Every serious Taoist has an altar. It’s a symbol intimately associated with Taoism. In the past, Taoists held “altar wars” where two competing Taoists would set up public altars and duel with each other over ritual and magic. That was silly, of course, but it does underscore how the altar was so much a part of Taoism. The altar is the place for meditation, prayer, offering, sacrifice, remembrance of ancestors. It is essentially the place to dedicate oneself to Tao.
When it comes to Taoism and all things Chinese, there are plenty of local customs and variations. These details are as I learned them from my teacher. Take these as guidelines to make an altar that suits you. Unless you’re following a specific school, create an altar that’s meaningful to you.
You begin with two tables. The larger of the two tables should be high—at least as high as your chest. This is the table where the main deities are placed. Some people have alcoves or high altar cabinets. Temples have entire chapels where the life-sized deity sits in a special enclosure surrounded by carvings. But if one is setting up a home altar, a high alcove or high table should be fine
The smaller table is lower than the large one by at least a few inches and is the place where one presents offerings.
My master told me that the altar tables should be of the best wood available and of the finest quality that one can afford: I built his tables and I’ve built my own altars. This is really all about devotion to your spirituality and your gods, so you offer the very best you can.
On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with poverty and simplicity. Those who cannot have a formal altar write the name of the deity on a plank of wood or a piece of paper, set the god on a high place, and making offerings before that simple shrine.
Once you have your altar tables, you have to have gods to worship. In general, the gods are assigned to you by a priest of your master, or, if you’ve had a successful relationship with a god—perhaps you invoked them at a time of need and were answered—then you would go to a temple and ask them to give you instructions on worshipping that deity. I’ve also seen people select gods based on their profession or their needs. If someone was a scholar, for example, then the God of Literature would be a clear choice. If someone was poor, they might understandably make offerings to the God of Wealth.
If possible, your altars and your gods are be consecrated at a temple. The priest will also give you the sutras and mantras to go with your gods.
As soon as your god is consecrated, you treat the figure as a live person. You invite them into your home, and carry them upright and facing forward to your altar.
The god is set at the center and back of the large table. Vases of flowers (never white ones), red candles (people use electric ones for safety), and dishes of fruit are set before the deity and on each side of the table. An incense burner (if possible, incense is always burning, or one can only light the incense during ritual; electric incense is also possible) and three cups of tea are set in the front and center. The tea should be changed daily, and the fruit and flowers must always be fresh.
Once you’ve set up your altar tables and placed the consecrated gods there, what do you do?
The altar is the center for your devotions. Generally, you’ll pray at least morning and evening, bowing to the altar, lighting incense, and then sitting in meditation. The priest may have given you a mantra to chant, and you may have been instructed on reciting sutras. These scriptures contain important precepts and devotional thoughts about the god or gods you are worshipping.
On ritual days, more elaborate offerings are possible—wine, rice, food, pastries, candies, and so on are set on the smaller front table.
Having an altar is quite involved—but that’s really the point. It’s adoration, devotion, and discipline. By having to adhere to a strict regimen, our minds are constantly brought back to the divine.
We who are modern may see ritual as hollow, some mere dutiful enactment. But the ancients saw ritual differently: ritual was the reality itself. Worship was not supplication or insincere form. Worship itself was the goal. Some people view worship as a means to get something: “I’ll ask this god to help me.” But the greater view is that worship is our expression of who we are.
Devout worship gives expression to the sacred in our hearts.