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Water bowl offering

Setting up your altar, part 2

  • Motivation for making offerings
  • Meaning of water bowl offerings
  • Step-by-step process of the ritual


Now I want to show how to make the water bowl offerings.

Cleaning the room

Actually, before you make the offerings every morning, first you clean your room. So, if your room is usually pretty clean, that’s okay. But if your floor is dirty you sweep, you vacuum, you make the room clean because this is the place where you want your mind to be cleaned up as well.

You also may dust the altar and make sure your altar is clean. I do that every morning even if I did it the day before. Because it’s just nice to feel that you’re really paying special attention to the buddhas and offering a clean mind as you clean.

Making prostrations and cultivating your motivation

And then, before you make offerings, you make three prostrations. So I won’t do them here, but you do three bows.

And then you cultivate your motivation, and you do this by generating bodhicitta, and you can use any of the different ways to think beforehand so that at the end your conclusion is, “therefore I must become a Buddha for the benefit of all sentient beings.”

One way is, perhaps, to start out thinking about the unsatisfactory nature of samsara, that wherever you’re born there are problems and troubles, and it’s never going to be completely satisfactory. And as long as we’re in samsara there’s no chance for everlasting satisfaction or fulfillment or happiness, and there’s much more chance for suffering simply because our mind is overwhelmed and controlled by ignorance, anger, and attachment. So as long as that’s the state of our mind we can do anything we want to to try and change the external world and we’re still not going to be happy, because the cause of the problem is in our own mind. And so we realize that about ourselves, then we look at other living beings and we see that they’re in the same predicament, wanting to be happy and yet their minds are also overwhelmed by ignorance. And so everybody’s running around trying to do things to be happy and basically creating so many causes of suffering.

Seeing that that’s the case, and seeing that other beings have been kind to us in previous lives, are kind to us now, will be kind to us in the future, that we and they are no different in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering, then we feel some kind of responsibility—since we’ve had the fortune to meet the Dharma—to do something to improve our situation as well as their situation. And then we might reflect that it’s possible to become a Buddha, that it’s possible to get rid of the ignorance that shrouds our mind, because the antidote to that ignorance exists.

Ignorance is a mental state that grasps at inherent existence. Inherent existence means things exist out there independent, unrelated to anything else, as self-enclosed entities, and that’s how we normally conceive of ourselves, and conceive of others, and of everything we relate to. And that viewpoint then leads to attachment, arrogance, jealousy, resentment, depression, laziness, anxiety, fear, and everything else. Okay? But that ignorance apprehends existence in the totally opposite way than the way things actually exist. So ignorance is apprehending inherent existence—or independent existence—where in fact things do not exist as self-enclosed entities, they exist in relationship to other things. They exist dependent on causes and conditions, on parts, on being conceived and labeled. So when wisdom realizes the dependent nature, that leads to the realization of the emptiness of independent nature, and therefore that helps us to see that what ignorance is grasping at doesn’t exist. When we see that what ignorance grasps at doesn’t exist, then ignorance has nothing to stand on. When ignorance has nothing to stand on then everything that came from ignorance—all the afflicted mental states—they also fall apart. When they fall apart, all the polluted karma that we’ve created under their influence stops. And so this is the way in which we attain nirvana, and also full enlightenment. Because all these afflictions and their latencies and their seeds and the karma that causes rebirth can all be stopped, eradicated once and for all through that realization of emptiness that’s cultivated and meditated on over a long period of time.

With that renunciation that doesn’t like our own suffering, because we’re overwhelmed by ignorance and karma, and then seeing that that applies to all other beings as well, and all those other beings have been kind to us; seeing that we’ve met the Dharma and have a perfect opportunity to practice, and also realizing that it’s possible to attain full awakening, then we generate bodhicitta based on that compassion, based on that wisdom, that wants to attain full awakening for the benefit of others. And with that motivation then we want to make water bowl offerings. Or we want to make fruit offerings, light offerings, incense offerings. You can offer on your shrine anything that you think is very beautiful.

We don’t put pictures of our family on our shrine. If somebody is ill or something like that, you set up another little area and you put the pictures of your family, or your pets, over there. But on the shrine we have just the pictures of the holy beings and scriptures and the stupa, and then whatever we’re offering.

Making offerings

Then the question comes, “Why do we make water bowl offerings?” Well, first of all, when we respect somebody, one of our natural instincts is that we want to give them something. Isn’t it? When you care about somebody, when you respect somebody, then naturally the feeling comes: “Oh, I want to make a connection with them.” And how do we make a connection? We give something. It’s based on that human feeling that we look at the Buddha and we want to offer something. And we offer water in this particular case because we can offer water without any attachment. Usually there’s plenty of water and we’re not attached to it. I have been in circumstances where the water went off, and then making your water offerings you feel a little bit like, “Oh, if I give it I may not have it.” But that’s precisely the mind that you want to overcome by making offerings. So, the idea of water is that water can be a very pure substance, a cleansing substance. And it’s plentiful, so it’s easy to make offerings.

How to do the water bowl offering

After we cultivate our motivation, then we clean the bowls. We have seven bowls and we start on this side (the left as you look at the shrine) with the bowls. You’ll notice the bowls start out upside-down. Sometimes they may start out stacked up. Depends on how you take them down at the end of the day. We never put an empty bowl up on the altar, because that would be like inviting somebody to your house for dinner and then serving them an empty plate. Okay? So the bowls start out upside down when they’re empty.

We start on the the left side and we just wipe the bowls clean. You can also have a stick of incense and then hold the bowl over the stick of incense and that also just indicates purifying. So you can think that your cloth is the wisdom realizing emptiness and then any dirt that is on the inside or outside of your bowls is the defilements of sentient beings, and that you’re cleaning the minds of sentient beings as you clean the bowls.

