How to Set Up a Tantric Altar

Buddhist tantric altar

As a Buddhist, having a personal shrine in one’s home is very beneficial and important. Many westerners perceive making offerings and having a shrine as more to do with tradition than something that is practically connected with their meditation path. In order for us to have the motivation to do something, we need to know why we’re doing it. Padmasambhava himself said to Yeshe Tsogyal that if one doesn’t make offerings to the Three Jewels every day that their refuge vows will deteriorate. One should examine why that would be the case. We need reminders every day to keep us on track. 


A shrine should inspire, remind, and motivate us to practice. It is a focal point to aid in our mind training. When we walk into a shrine room we should feel “wow this is really beautiful and inspiring, it makes me want to practice!”


When we see the images of the Buddha and other enlightened deities we are reminded of their qualities and aspire to be like them. When we see our sacred spiritual items on the shrine, we are reminded to practice. If we don’t have those reminders, then our crazy monkey minds take over and we don’t make progress! 


We as westerners are programmed to want instant gratification and are programmed to be lazy, especially these days. We most likely want to scroll on social media more than do something which requires the slightest effort. We have to work hard to change our bad habits, and making offerings and keeping a shrine is one great way to change those habits. 


We want to achieve enlightenment don’t we? In order for us to achieve the state of Liberation or Nirvana – we need to accumulate merit and wisdom. Making the outer and inner offerings is one excellent way to accumulate merit and wisdom. 


Outer Offerings

First of all, what are the outer offerings and what do they symbolize? The outer offerings are based on ancient Indian tradition of making offerings to an important guest that has just arrived for a visit. 


Image from Rigpa Wiki

Argham – Water for drinking: The first offering is water for drinking and similar to how water quenches our thirst, it symbolizes studying the dharma. We all want happiness and thirst for the knowledge to bring us to that happiness and peace. This quenches ours and all beings thirst through the dharma teachings. 


Padyam – Water for washing: The second offering is water for washing and symbolizes washing away the three poisons (anger, attachment and ignorance) and washing away our bad habits. It washes away all the afflictions and obscurations of ourselves and all beings. 


Pushpe – Flowers: The third offering is flowers and symbolizes wisdom and compassion. The Buddha had a well known teaching on how a lotus grows from a muddy pond and likened it to how our mind’s current state is impure but has the potential to blossom into buddhahood. We think that by offering flowers, our minds and the minds of all beings blossom into the awakened state. 


Dhupe – Incense: The fourth offering is incense and symbolizes virtue and discipline. Think about someone who is a criminal or does a lot of bad things – no one wants to be around them right? Then think of someone who does a lot of virtuous and moral things – they sure seem a lot more attractive don’t they? H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama has commented that because he has a lot of love and compassion, people naturally smile when they’re in his presence and are inspired to be kind and peaceful like him. It’s like virtuous people have a good smell that attracts others and bad people have a stink that no one likes. When we offer incense, we think that ourselves and all beings perform virtuous actions that attract good circumstances. 


Aloke – Light: The fifth offering is light or candles and this symbolizes wisdom that dispels the darkness of ignorance of ourselves and all beings through the realization of the ultimate state (of Buddhahood). 


Ghande – perfumed water: The sixth offering is perfumed or scented water and symbolizes faith. Faith is something I’ve seen a lot of westerners struggle with these days. The kind of faith that is required in Buddhism isn’t blind faith but faith that is based on gaining trust and logic. Similar to when you need to “freshen up” by going to the bathroom and putting on some eau de toilette or perfume, having faith in the dharma and our practice gives us the fresh energy and motivation to continue on the path to enlightenment. We think that we will grow our faith in the dharma so that the motivation and energy to practice never declines and that we lead all sentient beings to that same state! 


Nevidye – food: The seventh offering is offering of a Zhalsey torma or food and this symbolizes the samadhi of meditation. Samadhi means a state of mental concentration and when we have this samadhi, we can accomplish anything we put our minds to. When we offer this we are reminded to continue to develop perfect concentration and meditation. Like what Khachab Rinpoche has reminded us time and again “When the Buddha said ‘gate gate parasam gate bodhi svaha’, it means we should keep going… To keep progressing on the path”. We shouldn’t let our practice go the opposite direction and actually let our three poisons get worse than when we first started practicing Buddhism. We know our practice is progressing because we have less anger, less attachment, and less ignorance. 


Shabda – music / praise: The eighth offering is the offering of sound or praise. We praise the Buddha and enlightened beings because we recognize that they are just that. If we have such a coarse ego that we actually think we don’t need to praise them, in reality it is like we are thinking that we are better than them and we don’t need them. When we bow with folded hands and surrender our ego, praising them for their qualities and offering music that is pleasing to the senses, we recognize what a remarkable achievement they have and we dedicate thinking that we will reach that same level for the sake of all beings just like they did. 


Those are the eight outer offerings and relate to the philosophical view of sutra or the “causal vehicle”. Here we are making these offerings that please the senses and accumulating merit. Merit is akin to a snowball effect – and is a kind of spiritual momentum. Next, if we have a tantric practice, we need to make the inner tantric offerings which have the effect of accumulating wisdom. 


In order to understand the difference here we need to know that the outer offerings are part of the view of sutra because they are antidotes. The inner offerings are based on the view of Vajrayana which is the resultant vehicle whereby we work with things which we perceive to be impure because of our own ignorance and we transform them based on the view of emptiness into something pure. 


We are Buddhas and our homes and everything in it are already naturally pure by being empty of inherent existence, but because of our habitual and dualistic concepts and tendencies we don’t perceive them that way. It’s not that we transform them using some sort of magical alchemical process like turning lead into gold, what we’re talking about here is working with and transforming our mind. 


The inner tantric offerings start off as something we normally perceive as bad, such as alcohol and blood, meat, those types of things. We recognize that their composition is the five elements and the nature of those five elements are actually the five buddha families and five wisdoms. Everything in tantra is workable, and we start right where we are – with our perception of it. 


Inner Offerings

The inner offerings are placed on the shrine slightly above or behind the outer offerings and are placed in two small metal kapalas on either side of a deity torma (we’ll get into more details later).


Image source from Ann Arbor Karma Thegsum Choling

Amrita (tibetan: men) – medicine / nectar: This symbolizes method and corresponds to the right, masculine energy channel in one’s body (white in color) as well as the white Bindu or Thigle. It also corresponds to the transformation of anger into clarity. It is an offering to the 48 peaceful deities of the body. This is offered as some alcohol and a small amount of men-dzey substance in the small kapala on the left side of the torma (our left). There are many other meanings we could elaborate on but keeping this condensed and brief as possible.


Rakta – blood: Blood here symbolizes wisdom and corresponds to the left, feminine energy channel in one’s body (red in color) as well as the red Bindu or Thigle. This also symbolizes the transformation of desire-attachment into bliss. It is an offering to the 52 wrathful deities of the body. This is offered as a small amount of tea or red wine with a pinch of rakta substance in it on the right side of the torma (our right). 


Torma: The type of torma here is the deity torma, or 100 deity torma (Lha Gya Tor Chig or 100 deities in one torma). You can also use a men-tor. It symbolizes the transformation of ignorance into the ultimate non-dual state. It corresponds to the central blue wisdom channel and the body of the deity. It’s taught that when we are conceived there’s a white bindu from our father that merges with a red bindu from our mother and when they come together it forms a samsaric and contaminated body. What we have here as the inner offering is symbolic for how when we bring the white and red bindus together in the context of the completion stage of the Vajrayana deity practice, it gives birth to the non-dual illusory body of the deity, thereby transforming our ordinary body into something pure. 


That was a brief explanation of the meaning behind the outer and inner offerings. Next, how do we actually practice this on a daily basis in our busy lives? 


Shrine Placement

The shrine should be on a table or bookshelf with the surface at least slightly higher than your waist or higher than your eye level when sitting on the floor. It’s best to have a shrine in a separate room, but if you can’t do that then find a respectful area in your home where you won’t be too distracted. If you have to put it in your bedroom (not the best), then at least put it near the head of your bed and not at the foot of the bed since it’s disrespectful to point one’s feet at the objects of refuge.

Since we are discussing a tantric shrine, it’s best to have a multi-tiered design on the table but you could also place the offerings all on one flat surface if that’s not possible. 


In the first row (closest to front of the table) you place the eight outer offerings as metal bowls. Metal bowls are the best because the texts say that it should be a precious metal such as copper, gold, silver, or brass, but you can also use glass or crystal if that’s what you have. 


In the next row behind and preferably on a slightly higher tier, you place the inner offerings which are from left to right: amrita, torma, and rakta. The amrita and rakta are in small metal kapalas and contain alcohol and the actual substances. The substances and hundred deity torma or deity tormas can also be purchased either at a dharma shop or in Nepal or India. The deity torma should also be filled with the appropriate mantras and consecrated. You can reach out to Rinpoche or a senior student for more details on that. 


On the last tier above the inner offerings you can place statues of deities as well as pictures of gurus.  Behind the altar you can place a thankga or image of deities hung on the wall. 


Making the Offerings 

Offerings should be done in the morning before breakfast. After waking up, taking a shower, doing some exercise, whatever you need to do, go to the shrine with pure, fresh water and offerings. 


There are two options for the outer offerings – you can either use only water in the bowls while thinking about the meaning that was described in this article or you can offer the more elaborate version. In the version where you only offer water, you can place the candle or butter lamp in between the fourth and fifth bowl. In the more elaborate offering, the first two bowls are water, followed by a bowl filled with some rice or water and flower petals or Tsampaka seed pods fashioned to a stick. You can also use a permanent flower torma. The next bowl is filled with rice and an incense torma or some incense sticks stuck in the rice. Followed by the candle or butter lamp. The fragrant water can just be water or it can be water with a little essential oil or saffron in it. The food is ideally a Zhalse torma or you can also use an apple or nuts. The last offering is omitted on being on the altar in the Nyingma tradition, but in the Kagyu tradition the bowl can be filled with rice and you can place some small cymbals on it, a conch, or just rice since the actual offering is done by making a sound with the snapping of fingers or ringing of a bell. As for most of the offerings, both outer and inner, apart from the water bowls, they only need to be refreshed once in a great while. 


