Portable Altar

Closed Portable AltarThis 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.

On the inside is a typical Chinese Pure Land trilogy/triad. In the center is Amitabha Buddha (阿彌陀佛). On either side sit Avalokitesvara (觀世音菩薩) and Mahasthamaprapta (大勢至菩薩), who represent the powers of compassion and wisdom.

I searched around on the web and found other travel altars, such as a very similar Korean travel altar made by contemporary sculptor Park Chan-soo. The British Museum also presents a relatively modern Japanese travel altar with the same triad, although the shape of the altar is fairly different. I’d bet that if you wanted a latchless self-locking travel altar of your own, you could find one without much trouble in an “antique” shop in Beijing or Taipei.

Open Portable Altar

It’s a bit odd that while I generally patronize Theravada temples and follow Theravada practices, all my altar pieces are Pure Land icons (with the notable exception of a long-ago broken statue of Sakyamuni Buddha). This discrepancy is due to a tradition where it’s considered inappropriate to buy your own statues, mandalas or images. All these objects should be given as gifts. Now it so happens that I’m usually given such gifts by Chinese or Japanese Pure Land practitioners. (Thank you so much!) As a result, my home altar looks nothing like your typical Theravada altar. But that’s not important.

In this way, my altar is not just a symbol of the faith — figurative representations of the Buddha Dharma — it’s also a symbol of the Buddhist community. Each object has been given as a gift from someone in the community who respected my practice. Reflecting on this as I sat in front of my father’s travel altar, I was deeply inspired to go out and buy Buddha statues for all my Dharma friends. For anyone who happens to read this, I hope that you too can help tie your community a little closer with such a simple Dharma gift.

8 Replies to “Portable Altar”

  1. This is a beautiful altar – very good fortune for you! I also give small dharma gifts to dharma friends – malas, small buddhas, and other items – whenever I can. It’s like weaving a web of friendship and dharma.

  2. I cannot believe I just found this page. I have the exact same travel altar (although mine is resin). I bought mine years ago from Covent Garden markets in London. For years I wondered what it was and what it meant. Now I know. Thank you so much for this.
    Namo Amida Butsu!

  3. Dear unknown Friend!
    To day I have bought a altar similar to yours! And I am very happy. I dont know how but I just folund your article.
    I have travelled in Japan many years ago and have written bookson Far East. -But newer seen an altar like this.
    Do you know how old it is?
    My Guess is: Japan 1850?
    All the best and kindest regards Ulf
    Ulf Gudmundsen,
    Ved Krotoften 20,
    DK 6720 Fanoe,

  4. I found a copy/replica of the same altar in the Saint-Ouen’s flee market but I suspect (from a piece of paper label) that it came from an auction made in London. In any case I bought it and i gave it to my fidancè. Nobody mentioned the existence of the maker’s hallmark.Our altar has one in the bottom: for this reason I posted the pictures on ebay’s page and I will be very grateful if you will describe me the meaning of the Chinese symbols/words.
    Thank you an have a good day.

  5. I have the chance to purchase this exact alter, anyone know what a fair price would be?
    Many thanks in advance, Chris.

  6. This is a really cool altar. Do you have any background information of this artifact? The real use of this portable altar maybe? Or the purpose of their creation and use for Buddhists?
    It’s for a school project I’m working on, I would really appreciate your insights on this matter

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