What's on my altar?
Happy Songkran 2020!
Thailand is postponing this year's Songkran celebrations, but they would have been this week. Traditionally, Songkran was the Thai New Year, although now it's more a national holiday of renewal and cleansing. If you look it up online, you will see lots of pictures of water guns and chaos, but I celebrate it by cleansing and refreshing my altar.
While I was busy cleaning, I thought some of you might wonder about the things you see on it.
My altar grew up by itself, piece by piece, and it's not completely "correct" as far as its contents and representation. I'm sure it will continue to evolve as my practice does.
Th primary element of my altar is the Buddha statue. I bought this one at a woodcarver's stall at a market in Mae Song Hon in northern Thailand, the first time I visited. He just sat among many others like him, all just a tiny bit different. I liked his little grin, and Matt encouraged me to buy him.
He is decorated in artificial flower garlands that I bought on later trips to Thailand and India.
I use a natural beeswax candle on my altar because it doesn't bother my allergies or those of my clients. It burns in a long blue ceramic olive tray that I bought on a motorcycle trip through Montana. It was one of my earliest cross-USA road trips and I saw a sign for a pottery and stopped in.
Candles represent the Fire element in traditional Thai medicine.
Usually an altar would also have incense here, to represent Wind. However, I'm very allergic to incense, so I do not. I do not have a specific representative for Wind, therefore, but Wind is movement, and there's plenty of that in the room! Also our old house has old windows, so if you've had a massage here on a windy day, you know you can hear the wind rattling them in their frames and whirling around in the little space outside.
Beside him sits a little pot of fake water lilies that I bought on another trip in Bangkok airport. I just think they're pretty, and like many things here, they remind me of Thailand.
Inside the ceramic dish is a rock decorated with a motif that I bought from an artist, John, in Chiang Mai. He collects rocks from his home village in the mountains, paints them, and sells them in his gallery in Chiang Mai. It's a wonderful gallery that is so eccentric I smile every time I even pass by it!
One time when I was visiting, he also gave me one of his smaller art prints, which is also on my altar because it seems to sum up so much about the things that hold meaning for all of us.
Food is the traditional representation of Earth element on this kind of altar, but this is also my living room and I don't want to draw pests or tempt my cats. For me, the rock from John in Chiang Mai and various precious stones have become my symbols for Earth, along with the sandstone tray they rest on. All of the stones were gifts or intended as gifts that were never collected.
The rosary was given to me by my grandparents when I celebrated my First Communion as a child. I was raised Catholic, and this rosary seems natural on my altar, a way of paying respect to my culture and upbringing even if I've long stepped away from that faith. It is also a memory of my grandparents, and one's own family and history are part of the respect we pay to our teachers when we perform the wai khru (literally "respect to teachers," this is a chant that I perform on all working days and occasionally other times that suit me).
The little elephant was a gift when I was a teenager from a close family friend. I don't have a statue of Ganesha, because I keep gifting them away, but I like to think this little statue can stand in when the wai khru I'm performing pays respect to him as well.
The little mandala was a gift from a friend some years back, and when I found it in an old box I thought it belonged here.
Flowers traditionally represent the element of Space in Thai element theory. I have also heard it said that observing their decay is a reminder of impermanence. The water in their vase naturally represents Water, and I refresh it daily and pour the old water into a houseplant.
Most practitioners of Thai massage have a statue or picture of Doctor Jivaka on their altar, and I recently received mine from a teacher. Jivaka is credited as the father of Thai medicine and the doctor of the Buddha, although there is no evidence that he ever set foot in the area that became Thailand. Regardless, he is considered an important figure when paying respect to the lineage of teachers, and the stories are great.
I also have a little Buddha in Repose statue. He was practically forced on me by a motivated saleswoman when I visited a temple in northern Thailand. There are 8 poses of Buddha statues, one for each day of the week (2 for Wednesday). I was born on a Tuesday, and Tuesday's Buddha is the Buddha in Repose.
Finally, above my altar hangs a little bell like you will find in temples all over Asia (or at least everywhere I've been). They usually have things written on the bottom, for luck and wishes. My last trip to Thailand was in 2016, and I visited the temple on Doi Suthep outside Chiang Mai as usual. That time I bought a bell from one of the stalls outside, but instead of hanging it in the temple, I brought it home. Retrospectively, I'd like to add a bell for all my previous visits as well, and new ones for visits to come. Perhaps to other temples.
And on that note, my friends, I wish you a beautiful year. I know it's not the Spring we were expecting, but it has lovely moments of its own among all the upheaval and sadness. I hope you find your own, and I hope to see you in person soon!