By Brent Oliver
This may not come as a surprise, but I don’t care much about altars.
I’m not much of a devotional sort of guy, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the sentiment and style.
In fact, I have my own sort-of shrine at home. It’s nothing elaborate or traditional. I don’t offer food or water and I seldom light candles or incense. I also don’t have any portraits of Buddhist teachers, mainly because they keep getting busted for sexual misconduct and financial deception.
I don’t look up to people anymore; I just look up.
My altar is a playful space where everyone can relax and be themselves. It’s lit up like a Broadway show because the Buddha is a bloody superstar. Every item means something to me, although they don’t all pertain to Buddhism, meditation, or spirituality. Some of them are just cool, personal things I like having up there. Many of them are from the various adventures my wife and I have had.
The statue was hand carved in Thailand and was discounted at a local store because it’s damaged. The back of Buddha’s head is scuffed and battered, which apparently deterred other shoppers and yet proved endearing to me. Around his neck is a mala that a friend brought me back from her vacation.
The meditating skeleton on the left was given to me by another friend and it’s punk as hell. The dish in front of the skeleton was made by an artisan in Alaska. The stuff in it is from all over: Rocks from the slopes of Mt. Etna, a beach in Icy Straight Point, AK, the shores of the Caribbean, pink quartz donated by a student and a pinecone from the grounds of the Zen monastery where I did my first Buddhist retreat.
The crystal ball underneath Buddha was made in Nepal and reminds me that the mind’s natural state is supposedly clear and perfect. I have my doubts some days. The cup in front was crafted by a Tucson artist and is painted in various shades of purple, my signature color.
To the right is an obsidian and jade dagger, and next to that is a sugar skull with a Mohawk. I picked them up in Mexico at a funky little gift shop next to the Mayan ruins of Chacchoben.
Behind the skull is small ceramic bowl made by a Kentucky craftsman decades ago. He gave it to a friend of his who became a regular bar customer of mine. When she died, my wife bought it at her estate sale.
And, above it all, the pièce de résistance: a sign that reads “Get Your Own Ass to Enlightenment, Posthaste.” I was sitting around my neighborhood bar with my wife and a dear pal, boring everyone with the Theravada view on awakening. At some point I uttered that phrase. My buddy works at a printing company, so he made the sign, framed it, and presented it to me with no small ceremony. It’s one of my favorite things in the world.
My altar essentially functions as a reminder of events, people, and places I love. When I see it, my mind and body make a subtle shift into practice mode. Sort of like walking into the gym can make you a bit more ready to work out.
Do you have an altar you would like to share for our “Little Altars Everywhere” Project?
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