Altar Opening Ceremony
Saturday, February 9, 2019
A cold, crisp February afternoon saw a group of T’ai Chi students and our Sifu gather for an altar opening in my home training space. An altar is a space put together purposefully to call upon spiritual energies. Intentionally, it focuses attention towards the honored or an aspiration. In my case, honored are the Yang family T’ai Chi masters including Yang Lu Chan, Yang Panhou, Yang Jianhou, Yang Chengfu, Cheng Manching, and T.T. Liang. Master Ray Hayward performed the ceremony that reached out to the masters of our lineage, the people who came and went before us, who dedicated their life to refine and pass on their knowledgeable skills for us to carry on in present day. The following is a short account of what transpired that afternoon:
In some situations, an altar is a place signifying sacrifice. A sacrifice is the act of giving up something of value for the sake of something else regarded as important or worthwhile. In our contemporary world filled with comforts, what is of such value that we consider it a sacrifice if we no longer have it? What is truly irreplaceable? Our answer is Time. We are each given a finite amount of time in life. Once time has past, it’s irretrievable in its original form. Even so, a measure of how that time was spent lies in our memories, skills and artifacts. My altar is situated in the room where I spend hours of training T’ai Chi, the room where I sacrifice a significant amount of time each day.
The simple way to open an altar is to light incense. This altar opening at my place was made special because Master Ray led the ceremony and my classmates were present. Without question, they sacrificed a couple hours of their precious time to attend. The lineage’s invitation to link with our presence was made stronger with more people witnessing the opening. Their spirits and our energy strived for a connection.
The bare minimum for an altar is an incense burner. As the incense slowly burns, an upward twirl of smoke rises into the air and disappears. But wait. During the burn, the translucent gray line connects earth to the spirits of the lineage; afterward, the fragrance lingers in the air, a reminder of all that exists unseen.
There are tactile objects that are placed on my altar: Pictures of the masters who’ve passed away. Ashes in the burner symbolize the relics of the art. A pearl is buried in the ashes in recognition of how an oyster creates the pearl slowly, layer by layer, and it grows bigger on a micro scale, just like we grow when training a little bit each day. An antique coin is buried into the ashes—money in Chinese culture is a symbol of time. Who is rich? Is it a person with lots of time or lots of money? We can work hard for more money; however, creating more time is not an outcome we can accomplish. There is money in a red envelope for luck. Additionally, the five Elements are represented: Fire symbolizes your heart and energy, Ash for the earth, Water in a glass, Wood, Metal. A small Dragon sculpture sits on the altar; its mouth faces east to catch the pearl that is the sun. A sacrifice of gold happens; in practice, we burn the gold plated cardboard box as a symbol of burning up money or wealth; now, truly all we have left is time. Next, we give the masters something to taste and enjoy, something we can no longer give them in life, but we are able to give on an altar. A drink, but only the best: Scotch Whiskey. Rich chocolate. Scented flowers. Incense.
Additionally, unseen elements are present on the altar. As incense dissipates upward, its reach symbolizes our intentions and moral standards. Master T.T. Liang’s life after practicing T’ai Chi shows this Yang family lineage is best because T’ai Chi’s whole person healthful affects helped him overcome his serious health crisis. Ultimately, he thrived and lived to 102. Sifu Ray teaches us that in Chinese culture, the sum total is what’s important. The disciples aren’t always the best in the art, but their character, morals, work ethic combined equal the highest example of a person in life’s journey.
After the physical elements are in place on my altar, Sifu Ray lights three sticks of incense symbolizing the past, present, future and quietly brings to mind a message to the masters.
I light my incense stick, evoke a message to the masters, and place it in the ashes next to the original three already burning. Sifu Ray tells us the Masters will come to us someday, maybe in a dream, maybe while we’re sitting quietly. If we talk with them or sit with them, they will talk to us. The spiritual world needs us as much as we need them. The spirits reflect upon us as we do about them.
My classmates in the room offer their incense and messages. An altar can be a private one in that no one else lights incense for it. Giving permission to others light incense for my altar is like sending an energetic streak of connection from our real world to the masters’ spirits. The more we connect with the lineage, the more we will connect with each other. In this way, we honor the stuff we can’t talk about – the spiritual aspects.
Much like in the way a calligraphy or poem in not finished until sealed with stamp, my altar is not quite fully complete. My task next is to burn incense for 36, 72, or 108 days in a row. These numbers are breakdowns of constellations, something I will study that further on another day. One day I burn in the morning, turning something out of nothing as the sunlight peaks over the horizon. On another day, I burn incense at night, turning something into nothing as the day’s light disappears into dark. I dream the Masters smile down on my space, my altar to the lineage. Their arts live on both in the unseen and obvious realms in our daily interactions with one another. I can only hope that I can do justice to their legacy.
Master Ray, in the same way as his teachers Master T.T. Liang and Grandmaster Wailun Choi, wholeheartedly believes T’ai Chi secrets need to be broadly shared in order to benefit as many people as possible. These thoughts linger in our minds as we go our separate ways after the ceremony. The sun’s reach is waning on the horizon; nevertheless, on this cold winter afternoon the T’ai Chi world has spread a tiny bit wider with our purposeful reaching out to the masters. Peace.