The offering bowls should be face down as you start the process and you can use a clean cloth to wipe each bowl clean before setting them upright in a straight line to fill with water. Fill the bowls from left to right. Tradition varies on how far apart the bowls should be, usually it’s said they should be about a width of grain apart, but when Khachab Rinpoche first showed me how to make water bowl offerings he had spaced them apart quite a bit. He told me that when he was in the monastery the main thing he had to make sure of was that the water bowls were very straight and his teacher would check to make sure of it with a ruler and if they weren’t straight – WHACK! His teacher would strike him with that same ruler! So it definitely needs to be straight and the presentation should all be done with care and mindfulness, trying not to spill anything. Keep everything clean and dust free. Fill the water bowls up to about a width of grain from the edge – do not overflow the water bowls and don’t underfill them. 


The inner offerings have alcohol and a pinch of offering substance in each respective kapala. When setting up the shrine the first time, you put a little whiskey or brandy in the amrita kapala on the left of the torma with a small amount of men (a special medicinal substance that is prepared by lineage masters and Tibetan doctors – this is not to be confused with mendrub, which is created during rituals called Drupchens. That substance is added to our small kapala on our puja table and in the large kapala during tsok feast offering. Men is composed of 8 root medicinal herbs and a thousand branch herbs and it is only added to the small kapala for the inner offering). The kapala on the right of the torma can be filled with either tea or whiskey and a small pinch of rakta substance (which is also made by masters or Doctors). Each day the alcohol evaporates a little bit and you can top it off with some more whiskey or tea depending on which one it is. You don’t need to completely replace the men and rakta very often, you just keep topping it off when needed. You can keep special men and rak spoons next to the kapalas which are used for sprinkling tormas during certain practices. The spoons should not be mixed up. The kapalas have little lids on them, which you take off only at the time of offering or when topping them off with more liquid.

The next thing on your shrine you can have is a serkyem – which is a sort of metal cup on top of a dish. Serkyem literally means “premier golden beverage”. The Serkyem is used for certain practices such as Dharma protector offerings. Khachab Rinpoche says that offering serkyem is a suitable substitute for the offering of a torma when you don’t know how to make offering tormas or don’t have time (not to be confused with the deity torma on the shrine). Tibetans drink tea that is somewhat weak and golden in color, hence the name golden beverage. Nowadays we use whatever black tea we have, served  a special tea pot that pours easily or you can also use alcohol such as whiskey. We pour the beverage so that it overflows and then you sprinkle a few pinches of some grain like rice on top. At the end of the puja, you take the serkyem outside and toss it into the sky, imagining that the dharma protectors are performing enlightened activities that you requested of them. When not in use, keep the serkyem clean and place it on its side, never empty while standing up. You can also use a small plate of cookies along with the offering of serkyem. When taking the cookies outside, do not throw them on the ground, but place them in a place such as the arm of a chair or a table or railing, a tree, etc. 


You will also need a Bhumpa for sprinkling all these offerings, but if you don’t have one then you can use a small pitcher of water with a twig or some grass for sprinkling. When everything is set up and you’re ready to offer, you sprinkle all the offerings and recite RAM YAM KHAM, which means you’re cleaning all impurities of the offerings with fire, air, and water. Then you say OM AH HUNG which means it’s all transformed into wisdom nectar. Then offer all of it together, both the outer and inner offerings with: 


OM argham, padyam, pushpe, dhupe, aloke, ghande, nevidye, shabda soha maha pancha amrita rakta balingta kha kha khahi 


Then offer at least three prostrations in front of the shrine and objects of refuge, and dedicate. After that you can start your morning practice of ngondro, etc. 


At the end of the day, Rinpoche says after around 4 or 5 PM, you take the water bowls down from right to left (opposite direction than when filling them in the morning). Wipe each bowl of residual water with the special, clean cloth, then fold it neatly and set aside. Pour the contents into a special container and you can offer the water to plants in your home or pour outside on the grass or somewhere clean. Don’t throw away the water down the sink or in the toilet, that’s disrespectful since they were offerings. Altogether the offerings in the morning only take a few minutes of time but have tremendous benefit for our practice. 


I hope this is helpful! For more details I highly recommend this teaching from Khandro Kunzang – student of Lama Dawa Rinpoche. The instructions are based on the Nyingma lineage, specifically the Dudjom Tersar, which Khachab Rinpoche received from Dudjom Rinpoche when he was young. 


For offering substances I usually use Potala Gate and they also have other dharma ritual items such as the offering bowls, kapalas, etc. It’s also run by a very nice Nyingma Lama in Oregon. 


If interested in purchasing a permanent men-tor, you can reach out to this American torma artist and he’ll make a custom one for you. He can also make other deity tormas upon request: