How To Set Up A Tibetan Buddhist Altar








An altar is an elevated platform or it can be a table, preferably waist high to show respect to the Buddhas but not too high when you are seated down in front of it. The altar is where we place holy objects of veneration to the triple gems, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. And it is a place for us to make offerings and prostrations to the Buddhas, do prayers and chanting and for meditations. Therefore your altar should be in a quieter corner of your house so other occupants in the house do not interrupt your practices. Avoid places where you consume alcohol and meat or play mahjong. The size of your altar is up to you and your house area. If you are able to have a bigger altar it would be auspicious. If you stay in a rented room then a small corner or your work table would be fine. Or you may opt to have a small cabinet with doors as your altar. If you have an existing altar at home for worldly deities, then you may consider setting up another altar as a mark of respect for the Buddhas. The altar provides a platform for us to make offerings to the three jewels and for us to collect emense merits by cleaning it and for making offerings to the Buddhas. The merits from making offerings support our practice and allow us to understand the Dharma better as it clears delusions from our minds.


Invite home a Buddha statue, the size to correspond to your altar. If you financially cannot afford to invite a bigger statue, invite a smaller one. Or start off your altar with a Dharma text or stupa. If you still are unable to, then a line drawing of the Buddha is fine. Place the Budda’s statue in the middle of the altar. On the left side, as you face the altar, place a Dharma text. On the right, place a stupa. The statue represents the Buddha’s perfect body of form and it inspires and motivates us to remember the Buddha’s virtuous qualities and helps us during our meditations and prayers as a focus aid. Having a Buddha statue also gives us a method to make offerings directly on the Buddha such as offering robes, precious stones, gold. The Buddha image blesses our home, family members and even unseen beings by calming and blessing them and thus when these beings are happy they will not cause any problems in our homes. The Dharma text represents the Buddha’s perfect speech and Dharma teachings and it reminds us to practice and progress on our path to enlightenment. The Dharma text is very important for it has kept Buddha’s teachings alive for over 2560 years and it has given so much knowledge to Buddhist practitioners like us. The stupa, it represents the Buddha’s fully enlightened mind, reminding us that we too can emulate the qualities of the Buddha and that enlightenment is possible for the Buddha has shown us how. It also reminds to be aware of and to transform our mind.


A Dharma teacher or guru is very much needed by Buddhist pracitioners for the teacher teaches us, guides us and helps on the path to enlightenment. While Dharma texts are important, they cannot answer our questions directly compared to a guru. Therefore place a picture of your guru at the centre of your altar in front of or place above the central image on the altar. If you have serveral gurus, then their pictures should be placed from left to right , starting with the most senior guru on the left. If there are 3 guru’s pictures, the most senior guru should be placed in the middle followed by the guru of next seniority on the left and the third guru on the right. The guru’s picture on the altar signifies that it’s the guru who teaches us the Dharma and guides us to practice the Buddhist path. It also helps us to develop great faith and closeness with our guru. When we develop these thoughts in our mind, it helps us to trust, respect and practice the Dharma more effectively. Besides that, having the guru’s picture reminds us of the qualities that we wish to achieve which our guru embodies. You may hang a guru or refuge tree, thangka, representing the guru’s fron your lineage on the wall behind your altar. What is a thangka? A thangka is a painting on cotton cloth or silk embroidery depicting a Buddhist deity scene or mandala. The origins believed to be from Nepal from the 11th century A.D, traced back to the time of Lord Buddha. The thangka’s lining, measurements, costumes, implementations and ornaments are mostly based on Indian styles. Figure drawings are mainly Nepalese style and background sceneries, mostly Chinese style. Thus thangka paintings became a unique and distinctive art. Thangkas are mostly painted in colours. The most common type? Black background, gold background, red background and block prints. A thangka depicting a Buddha’s image represents the Buddha’s physical form or the Manakaya, should be painted by well trained artists in Buddhist knowledge in accordance with strict guidelines laid out in Buddhist scriptures. In Tibetan, ‘thangka’ is translated as a recorded message to practitioners. The thangka is easily rolled up and carried along and it is very popular with nomadic people and unfolded to be hung in their tents. Thangkas are practical where the lineage gurus are painted on for the practitioner to see and make offerings to.

