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.
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.
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.