In this extract from her forthcoming book, Everyday Dharma: Seven Weeks to Finding the Buddha in You , Lama Willa Miller shows how the symbolism of a shrine can help connect you with your own deepest values and spiritual potential.
A shrine is a repository for objects of inspiration. It is a material expression of your spiritual quest. It is a physical space housing symbols that remind you of your commitment to humanity, your community, or the earth, in whatever form that takes for you. These symbols can range from very personal to universal. Symbols are powerful. They speak to us in a language beyond words, and they evoke with imagery. Shrine symbols are selected to remind us of the qualities of wisdom-nature and the spiritual journey.
Start with a surface. Almost any elevated surface will do. Here are some improvisations I have made in my life: a small table, a shelf, the top of a dresser, a box covered with a cloth, a fireplace mantle, a smooth stone, and a board across two cinderblocks, covered with a cloth. For a three-year retreat, we were each supplied with a real Tibetan-style shrine with three levels and cabinet doors. This is a nice luxury if you are a carpenter or have the means to purchase a shrine. But if not, there are many options. It should be visible from your seat but does not have to be near it.
The heart of a shrine is the sacred objects that go in or on it. Start simple. Select what goes on the shrine by how meaningful it feels to you with regard to your spiritual journey. In other words, what you put on your shrine should be a symbolic reflection of your intention and aspirations. Shrine objects are there to uplift or inspire you. Anything that moves you to feel loving, content, and peaceful belongs on a shrine. Especially look for whatever reminds you of your wisdom-nature, the innate potential that you carry with you.
To start with, collect things from around your own home, or use natural objects from your yard or other outdoor places. See how creative you can be with what you already have. If that means putting only one object on your shrine, or even visualizing something in front of you, that is enough to start!
In 1959, when the Chinese invaded eastern Tibet, many Tibetans were placed in concentration camps. One friend of mine, a lama, was in a camp for six months before he escaped. They took everything away from him and his fellow prisoners: his monks robes, his rosary, his sacred texts — everything. He had only a Chinese uniform provided by the camp wardens. My friend used visualization and what little he had at his disposal. With no outer supports, he continued to visualize his spiritual mentors above his head, and he put aside small bits of food as symbolic offerings to them. When the guards were not looking, he would dip his finger in his drinking water and flick it into the air as a symbolic offering to the Buddha. When the lights went out at night, he sat up in meditation. He had to be covert about his spiritual practices because the Chinese guards punished any religious expression. He once told me that the period of six months in a concentration camp was the best retreat he ever had! So while objects can be inspiring and supportive, they are never as important as your mindset and intention. Objects are optional, but intention is essential.
On a Buddhist shrine, you will typically find representations of the Buddha’s body, speech, and mind: a statue, a book, and a stupa. Body, speech, and mind are sometimes called the “three gates to liberation” in Buddhist sources, because — when you think about it — that is precisely where liberation is going to take place: in your body, speech, and mind (and the bodies, speech, and minds of everyone else). The physical, verbal, and mental aspects of your being are like the clay you have to work with. Awakening can be fashioned out of nothing else. Therefore, it makes sense that the most basic objects on a shrine represent body, speech, and mind, in their awakened or perfected form, because that is where we aspire to go.
The statue — the symbol of awakened body — might be of the Buddha, or it might be of some other enlightened being. It is intended to communicate that enlightenment takes form in the world, through action. The book represents awakened speech, and means that enlightenment can be communicated verbally. A stupa — representing awakened mind — is a small reliquary that comes in a few shapes, usually a carved mound or thick spire with bas-relief designs. When the Buddha died, his ashes were placed in such a reliquary, and it is believed that those relics still survive. So ever after, the shape of the stupa came to be associated with the Buddha’s undying wisdom-mind.
If you want, you can look for symbolic representations of awakened body, speech, and mind in your own home (or these days, online). Choose objects or images that are personally meaningful. As a representation of awakened body, a statue of the Buddha is not the most meaningful image for everyone. It might be a picture of your spiritual mentor, an image of a person to whom you feel devotion, or something else entirely. On my first shrine, I placed a painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus that I found at a garage sale as a kid, because it reminded me of the power of motherly love. Later, it was the image of Tara. Then these were joined by a Buddha statue. A shrine can be a work in progress.
The question to ask yourself is: What reminds me of the potential of my body and the bodies of everyone to become sages? The body is the vessel that carries you to awakening. What reminds you that your own body and the bodies of others are precious vessels? What reminds you that your body is an instrument of carrying out your life-intention?
The body is your sacred temple, the most sacred of spaces, where awakening occurs. What reminds you that your body is a crucible for enlightenment? Some examples of representations of body include photos of inspiring people who have used their bodies to inspire and uplift others, statues, body images, or an object that reminds you of your body’s potential. I have seen someone use a small cactus. When I asked her why the cactus, she replied, “It is like me … spiny on the outside, and soft on the inside! It reminds me to look for the softness in myself.”
For the representation of speech, the question to ask is: what reminds me of the potential of my speech, and the speech of all people, to become enlightened? Your speech is the instrument of communication with the world. It is through speech that the mind’s wisdom and love translates into words that inspire and uplift others. The vehicle of language and speech is the reason we are able to traverse a path at all and is the conduit of teaching and learning. Some traditional representations of awakened speech include sacred books or texts, inspiring poetry, rosaries or prayer beads (symbolizing the repetition of a set of empowering syllables called a mantra), bells, chimes, drums, and conch shells. Almost anything that makes a pleasant sound could be a representation of awakened speech. In the Tibetan Buddhist environment, even the alphabet (and every letter of the alphabet) is considered inherently sacred, because it is the vehicle of the communication of sound and meaning and is sometimes repeated during prayers to bless a person’s speech. These days, a representation of awakened speech could even be a CD.
For the representation of mind, the question to ask yourself is: What reminds me of the potential of my mind — my innermost wisdom-nature — to awaken? Although the wisdom-nature has no form, if you had to give it a form, what would you choose? The Buddhists traditionally use a stupa. You could choose whatever reminds you of your mind’s potential to awaken perfect love and wisdom. Some traditional Tibetan representations of the mind include a crystal, because mind refracts the light of truth as many colors; a mirror, because all sense appearances are reflected in the surface of awareness; a jewel or vajra, because the mind is indestructible; and a sword, as a symbol that a sage’s wisdom cuts through everything else. These are just a few. You should think about what kind of symbol works for you. You do not have to limit yourself to traditional images.
Lama Willa Miller has studied and practiced Tibetan Buddhism for the last twenty years, and is an authorized lama in that tradition. Lama Willa teaches Tibetan Buddhist practice and meditation in the Northeastern United States. She has an M.A. in Buddhist Studies from the University of Virginia, and is working towards a PhD at Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two dogs. Her book, from which this article is extracted, will be published in October, 2009. She’s on Twitter as @everydaydharma.