The altar provides a platform for us to make offerings to the three jewels to collect immense merits. Just by cleaning it and from making water offerings we collect great merits. The merits from making offerings supports our practice and allows us to understand the Dharma better as it clears illusions from our mind. Set up offerings on your altar. Offerings are from your heart that is not obtained through immoral, unethical and illegal means like stealing, cheating, lying, killing. Thus vegetarian food is strongly encouraged. Other offerings include lights, flowers, candles, sweets, anything you wish. If you offer naked lights, please put them off before you leave your house or before you retire to sleep.


Water offering is ideal because it represents the essence of life and easily available in most countries. Water offerings symbolise cleaning our mind of defowlments for method and wisdom to arise for us to practice on the path to enlightenment. Water offerings on the altar or offerings in general help us to cut off our greed and attachments in our mind. Other offerings include charity work and monetary donations to the community. These practices help us release our selfish attachment. How to make water offerings? With a clean cloth, wipe bowls while visualising clearing obscurations from our mind. Think that the energy of the Buddha is present in the statue on the altar and not just a statue that we are going to make offerings to. Traditionally, 7 or 8 bowls are used. The significance of offerings 7 water bowls is to create the cause to achieve the 7 limbs or aspects or qualities of the Vajradhara state which is enlightenment. You may also offer 8 bowls of water offering representing sensory offerings. Of course you may offer as many water offerings as you wish. If there is space constraint, you may offer one bowl of water. Start off by pouring water into a bowl then pour this water into the remaining bowls. Place the bowls on the altar, leaving a space about the size of a rice grain inbetween each bowl. This symbolises the closeness to our guru in this life and future lives. It is inauspicious for bowls touching each other. It symbolises we will have a dull mind in our future lives. Then pour more water into all the bowls, leaving of a space of about a rice grain from the rim of each bowl. Then light incense to purify the water offerings while chanting ‘Oh Ah Hum’ (x3) to purify any worldly or wrong intention we had that we may have polluted the offerings.


After the offerings are done, dedicate the merit to all sentient beings. Dedications generate merit for us to do our practices without obstacles or less obstacles. Water offerings may be done in the morning or anytime of the day. It depends if we work morning or evening. After you have done water oferings and dedication, you may proceed to remove the water offerings one by one, starting from right to left. Pour the water from each bowl into a container, dry the bowls and place then face down on the altar or put them away. The water can be disposed of in the sink bsin but not in toilet bowl or you may use it to water plants. Clear them daily to instill self-discipline. Also there are interferring beings that can disturb the offerings.


Earlier I talked about inviting a Buddha image home. Now I shall talk how to. Inviting a Buddha home is like welcoming a very important guest to your house. Therefore you do your best to prepare for the invitation. To celebrate in this auspicious and rejoicing event, invite your relatives and friends, you neighbours, your boss, your employees or colleagues. Clean your altar and set up the offerings. Sweep and clean the floor and place fresh baskets of fresh flowers and fruits. If space does not permit on your altar, dress and clean appropriate clothings and with burning incense and lead the Buddha image into your house and onto the altar. Do a good motivation that you have invited Buddha home and proceed by doing 3 prostrations in front of your altar. Do a short prayer to rejoice in the invitation of such a holy object into your home. You need not have to choose a date of time but if you prefer, you may choose an auspicious and memorable date like Wesak day, Tsok day, Quan Yin’s birthday or your birthday or anniversary. In Kechara we place the Buddha statues following the Tibetan Gelugpa traditional arrangements like so. Lama Tsongkhapa in the middle, Buddha Shakyamuni on the left, as we face the altar and Tara on the right and also it can be Lama Tsongkhapa in the middle, Vajrayogini on the left, Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden or Setrap on the right.


In the next video I shall share how to set up a Dharma Protector altar.


On the second part of this video teaching of how to set up an altar, I’m going to share with you how you can set up an altar in your home, with offerings, to the Dharma Protector. It will be auspicious to set up a separate altar for the Dharma Protector. The Dharma Protectors of Kechara are Dorje Shugden and Setrap but here I shall share how to do altar set up and offerings to Dorje Shugden.


