Establishing a Home Practice
While sitting once or twice a week with the Sangha is an excellent and necessary part of Zen practice, our spiritual work really requires a daily effort. Indeed, it is more important to sit every day, even if you can only devote ten minutes to that effort, than to sit for longer periods only occasionally.
To establish a stable home practice, it is good to designate a room or at least a corner of a room as a meditation space. Purchasing your own zabuton and zafu, as well as items for a small altar can help provide a physical and psychological space that encourage regular practice.
Any small table will serve for your altar. On it you should place a candle, a small vase of fresh flowers, a water cup, and an incense bowl with the sand, rice, or ash in which to burn sticks of incense. (If incense smoke bothers you, we suggest that you try one of the many varieties of “low smoke” or “smokeless” incense types. These can be used alone or in combination with incense warmers that heat, but do not burn, incense.) Finally, you should have an image of Buddha for your altar. (It is also acceptable to have an image of Manjusri Bodhisattva or Kanzeon Bodhisattva.)
Each of the items on your altar has symbolic value that will help you connect to your practice, deepening your sense of gratitude, reverence, generosity, compassion, and wisdom. The Buddha image reminds us of the awakening of wisdom. The candle, which is placed on the right (from the viewer’s perspective), represents the light of prajna, or wisdom. The fresh flowers, which are placed to the left of the Buddha, represent impermanence. The water cup, which should never be filled more than half-full of water, is a symbol of generosity and a gift to the Buddha, as well as the “hungry ghosts” who are said to hover about the things on an altar. These ghosts suffer with worldly “thirsts” they can never satisfy and help us remember that we ourselves hunger for the truth. The water cup is placed on a small stand directly in front of the Buddha image. Finally, the incense burner is placed in front of the water cup. The burning incense is a symbol of purity. You may also think of the incense as a symbol of the brevity of our lives—and therefore of the urgent need for practice.
Please note that, although we bow toward the Buddha image in the zendo (and you should do likewise at home), we are not “worshipping” the image; we are, rather, ritually enacting an expression of gratitude for the Buddha’s teaching and honoring the years he spent in teaching others to liberate themselves from suffering. Also, because each of us has Buddha-nature, our bows toward the Buddha image are bows made to ourselves. Treat the Buddha image with the same reverence that you would treat the actual Buddha, and the Buddha will then appear within you.
You needn’t buy expensive, large, ornate, or fancy things for your home altar. You will likely find that simply keeping your meditation room or area clean, orderly, and uncluttered will help support consistent and orderly practice.