"A shrine or altar should be beautiful, with the most expensive items you
can afford on it.
It should be as rich as you can make so that every
time you see it you are
emotionally moved by it, not with pride because
your shrine is better
than your friends, but because it tugs at your
heart like a beautiful
landscape or a wonderful sunset does"
~ Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche ~
All Buddhist traditions have some form of shrine or altar. These range from the very simple to the very elaborate, according to the wealth available and the tradition. Many rituals will require special shrine arrangements and the details of these will be given in the relevant practice texts. In important ceremonies the shrine can have many attendants or a shrine master to make sure the offerings are appropriate and correct.
The type of shrine you choose will reflect your own personal taste and will also depend on your depth of understanding.
A simple shrine consists of a single platform with a picture or image of the Buddha and perhaps a light offering such as a candle or butterlamp or a smaller vase for a flower. A slightly more complicated Tibetan style shrine consists of two platforms. On the higher of the two, in the centre, is an image of the Buddha. Guru Rinpoche is on his right and a picture of your Tsawi Lama (root guru) on his left. Behind the Buddha is a Dharma text, such as a copy of a sutra, and in front of the Buddha can be a small stupa containing relics, or perhaps a bell and dorje. The lower platform holds the offerings of food, incense, flowers, water and candles (or light).
The seven offering bowls plus a butterlamp are needed to make the traditional fixed offerings and they should be arranged as follows:
from left to right: argham (fresh water for drinking); padyam (perfumed water for bathing); pushpe (flowers); dhupe (incense); aloke (light from butterlamp); gendhe (perfume); nevidya (celestial food); and shapda (music).
A still more elaborate shrine has three levels:
The highest level: A Buddha, slightly raised above the other images in the centre, a Guru Rinpoche image on the right and Avolokitesvara on the left. A picture of the Tsawi Lama stands in front of the Buddha.
The Middle Level: Dharma books in the centre, a yidam image (such as Dorje Palmo or Khorlo Demchog) on the right, and a Protector (such as Mahakala or Mahakali) on the left. On either the right or left can be a bell and dorje or a stupa containing relics.
The lowest level: all the offerings including food, water, incense, flowers, light etc. and anything else you may wish to offer.
For all these descriptions, on the right means on the shrine's right, that is on your left as you face the shrine.
If you can afford to do so, it is best to have a separate room for your shrine. If possible this should be upstairs or in an attic which is quiet, not used for other things and through which people do not have to pass to get elsewhere. If this is not possible, then it is wise to use a corner of a sitting room or study. Do not put your shrine in line with the door; arrange it so that it can be sectioned off when the room is used for other purposes. Failing this, you can use a small cupboard in your bedroom but this should be above the head of the bed (never at the end of the bed). Such a shrine should be covered or closed at all times except when you do your prayers and meditations.
The offerings on the shrine must be changed regularly and the cloth used to cover it kept only for this purpose. Do not lie down there or sit with your feet stretched out towards the shrine. Never sit on religious objects or books. Always be decently dressed in your shrine room. You should always try to sit at a lower level than the shrine. Try to save a little of the money you would normally spend on things for yourself and use it to make offerings to your shrine, and to provide food and clothing for those in need. Never offer anything to the shrine that you have not bought or grown yourself.