After you have invited home a Dorje Shugden statue, place it on the centre of the altar. As you face the altar and on the left, place a Dharma text nearer to the statue to represent the Buddha’s speech. You may add on a vase of fresh flowers next to the Dharma text. On the right, place a stupa nearer to the statue to represent the Buddha’s mind. Place the mandala next to the stupa. A mandala represents wholeness in relation to infinity within our body and mind and beyond. The mandala represents the whole universe and the nature of the pure land, the enlightened mind. Mandalas are used for meditation purposes, allowing the individual in meditation to become one with the universe. A mandala may be draw like in the thangka, it may be symbolised with hand mudra or it may be in a set of one circular base plate of any material with 3 rings and a symbol of the victory banner as the top. Rice, lentils, small crystals, pearls or anything not sharp and not heavy may be used to fill up the mandala base plate during an offering and for the 3 rings to sit on. Offering a mandala allows us to purify our mind’s negativites and for us to offer all things beautiful, the richness of the world and universe to the Buddhas which in turn, helps us to get over our miserliness and develop generosity.


Sensory offerings are a fundamental part of Tibetan Buddhism and are required in most Tibetan rituals, pujas and prayers. Some rituals require one set of sensory offerings, others require 2 or more. Each set consists of 8 sensory offerings. You may use uncooked rice, pearls, cheap crystals or any materials you wish to fill up each bowl for the sensory offering to sit on. The 8 sensory offerings are


1 and 2. Two bowls of water, 1 bowl for drinking. This offering symbolises the auspicious results of all virtuous causes and conditions. The other bowl for washing. It symbolises purification of our negative karma and obscurations. In olden days, India, people offered drinking water to holy men and monks and water to clean their feet.

  1. The flower. It represents the beauty and flowering of generosity and opening of one’s heart, leading to enlightenment. It reminds us of impermanence when the flowers wilt and it creates the causes for us to be reborn in a beautiful body.
  2. Incense. To rid our environment of negative energies and unpleasant odors we offer incense. The merits accumulated aids in realisation of perfection of discipline, morality and ethics which are the basic causes and conditions from which pure enlightened qualities are cultivated. Whoever has perfected the discipline will have a fragrant body and is surrounded by a sweet fragrance.
  3. We offer lights, candles or butterlamps to dispel ignorance and develop the ability for us to understand the Dharma. Ignorance here means being ignorant or unaware of one’s true inherent Buddha nature. It also reminds us to practice patience.
  4. Perfume. It purifies habitual patterns of aggression, ignorance, attachment and that the outer environment may become purified and perfected. It symbolises the peserance and joyful effort that is the heart of enlightenment.
  5. Food. Food is sustenance, ensuring all beings do not go hungry and will always be provided for with nourishment. This offering symbolises the clear and stable mind of Samadhi, or meditative absorption.
  6. Music. Music relieves mental, physical and emotional sufferings. Sound symbolises the Buddha’s wisdom nature and compassion that arises naturally from the wisdom mind.


When we make offerings it is for our own benefit, to accumulate great merit and wisdom. The Buddhas do not need the sensory offerings but we make the offerings to the Buddas to cut our miserliness, to cut our attachments, to practice generosity and for us to collect merits. The act of making sensory offerings represents offering up all the things that we are attached to, to collect merits to support our spiritual practice and aspirations. Offerings laid out should be clean and nicely arranged in order to develop a sense of joy. We should buy the best fruits and flowers within our financial budget. The materials of bowls and mandala should be of the best quality. Our statue and stupa should also be made from the best quality that we can afford. We can make offerings daily, on special days and on auspicious days like during tsok, Wesak day, Lama Tsongkhapa day.

Next, you may also offer a set of 7 wrathful offerings to Dorje Shugden. They are


  1. Black tea
  2. Wrathful flower
  3. Incense
  4. Candle
  5. Scent
  6. Wrathful food
  7. Music


For Dharma Protector’s practices, we offer wrathful offerings of the 5 sense, symbolising the cutting away of our attachments, especially grasping on to our body. These wrathful offerings of the 5 senses, represented by a skull cup mounted on a tripod of heads which countains the 5 sense organs. These are,


  1. The heart or body, symbolising touch our feeling.
  2. The eyes represent sight.
  3. The ears represent sound.
  4. The nose represents smell.
  5. The tongue represents taste.


They have been cut out from the body and and arranged as a symbolic flower offering. The consciousness, represented by arrow, pierces the heart. These wrathful offerings are traditionally made from tormas but are now made available in various materials.


Offer the 5 commitment offerings of tea, milk, oats, yoghurt, beer. You can also offer herbs and medicines to represent long life and stable health. Vase offerings also provide us with the resources to help and heal many.


