Daoism teaches that the Dao manifests itself across six different realms, the heaven, spirit, human, animal, earthly, and ghost realms. An altar is a place to connect with the spirit realm and strengthen your own spiritual nature. Here are the 5 steps to building an altar in your home:
- Find a suitable location
When building an inside altar, you need to find a location in your house that feels important. From what I have seen, many houses in America have fireplaces or televisions in important locations. However, you don’t want to build your altar on top of a fireplace mantle, since the spirits may not like the added heat. A living room, library, or office space is best (no bathroom or bedroom altars)! If possible, you can invite a Daoist priest or feng shui consultant to help you choose the best spot.
- Pick a spirit to honor
Bowing to a statue may seem strange to you, but Daoists see everything in creation, including the deities, as just different manifestations of the Dao. The Daoist devotional practices, for me, are just another way of showing respect for the unfathomable mystery of the Dao. Statues of different immortals and deities can be found at Daoist temples, online, or in some Chinatown shops. The spirits all have different personalities and will influence the energy in your house in different ways, so it is important to choose a spirit as carefully as you would choose a new roommate. You may want to do some research to find one you connect to on a personal level. Here are some suggestions:
Guan Gong （关公）
Guan Gong was an ancient Chinese general. He and his blood brothers fought to restore the Han Dynasty. He represents loyalty, integrity, and bravery. Some statues (often found in police stations in China) depict his martial side, with a saber in hand. Other statues depict his literary side, with him sitting and reading
Wen Chang （文昌）
Wen Chang is the god of culture, education, and literature. He is the patron god of writers, academics, and students. Students in China often visit temples to pray to Wen Chang before important exams. Many people visit on his birthday to read him poetry. Love to read? He’s your guy!
Guan Yin （观音）
Strictly speaking, Guan Yin (or Kwan Yin), is a Buddhist deity, but her image can be found in many Daoist temples. Guan Yin represents compassion and mercy. She will bring peace and comfort to your house.
San Qing （三清）
The San Qing “Three Pure Ones” are the highest ranking Daoist gods. The first is the Jade Pure One (元始天尊) who is the source of all light and truth. The second is the Supreme Pure One (灵宝天尊) who regulates yin and yang. The third is the Great Pure One (道德天尊) who is the deified form of Laozi who wrote the Dao De Jing.
- Arrange your altar
Find a good quality shelf or table. If there is limited space, you can buy an altar cabinet that hangs on the wall. The altar should be in good condition and clean. I like to lay a decorative cloth over the altar. Your statue should go in the center of the altar, towards the back. It should be higher than everything else, so you need to find a stand to raise it up. Place three small cups or bowls of water. In front of the statue, add an incense burner filled about half way with uncooked rice. You can lay your incense next to the burner along with a lighter or matches. Place a flower vase and candle on each of the two sides.
- Dedicating the altar
Daoist temples have a special ritual used to “awaken” a statue by inviting the deity or immortal to inhabit it. Across China, people bring their statues to the temple for this ritual. Without access to a temple or priest, approaching the spirits yourself, with a pure intention and a sincere heart. Here’s one way to begin using your altar:
First, buy three kinds of fruit. Bananas, grapes, apples, or peaches are all good. In China, we don’t use pears, since “pear” in Chinese sounds like the name of a certain deity and could cause confusion. If you can, buy five of each kind to symbolize the five elements. Place these in three bowls on your altar. If there is not enough space, just buy as many as you can fit without crowding your statue. While you are out shopping, pick up some flowers. Any type of flower that looks beautiful to you is OK, as long as it is not white. White symbolizes death in China, and white flowers are only offered to the dead. It is not necessary to make offerings of fruit and flowers every time you use your altar, but you should at least do so on the 1st and 15th day of each lunar month. You can also research your deity’s birthday and make offerings on that day as well. After three days it is alright to remove and eat the fruit, leave it out for animals, or use it for compost. Some places in China that honor totemic spirits such as the tiger, porcupine, or weasel spirit make offerings of meat and alcohol as well.
Once you have everything you need, pick a time you will not be interrupted, and purify yourself. Take a shower and put on clean and respectful clothing. Put the fruit and flowers on the altar. Pour clean water into the small bowls. Use a lighter or match to light the candles. Light three sticks of incense from the candle. Don’t extinguish the incense or candle by blowing on it. It is more respectful to fan it out with your hand. Place the incense into the burner, first to the middle then the left, then the right. Men typically use the left hand (symbolizing Yang) and women use the right hand (symbolizing Yin). At this point, you can invite the spirit into the statue, and into your life. It is also all right to let the spirit know any hopes and wishes you may have.
Bowing is a way to show respect. This is how we bow in Daoist temples:
- Back up three steps and calm your heart.
- Make the Daoist mudra with your hands
- Kneel down (we use a mat to kneel on) tapping your head down to the mat three times three times
- Stand up and make the mudra
This is repeated three times, for a total of 9 bows. Finally, stand up and step back a few steps before turning away from your altar.
You should change the water on the altar every morning, and make incense offerings every morning and evening. This may seem like a lot of work to you, but remember, self-discipline is an important part of every spiritual practice. By building a home altar, you are giving the sacred a special place in your life.