Home altars

April 7, 2020

In these days of physical distancing, the Brooklyn Zen Center sangha, like spiritual communities around the world, has been practicing at home and through our online zendo. In our dwellings, whatever those may be, spaces for meditation and ritual are now even more cherished. Some of these have been set up for a long time now, others have sprouted in these new days of confinement — little corners to sit zazen, modest altars to offer incense, improvised zafus, tabletops with images of ancestors and tokens of nature. Negotiated spaces between book shelves, squares of room once overlooked, keepsakes now taking on new meanings. Flowers, for those who can get them. Or pictures of flowers, candles, images of the Buddha. Mostly in Brooklyn, but also across the country and around the world, these are some of the home altars of the Brooklyn Zen Center sangha.

Kristin Miscall (pronouns she/her), Roselle, NJ


Alexandra Gekas (pronouns she/her), Brooklyn, NY

Inzan Rose, Brooklyn, NY

Laura O’Loughlin, Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery, Millerton, NY

My home altar, with some of my ancestors.

Michelle Marwitz (pronouns she/her), Crown Heights/East New York , Brooklyn, NY

I am so grateful for our sangha and virtual zendo during this time! The support I am receiving from all of our virtual offerings is profound. My regular 20 minute morning sitting has grown to a daily practice of at least two 30 minute sits in the virtual zendo, participation in the streaming of the midday service from AHZM and often a little additional sitting, as well. I’ve also started writing a detailed schedule out for each day which I attempt to stick to fairly strictly, but with some increasing room for ease, compassion and flexibility. Included in my schedule are time for my usual gratitude journaling as well as some Zen study. This time is trying for so many different reasons, but the ways in which my home practice is growing are very precious.

Michael Blong (pronouns he/him or they/them), Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY

My home altar is quite familial and personal to me. The photographs on either side of Buddha are of my grandparents – my maternal grandparents on the left and my paternal grandparents on the right. The censer and candle holder are pottery my mother made, and the censer is filled with small granite and quartz stones from my parents’ back yard. This kind of stone is very typical of the foothills and mountains of Southern California where I grew up and to which I feel rooted. Nestled in front of the Buddha is a small ceramic statuette of a cat-person seated in zazen, which is deeply tied to a dear friend – one of my first outside of family – who had profound effect on my life and practice, and who passed a couple of years back.

Bowing each day to this altar and what it represents – my ancestry, my family, my roots, and the Buddha-held dharma that unfolds through all of them – is a grounding practice, and a healing one. It connects me to a contextualized, historical, and full self. It helps me to remember who I am and where I came from in the midst of this capitalistic, white supremacist, patriarchal cultural context that asks me to cut off from those things. By bowing to this altar and offering incense each day, I am more intimately connected with the vast present by recognizing that it is not separate from my past.

Shokuchi Deirdre Carrigan (pronouns she/her), Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY

The main altar in my home is the altar that expresses my aspiration to practice the Buddha Way, and represents for me the three treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha..

The Bodhisattva of compassion is represented by the photograph of an 11th century Chinese sculpture, Water-Moon Guanyin in the asana (meditation seat) of royal ease. This is a depiction of compassion, meditating and at the same time ready to respond to the cries of the world.

The statue on the altar represents Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of practice and meditation. Together with Gautama Buddha and his fellow bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, he forms the Shakyamuni trinity in Buddhism. He is the patron of the Lotus Sutra and, according to the Avatamsaka Sutra, made the ten great vows which are the basis of a bodhisattva. He sits upon a white elephant with six tusks. The ten great vows of Samantabhadra given in the Avatamsaka Sutra are:

  1. To pay homageand respect to all Buddhas.
  2. To praise the Thus Come One-Tathagata.
  3. To make abundant offerings. (e.g. give generously)
  4. To repent misdeeds and evilkarmas.
  5. To rejoice in others’ merits and virtues.
  6. To request the Buddhas to continue teaching
  7. To request the Buddhas to remain in the world.
  8. To follow the teachings of the Buddhas at all times.
  9. To accommodate and benefit all living beings
  10. To transfer all merits and virtues to benefit all beings.

The picture of the lotus with the quote from The Lotus Sutra is from my time as Shuso, when the Green Gulch practice period studied The Lotus Sutra. This short verse for me expresses my aspiration in becoming one who offers Dharma teaching.

On either side of Samantabhadra are photos of me with my beloved teachers, Donald Moyer on the left (at his retirement party) and Tenshin Reb Anderson on the right (after my Shuso ceremony-photographer Ren Bunce.) The great gift of these teachers to me, in addition to their wisdom and compassion, is sangha—the sangha of yogis, the sangha of zen practitioners, and the sangha of Yoga and Zen retreat practitioners, who support my practice every moment.

Bobi, Bed Stuy, Brooklyn

Nick (pronouns he/him/his), Bed Stuy, Brooklyn

I offer incense every morning to my ancestors and invite them to sit with me. All the artwork is my grandmother’s. She was my favorite person, a wonderful folk artist, my original teacher. She loved to sculpt her own ancestors. The one pictured is her father, her meditation on the fruit of many lives. She grew up in the depression, her warm feet and hands radiators in a bed shared with six siblings. I loved her onion soup, holding her hands, and watching her draw. A Ukrainian American Jewish woman who bore witness to the holocaust. The mundane joy that hangs still in her art guides me to remain upright and light and creative as an amaryllis, to be in life, to bear the unbearable.

Maya (pronouns she/her
), Brooklyn, NY

Mimi (pronouns she/they), Crown Heights, Brooklyn

My quasi home altar. I offered a peanut butter cup to the Buddha for the duration of the self-quarantine.

Bianca Ozeri, Sunnyside, Queens

All the way on the right is a photo of my ancestors—my great-great grandfather and my great grandparents.

Camille, Kensington, Brooklyn

A basic altar I use for my daily zazen. A folding table the Zen Center gave away when the Shissui cleared out the storage closet, a (once) large lavender candle, a teeny tiny buddha a sangha buddy gave me from their travel to India, a stub of incense (what’s left after 75 mins of sitting), a sprig of flowers. This Quarantine Practice Period has convinced me to get a ‘real’ (larger-sized) buddha for my altar.

Andrew, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, NY

Adriane (pronouns she/her), near West Side Highway, NYC

Ninso & Andrea, Park Slope, Brooklyn

Yoko Ohashi (pronouns she/her), Clinton Hill, Brooklyn

Bin Jung (pronouns she/her), Seattle, Washington

The altar is located in my attic, which I’ve made into a little zendo. I have a sun lamp for the winter mornings when there’s little light, but I’m using it less now that the days are longer. Yesterday I saw that a bird has made a nest in the rafters outside the window — spring has sprung!

Jeff (pronouns he/him/his), San Antonio, TX

I moved temporarily into my sister’s apartment in Texas to be near my family, and packed this image of the 11-faced Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. I’ve now transformed some military footlockers and unused beach towels into a temporary altar for my stay. She is my refuge in this time of trouble.