Two Altars

In our home, Angie and I have two altars. One is where I perform Buddhist services and the other is where my wife practices traditional witchcraft.

Our practices address two realities or two truths. Generally, the Buddhist altar represents the transcendent nature of spirituality while the witchcraft altar represents the relative everyday nature of spirituality. I chant the names of buddhas and bodhisattvas while Angie makes offerings to the local spirits. Both of these activities are equally important.

Kukai, on of the greatest authorities on Shingon, planned the construction of the Mount Koya complex with these two realities in mind. Danjogaran, the large pagoda of the Koyasan Shingon tradition is nestled in the mountain with Sanno-do, an assembly hall dedicated to the Shinto Kami that protect the mountains. Though steeped in what is known as Esoteric Buddhism, Kukai, in his wisdom, saw the importance of acknowledging the realities of everyday life. Not only did he respect the Kami, but he would often leave the mountain to work on civil projects, such as the repair of a local reservoir and the creation of the first free School for Arts and Sciences for boys of poor families.

Buddhism has always had a practical side as well as a transcendent side. The Buddha gave advice on basic wise acts, such as the benefits of generosity. At the same time, he could lecture on increasingly abstract psychological concepts. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha describes Quan Yin’s ability to help protect people from worldly dangers as well as protect monastics from the dangers on the Path to awakening. In the Larger Pureland Sutra, the Buddha says that Amida’s Light can be a balm in this world just as the Pureland is a gateway to Buddhahood. Some needs are concrete while others are abstract and the wise prescribe medicine for both.

No matter how other-worldly one’s practice is, one’s situation is subject to the relative world. I must eat and sleep. I am affected by worldly systems, societies, and norms. Though all phenomena are empty, my conduct is still important. Though Sukhavati is bliss, I live in this world at the moment. Just as it’s a wholesome act to make offerings to the Tathagata, so too is it wise to make offerings to earthly spirits.

I am deeply grateful for my wife’s practice. In her way, she protects us with her offerings and plants seeds of generosity into the world. All in all, her offerings are a reminder for me to dedicate my practice to the unseen in my midst.

Namo Amida Bu

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