Creating an altar for yourself is a beautiful part of the Buddhist practice. You can, of course, decide one day that you'd like an altar, and go out to purchase everything necessary. But what is far more satisfying is to let the altar evolve, so that each item on it has special meaning and relevance to you.
My altar is a collection of items on top of a square low table, one that I picked up at a garage sale. The minute I saw it, I knew it was exactly what I wanted. It was the right height, and big enough that it could hold a wide collection of important artifacts.
At its center is a 16 inch tall wooden Buddha. I first saw one similar to it at a Indonesian dance performance in Santa Rosa. When I inquired, I was told they were sold at Gado Gado, an import store. There are numerous Buddha figures there, including the large wooden ones, with different mudras, or hand postures. The one I chose uses the mudra of reasoning.
Over the Buddha's arm hangs a mala, or string of wooden prayer beads, that I purchased at a temple in Kyoto when I lived there 16 years ago. I have a second mala sitting in a stone dish - this mala is from my wedding to Sabrina last summer, where we exchanged malas as well as wedding bands as we recited our vows. I also have candle holders that were used in our wedding.
There are several small flower vases that I use to hold buds. One is from my sister Ali. Another is from a Japanese friend. I also have a bamboo plant in a vase, near the back of the altar.
A second, smaller Buddha figure is a token from a trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The Tibetan singing bowl was an anniversary gift from Sabrina. The incense bowl I found online at Shoyeido, the Japanese incense store.
And one of my favorite items is a small, hand-made purple tea cup, roughly shaped with imperfect edges. I bought it at a small roadside teahouse in Korea in 1993. It epitomizes the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, beauty in the imperfect. It now holds my used matches.
When I sit down in front of my altar to light candles and incense, I am pulling together the energy of my wife, my sister, my friends. I am joining the places of Japan and Indonesia and Cambodia and Tibet. I am uniting aesthetics with spirituality, art with practice.
When I sit down, I feel like I have just come home.