Then you stack the bowls up. This is if you have bowls that are stackable. You’ll notice on our altar [at the Abbey] in the back, the shape of the bowls makes them very difficult to stack, they won’t be stable, so then you just keep them upside down after you clean them. So it depends on the kind of bowls you have.

And then you have water. So, you can use tap water. Or if you have a water filter, then use the filtered water. And then you hold the bowls in one hand. You pour some water into the top bowl. And each time you offer the water you say, Om ah hung. Okay? Those are the syllables representing the Buddha’s body, speech, and mind.

Like I said before, we don’t put the empty bowls on the shrine. We’ll start on the left side, left to right, and you take your top bowl and empty almost all of the water out (into the next bowl in the stack) but you leave a little bit. Then you put that bowl upright on your shrine. And then you do that to the second bowl (emptying almost all the water into the third). Again, Om ah hung. [And set the second bowl down to the right of the first. Continue with each bowl.]

And any time you’re pouring the water you can think a couple of different ways. One is that you are filling sentient beings with blissful wisdom nectar. And another way is that you’re offering this blissful wisdom nectar to the buddhas and they experience great bliss.

You put your bowls in a straight line. So this is really a mindfulness practice. You don’t want your bowls all scattered over and sloppy. And then you put them about a grain of rice apart. They didn’t specify if it was short-grain rice or long-grain rice, so you can decide that for yourself.

And then (after we’ve set all seven bowls down) we come back (with our pitcher of water) and again we start at the left and we fill the bowls up, and we fill them to within a rice-grain’s distance of the top. You don’t want to put them too full, because there’s danger of spilling. You don’t want to make them too empty, because that’s kind of like being miserly.

Skies full of offerings

Again, as we pour the water we can either think that we’re filling sentient beings up with blissful wisdom nectar. Or we can think that we are offering this blissful wisdom nectar to all the buddhas and bodhisattvas. And there’s something about imagining blissful wisdom nectar, you know, filling up sentient beings or filling up the buddhas and bodhisattvas, that gives you some kind of feeling inside of yourself. And also, while you’re offering you think that you’re not just offering, okay, this one small bowl in kind of an old copper set of offering bowls; but you imagine that they’re beautiful crystal bowls and that you’re offering this very pure water which has been transformed into blissful wisdom nectar to all the holy beings.

Excuse me if I have my back towards you. [Recite om ah hung while filling bowls from left to right.] You try not to breathe on the offerings. You stand back a little bit.

And then there’s a mantra in Pearl of Wisdom, Book 1 that you say to increase the offerings. Because although we’re just offering something simple here—or maybe we offer a little fruit or flowers or a stick of incense, or one light, or whatever—we imagine the whole sky is filled with offerings. So don’t think it’s a few bowls of ordinary water, but the whole sky full of beautiful, sparkling bowls filled with blissful wisdom nectar. And the whole sky filled with fruit that you don’t need to peel and that has no pesticides and it doesn’t have cores. And beautiful incense that makes designs in it, and nobody coughs from breathing the incense. And light, very glittering light, and lights coming from jewels—all sorts of beautiful things when you offer your electric light or your candle. Again, so that you really think the whole sky is filled, and you can offer again and again and again.

When you really focus on making offerings like this, there comes inside this feeling of plenty. “Oh, there’s so much.” This incredible feeling of richness. “I offer this, and I offer this, and I offer this.” And then you feel really rich inside. Because the practice of offering is designed to combat our miserliness. Because miserliness thinks, “Oh, if I give it then I won’t have it. And since I’m most important, I’ve got to keep for myself.” And that kind of mind, actually, is what leads us into poverty. Because miserliness is the cause of poverty. Generosity is the cause of wealth. When we think about it karmically. So we have to overcome that feeling of scarcity and poverty. And one way to do it—and one way, also, to create more merit when we’re offering—is just to imagine skies full of offerings. And make everything more beautiful than it ordinarily appears to our polluted senses. And really develop the heart that takes delight in giving. So that when you make offerings you feel really happy.

Usually in offering it’s like, “Give me, and when you give me I feel real happy.” But that’s the worldly mind, isn’t it? So we’re trying to cultivate the Dharma mind that feels happy when we give.

If you really think of some of the times in your life where you’ve felt very good about yourself, hasn’t it been when you’ve been generous and you’ve connected through offering—either something physical, or offering service, or doing something. But the process of us giving, taking delight in giving, brings its own reward in having a good feeling and increasing our self-esteem right now. And then it creates the merit to have wealth in future lives.

But, because we’ve motivated everything here for the aspiration for full enlightenment, our offerings won’t just result in wealth in a future life. They will result in us being able to gain all the qualities of a buddha, and become a fully awakened one.

The mantra is on page 49 of Pearl of Wisdom, Book 1. I will try and say it slowly. I usually mumble it very quickly, but I’ll try and say it slowly so you can hear:

om namo bhagavate bendzay sarwaparma dana tathagataya arhate samyak sam buddhaya tayata om bendzay bendzay maha bendzay maha taydza bendzay maha bidya bendzay maha bodhicitta bendzay maha bodhi mendo pasam kramana bendzay sarwa karma awarana bisho dana bendazay soha

So you can say that one time, or three times, and just imagine the whole sky full of offerings, and the buddhas receiving them and experiencing bliss, and you feeling very good about making the offerings, and so on.

And then at the end, you dedicate the merit through chanting one of the prayers, or through just in your own heart making your own dedication prayer, and steering the merit so that it will ripen in terms of our own enlightenment and being able to lead other beings on the path to full awakening.

Part 1 of this series:

Part 3 of this series:

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.