Filed in Zen (Chan)

Setting up your home altar

Robert Aitken

Wisdom Collection

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In this excerpt from Taking the Path of Zen, ROBERT AITKEN offers some advice on setting up a special place to honor our practice and the tradition.


Most of us cannot afford a separate room for zazen, but all of us can make a corner sacred. Put your pad and cushion there, with a low table or shelf for incense, flowers, and a picture of Shakyamuni, Bodhidharma, Kanzeon, or one of the other great bodhisattvas or teachers in our lineage. The room should be clean and tidy, without too much sunlight, though of course it should not be gloomy either. The spirit of religious dedication that is so apparent in the atmosphere of a training center can thus be evoked in your own home and in your daily life. On the one hand, this religious setting should be spare—free from sentimental feeling that leads to self-preoccupation. The incense, for example, should not be sticky-sweet. On the other hand, your setting for zazen should not be so arid that it has no religious associations. Some people find incense and pictures of the Buddha to be a threat to their rational spirit. But we most certainly cannot depend solely upon our rationality.

Incense, pictures, and flowers help to put us in touch with the wellsprings of universal spirit, drawing us to the oneness with our heritage and with our sisters and brothers that we already know intellectually to be the fact of our practice. They help us to establish meaningful archetypes of compassion and realization in our innermost being. Without such aids, zazen may become just a kind of pop psychology exercise, on a level with books devoted to positive thinking.

From Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken, © 1982 by Diamond Sangha. Reprinted with permission of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Image: © Diana Schnuth

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