the door for the Buddha to enter and clear our obstacles and grant our temporary and ultimate wishes.

Fruits/Food ~ Just like food is sustenance for our body, Dharma is sustenance for our mind. Food offered to enlightened beings enables us to sustained our Dharma practice on our journey towards finding ultimate liberation. Fruit offerings are particularly auspicious to symbolize the ‘fruitioning’ of our Dharma practice. Offering of food also creates causes for Lord Setrap to clear obstacles towards acquiring  livelihood, clothes and shelter.

Flowers ~ Flowers are objects of fleeting beauty, which are offered to enlightened beings so we may come to realize the impermanence of our existence. It also beautify the altar and our environment and thus create the cause to be reborn in pleasant rebirths where our environment is clean, pleasant and conducive towards spiritual practice.

Incense ~ Incense invoke upon the pure morality of the enlightened ones. Those who uphold morality purely have a charismatic presence and emit a fragrant scent. Offering of incense creates the causes for us to hold our promises and vows perfectly. The Buddhas are very pleased with those who hold their promises and vows because it allows him to help them even more.

Water ~ The purity of water evokes the immeasurable qualities of an enlightened mind. Just like how water quenches thirst, offering water creates causes towards fulfillment of our necessities of livelihood. Offering of water is the closest we can get towards making an offering with completely no attachment. (An ideal offering). Thus, when coupled with powerful prayers, it allows the Buddha to fulfill our wishes quickly and easily.

Pearl/Jewels ~ Pearls/jewels are popular jewels that symbolize wealth in abundance. The causes towards real wealth are created through having a generous heart. Offering of pearls creates the cause for us to be generous and for the Buddha to bless us with immense riches in this and future lives.

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A Khata is placed in Manjushri’s hand symbolic of offering our wishes and aspirations to him. 

Khata ~ Khata is a white silk scarf offered to the enlightened ones as symbols of our earnest prayers. It is also  offered  as a mark of respect and veneration towards an elder or someone higher in rank. Towards our lamas and enlightened Buddhas, we offer onto their hands and not over their head to denote humility and submission. Offering of khatas to the Buddha creates a bond with him and allows him to fulfill our wishes.

6 Responses to “The Meaning Behind An Altar”

  1. Dove April 27, 2015 at 5:10 am #

    thank you I find this very informatiive

    • Pastor David Lai April 27, 2015 at 7:58 am #

      Thank you Dove. Lemme know if you have further questions about this or anything else.

  2. Lynn February 25, 2020 at 11:46 pm #

    Dear Pastor David Lai
    In the “altar picture i see quan yin “goddess of mercy”,is it ok for her to on altar with the buddha?,love your website.

    Lynn Cooper

    • Pastor David Lai February 26, 2020 at 6:34 pm #

      Thank you Lyn. Didn’t think anybody is reading. I haven’t updated in awhile though

    • Alex November 17, 2020 at 10:55 pm #

      Hi Lynn,

      Quan Yin is the Chinese version of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, otherwise known as Chenrezig in Tibetan or Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit. All of these are considered different forms of the same bodhisattva. Therefore, it is totally acceptable for Quan Yin to be on the altar with buddha.

      • Pastor David Lai November 21, 2020 at 5:53 pm #

        Ohh something went amiss when i responded the last time. yes, its totally fine. Thank you for your reply.

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