Create a Sacred Space & Make OfferingsJun 29, 2021
Sitting cross-legged in an upright meditation posture facing an altar, I take refuge in the Three Jewels in Pali and then Tibetan. My voice is overshadowed by an unfamiliar sound on a loudspeaker – the call to prayer beckoning the Islamic devotees to the mosque. A reminder that I am no longer in America and that having a sacred space for prayer and ritual is not only the first step of the lam rim, but is common across spiritual traditions. Having recently had the opportunity to witness Muslims praying in the Hagia Sophia, I recall the beautiful synchrony of their prostrations. Setting up an altar and making offerings is the second step on the gradual path to awakening.
Seventeen days ago, I moved out of the studio apartment in New York City that had been my home for a decade. The belongings that weren’t thrown or given away were packed and moved into a storage unit. I had to select a small number of items that could fit into a backpack and accompany me during a nomadic journey around the world. My brother and I joked that I was downsizing into a much smaller house. The plan was to pack as light as possible, while keeping in mind the intention to deepen my meditation practice during my travels. This meant being able to create a sacred space, set up an altar, and make offerings everywhere I would stay over the next year. I packed a picture of Green Tara to use as a representation of awakened body, several small items with sentimental value to use as representations of awakened mind, a set of water bowls and incense to make offerings, and an energetically charged mala for mantra recitation. My dear friend had a copy of Geshe Rabten’s The Essential Nectar: Meditations on the Buddhist Path waiting for me in Turkey, which I planned to use as a representation of awakened speech.
When I arrived in Istanbul, my friend showed me to my room, which was already equipped with a meditation altar. I left most of the items she had on there and added a few of my own. Several days into the sojourn, her husband hand-picked a colorful array of roses and lavender from the garden, which he carefully arranged into four vases. He handed me one and said, “For your altar”. An altar is meant to be beautiful for the benefit of your own mind. I loved the way this one reminded me of the generosity and thoughtfulness of my friends. How fortunate I was to be a guest in their home (this is an understatement – they have been incredible hosts!).
Create a sacred space for practice and set up an altar – make offerings and do prostrations – are the first two steps on the lam rim. They are the first two of Six Preliminaries, which are activities that prepare the mind to realize the Three Principles of the Path (renunciation, compassion, and emptiness).
Just before I sat for meditation, the room was cleaned by my friend’s housekeeper who is like a nirmanakaya dakini. She is a virtuous, hard-working, religious woman who exhibits patience, generosity, and kindness. Admittedly, I do not know what she was thinking about while she cleaned the room, but based on my observations of her, I believe she did so with reverence and love. I had the sense that her contribution was ideal in preparing a sacred space.
What makes a space sacred? According to the teachings on emptiness, no space is inherently sacred. And yet, some places seem imbued with a magnetic spiritual force. Certain landscapes for example – natural wonders that delight the senses. One could easily understand the reason for abundant churches and monasteries in the volcanic rock caves of Cappadocia, which are charged with a mystical resonance. The intention and energy brought to an area also matter. There is a synergy between the place and the attitude of the people that visit. When pilgrims practice at a sacred site, the effects are amplified by the merit of all the people that came before. Their virtuous efforts will enhance the energetic field, benefiting future travellers. This interconnectivity deepens a locale’s sanctity.
On a smaller scale, setting up a specialized area in one’s home for meditation provides several benefits. I worried that by leaving the sacred space I had created in my apartment, it would be difficult to maintain my practice. Without a dedicated spot, would I continue to meditate with as much consistency? Could I live up to the challenge of creating a sacred space in every location I visit - cleaning it, making it beautiful, setting up an altar, making offerings?
Returning my attention to the practice, I make offerings to the Buddha. Inspired by the kindness I have received since arriving in Turkey, I try to embody the same depth of generosity and delight my friends exhibit when sharing with me. Can I give as freely and with as much love? Remembering what Lynn Bell said last week – “allow the gifts that are coming in”, I practice receptivity, receiving their thoughtfulness and care. I allow this energy to open my heart. Feeling safe enough to surrender, I let go of my desire to control. The less I try to control, the more life leads me where I need to be – all I need to do is listen.
Erica Saccente After 15 years in NYC, Erica decided to pursue a lifelong dream to live abroad. Letting go of the fear of disappointing others, she is following the call of her own heart. As she continues to work remotely as a contemplative psychiatric nurse practitioner, she will practice the art of surrender - having trust, listening to her intuition, and embracing a path of uncertainty. She will express her reflections of the Lam Rim through her love of writing and photography. Join her on the journey!
On Instagram: @butterflyez