The central figure on the altar is the Buddha image in sitting posture. If one cannot find a suitable Buddha image, one may use a Buddha picture. One should remember that the Buddha image is not alive, but is the most outstanding representation of the embodiment of perfected physical attributes of the Buddha, intended to render visible the distinguished qualities of the Master – his serenity, composure, peacefulness, and purity. The attention directed towards these attributes of the Buddha during the devotional practice helps generate confidence and devotion towards the Buddha, makes the mind calm, and arouses inspiration to follow the path laid down by the Buddha.
Training the mind to cultivate reverence and dedication towards the Buddha is an essential component of the practice of the Dhamma. Therefore, the Buddha image or the picture should be set up on a special table or stand reserved for it. The Buddha image should be placed a little higher than other articles of spiritual significance, such as images of great disciples, eminent teachers, Bodhi leaves, scriptural texts, Dhamma wheels, miniature stupas. And all of them must be placed a little higher than the head so that one is able to look up towards them at a gentle angle when kneeling down. The altar table should be covered with a clean cloth of colors and designs conducive to contemplative states of mind. A soft mat or rug can be laid out in front of the Buddha image, to be used for kneeling during devotional practice and meditation.
No other image should be placed above the Buddha image. One should not sit with the feet pointing to the image, remain sitting or standing with the back to it, or engage in worldly conversation in the shrine room. Buddha images should not be used as items of living room decoration.
Before the actual devotional practice begins one should place offerings on a small table placed in front of the main altar. If only one table is available for use, the Buddha image can be placed on a slightly elevated platform and the offerings, such as lights, incense, and flowers, can be set in front of the image. The lights may be either candles, oil lamps, or decorative electric lights. The flowers may be either artificial or natural but whenever possible fresh flowers should be offered. Other articles of offering may be water, fruits, sweets, and prepared food. However, food and fruits should be offered before noon. To hold lights, flowers, and incense, candle-holders, vases and an urn filled with sand should be used.
One should understand that the Buddha image does not use any of these items of offering. We use them to express our veneration of the Buddha and our self-abnegation. In order to show our gratitude and appreciation to the supremely enlightened Buddha we offer food that nourishes our bodies, flowers and incense that please our eyes and nose. They are a symbolic way of offering all that we cherish in the material world to the supreme emblem of spiritual perfection, the Fully Enlightened One. After placing these offerings on the table the verses of offering should be recited following the reverential salutation to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha.