Pure land BUDDHISM > Symbolism and use
The various objects traditionally placed on the gongzhuo each represent different teachings related to our practice and study.
The image of the Buddha symbolizes our original true nature, the same nature as that of all Buddhas. The images of the bodhisattvas symbolize understanding and practice. Mahasthamaprapta, also known as Great Power Arrived Bodhisattva, symbolizes wisdom. Avalokitesvara, also known as Great Compassion Bodhisattva, symbolizes compassion. Wisdom and compassion are complementary—we need both.
If using a statue, you can place it on a stand to elevate it above the other objects. The Buddha and bodhisattva images are placed at the back of the gongzhuo and are the focal point.
Water represents purity and stillness. Our minds need to be just as pure and calm, void of greed, anger, and ignorance. This will enable us to interact with others and in various situations with a calm and nondiscriminatory mind, one that reflects everything clearly but non-judgmentally, like a mirror.
When setting up your gongzhuo, use a new glass for the water. As you see the water, it will remind you of what it symbolizes. Place the container at the front of the gongzhuo and change the water regularly. The traditional time to change the water is in the morning. If this does not fit into your morning routine, you can instead change the water when you do your daily chanting.
Incense is akin to signaling other beings that we are about to begin our practice. Place the incense holder behind the water.
Flowers represent causality. Every one of our thoughts, words, and deeds is a cause that will bear results. If we wish to have good results, we must first plant the seed to create the cause. Also, flowers serve to remind us of impermanence, for as beautiful as flowers are, their beauty is short-lived. Nothing lasts forever. Everything is impermanent.
Flowers may be placed at the foot of the Buddha image or to the side. A potted plant or silk flowers can be used instead of cut flowers.
Candles symbolize wisdom and brightness illuminating the darkness of ignorance—a single lit candle can illuminate a room that has been dark for a thousand years. The candle also represents the act of giving as it gives of itself so that others may see.
A pair of candles may be placed on both sides of the gongzhuo arrangement. For safety, you may use lamps instead of candles. There are even small battery-operated candles that are a safe, yet fitting, alternative to real candles.