Tormas are figures made mostly of barley, flour, butter, yoghurt, sugar and honey dyed in different colours, used in tantric rituals or used as offerings. The shape and the decorative features of a torma represents the stages of meditation and hence represent tantric attainments. Tormas are offered to accumulate merit to appease spirits and to remove obstacles. If you are familiar with the rituals you may, on the first row nearest to the statue and in the centre of a one bigger torma for Lama Tsongkhapa and one smaller torma for the entourage. On the left, offer a bigger torma for Dorje Shugden and one smaller torma for the entourage. If you are not familiar with the making of tormas and the set up as explained, then you may use biscuits or cookies to represent tormas and offer them to Lama Tsongkhapa and Dorje Shugden.


Offer the 8 Auspicious Signs. These 8 symbols of good fortune represent the offerings made by the gods and godesses, dakas and dakinis, to Shakyamuni Buddha immediately after he attained enlightenment. If you do not have space for all the 8 Auspicious Signs, you may obtain one object that has all the 8 representations. The 8 Auspicious Signs are,


  1. The precious umbrella or parasol. It represents spiritual authority when used over a lama. It also represents preserving and sheltering beings from illness and victory over harmful forces and obstacles.
  2. The pair of golden fish represents happiness, prosperity and freedom from fear, like a fish swimming freely in the ocean.
  3. The great treasure vase symbolises inexhaustable wealth, prosperity and long life.
  4. The lotus flower stands for purity of the Buddha’s body, speech and mind. Also it means renunciation and compassion leading to enlightenment.
  5. The white conch symbolises the thoughts and teachings of the Buddha travelling great distance when the conch is blown and the victory over our ignorance.
  6. The endless knot or enternity knot symbolises wisdom and method, the inseperability of emptiness and dependant arising at a time of path and finally at the time of enlightenment. The complete union of wisdom and great compassion. It also stands for eternal harmony and longevity.
  7. The victory banner represents Dharma victory of outer activities of body, speech and mind and unseen negative forces over inner obstacles and negativities of our delusional mind.
  8. The Dharma Wheel symbolises turning the wheel of Dharma or spreading Buddha’s doctrine, giving rise to knowledge and wisdom.


This is followed by the 7 royal emblems representing the 7 limbs of the path to enlightenment. If you do not have the space for the 7 royal emblems on your altar, you may obtain 1 object that has all the 7 representations. The 7 royal emblems are,


  1. The precious jewel. It symbolises the virtue of faith so that meditative stability, diligence, understanding of Dharma may arise to erdicate all negative deeds in our mind.
  2. The precious wheel represents knowledge to conquer our ignorance and free us from suffering.
  3. The precious queen symbolises meditative absorption which serves as a foundation for knowledge.
  4. Precious minister represents joy that arises from correct application of knowledge and meditative absorption.
  5. The precious horse symbolises diligence to cultivate meditative absorption and knowledge so as to eradicate afflictions or defowlments of the mind.
  6. The precious elephant. It represents mindfulness. A mind that is peaceful and tame, that is consciously aware of what is going on in the mind and what one’s actions are.
  7. Lastly the precious general. It symbolises equanimity. A state of mind free from the afflictions of attachment somethings and aversion to other things.


Prepare special offering called serkym to offer to Dorje Shugden. In Tibetan, ‘Ser’ means golden, ‘Kym’ means drink. So ‘serkym’ is translated as golden drink. It is a golden coloured liquid offering for example, tea, beer, wine, milk or any drink you wish to offer to Dorje Shugden, requesting him to swiftly fulfill your wishes. Usually we do not partake of the liquid after we offered but respectfully disposing of it in a sink but not in the toilet bowl. The offering drink is firstly poured into a pot or jar and is then slowly poured in a 2 tiered vessel whilst reciting prayers to Dorje Shugden. The 2 tiered vessel consists of a taller vessel placed into a lower bowl and the liquid is poured into the taller vessel until it overflows down into the lower bowl. The overflowing of liquid represents an abundant flow of merits, virtues, material resources and conditions that are conducive for one’s Dharma practice. Another way of offering serkym is that the liquid can be poured fully prior to the recitation of the prayers. The serkym vessels can be of any material such as gold, silver, copper, brass or even glass. After the offerings have been set up on the altar, purify them with incense while reciting ‘Oh Am Hum’ to rid of negative energies. I hope this short sharing has given you some information and knowledge how to set up your own Dorje Shugden altar at home.

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