A shrine is a sacred place where one can be in touch with the spirit of a sage or holy being. In Buddhism, the term shrine is used both for large temples dedicated to a Buddha, bodhisattva or other holy being as well as to the smallest home altar or quiet place, and everything in between. Of course, as Buddhists, we like to dedicate our whole life, everything we do and everywhere we go to the Dharma, but this is an ideal and there is a lot of practical benefit in having special places and images that focus our attention at particular times. When we enter a holy spot, the influence of the place has a beneficial effect upon us. This direct influence bypasses intellectual ideas.
When Shakyamuni died his disciples missed him. When they met they continued to set out a seat for him. Some of the earliest Buddhist shrines are in the form of an empty chair or footprints cut in the rock. Later, people made statues and other images. When Buddha died his body was cremated and the ashes were divided and taken to different parts of India. Reliquaries were constructed. There is a very ancient human tradition going back to the stone age of making mounds or pyramids within which the relics of important people were entombed. These were places where one could go to show respect or worship the deceased. In the case of the Buddha, this gave rise to a developing style of architecture, becoming stupas in India, chorten in Tibet and, eventually, pagodas in the Far East.
However, one does not have to build a whole pagoda. Throughout history, Buddhists have created special places in which to remember the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. A niche in the wall of a house, a shelf on a bookcase, a wooden box or table top, a secluded place in the garden, any of these can serve as a site for a shrine. In many Buddhist houses there is some reminder of the Three Jewels in every room so that one is never far away from the spirit of the Buddhas.
What to Put on the Shrine
Normally a shrine has a centrepiece and this is often a figure of a Buddha, perhaps Amida. Sometimes a scroll is used instead of a statue. The other elements are then arranged in relation to this central figure. There may be additional figures. These might be Quan Shi Yin and Tai Shih Chi, or they might be other Buddhist figures, or they might be Jesus and Lao Tze. You can follow your intuition and choose what seems more meaningful to you. The shrine is a kind of mandala with the Buddha at the centre. It is also a representation of the Pure Land. Around every Buddha there appears a Pure Land or "field of sweetness". So you can add whatever conjures this idea for you.
Then, on the altar we also put offerings. In different traditions of Buddhism there are lists of suitable offerings. One useful principle is to think that the offerings are like the things that one would give to an important guest. In setting up the shrine we are inviting the Buddhas into our midst. When they come, we should be hospitable. Thus one can offer water (for drinking) and water (for washing), flowers, perfume or incense, something to represent music, light (usually candles), food (often fruit). The important thing is the spirit in which one makes the offering. A handful of sand offered in a devoted and generous spirit is more worthy than gold and silver offered in ignorance and bad faith.
What to Do at the Shrine
Approach the shrine in a reverential and humble way and allow its influence to envelop you and penetrate. We worship the Buddhas, but the quality of worship in Buddhism is a little different from in theistic religions. Buddha does not need our worship, he accepts us just as we are whether we worship him or not. Nor is it normal in Buddhism to beg the Buddhas to bend the laws of the universe to favour us and our interests. Rather, our devotion begins with bowing. Bowing expresses humility and gratitude. When we put our palms together, we are saying thank you for our good fortune in living in a world in which a Buddha has appeared and the Dharma has been made known.
Bowing, sitting quietly, receiving blessings, praying that the Dharma stay in the world and benefit beings everywhere, being aware of our shortcomings yet having a sense that nonetheless we are accepted and loved just as we are, making offerings, meditating upon the Dharma, offering whatever sentiment one is experiencing - all these are good ways to be in the presence of the Buddha shrine. If we make offerings, we might say a prayer to multiply the offering. This might be by asking Samantabhadra to come to our aid. We can then, as we offer one item, imagine that Samantabhadra comes and fills the whole sky with multiplications of our offering. In this way we may feel saturated with the spirit of generosity and feel grateful for goodness appearing in the world.
You can also put on or beside the shrine mementos of loved ones who have died. A Buddhist temple often has a specific ancestor shrine for this purpose, but, if you wish, you can put a photo or remembrance item. In the Far East when a person dies small stele is made that can be put on a home altar. A simple upright block of wood with the name written on it will serve. On special memorial days or anniversaries, the stele can be brought forward and given special attention. This kind of practice keeps our connection with the ancestors alive and allows us to grieve in a healthy and respectful way.
Visiting a Shrine
When you go to the temple, you are visiting a shrine. In Buddhist countries there are shrines all over the place. In Japan, for instance, there are many little shrines to Jizo Bosatsu in parks and at the side of the road. Jizo is a patron of travellers and also of mothers and especially of babies that have died. Mothers who have lost their baby or had an abortion come and put red clothe on the Jizo stutue and receive some solace from the figure of the bodhisattva and the knowledge that they are not alone ion their grief.
Most shrines and temples have particular forms of etiquette which you can easily pick up, but nobody will be offended if you don't know what to do or if your practice is different so long as your attitude is happy and respectful. Common norms are to remove shoes before entering, to prostrate when you enter and to bow when you pass in front of the altar. At an outdoor stupa - or even many indoor ones - it may be appropriate to circumambulate the altar or central figure in a clockwise direction. This is probably one of the oldest ways of showing respect and is often referred to in Buddhist texts. In Amida Shu we often circumambulate the Buddha chanting nembutsu.
Namo Amida Bu