This past Thanksgiving my father let me borrow his wooden travel altar. In a lot of respects, this altar isn’t very unique. It’s a generic Pure Land altar. On the outside is written 佛光普照 ([Amitabha] Buddha’s light is all-illuminating) and 普度眾生 (universal salvation).
(At first, I thought the second line had a misspelling — you more often see 普渡眾生 — but apparently both spellings are okay. If you happen to be a Chinese speaker and can think of a better translation for this line, please let me know!)
The cool aspect is that this altar was designed for travel. Not only does it fold shut, it also locks itself without any sort of fastening device. At first I wasn’t able to open at all. I was about to pry it open with a knife, when my father snatched it from me. To open it, you have to press down on the top and tilt it to the side. The box then swings open on its own.
Tonight is the last of three nights that I’m staying at my brother’s place in the Bay Area. I came back up here for the first time in two years to run a race and see family that I don’t usually get the chance to see. This weekend has also made me realize the comforts and importance of having a Buddhist family.
Not all of my family is Buddhist. Five generations ago, everyone was supposedly Buddhist or followed our indigenous religion. Many converted to Catholicism and later to Protestant Christianity when they came to the US in the years before and just after WWI. My grandmother clung steadfastly to the “old ways”, and some aunts and uncles “reverted” to Buddhism. But it was the Buddhist practices of my grandmother that left the strongest imprint on me and my siblings, who have come to embrace our Buddhist heritage.
Buddhism was never forced on me, but neither did it hang as some sort of background tapestry on the wall. It was the little symbolic things that I built my practice on later in life, even if I didn’t know what they stood for.