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The privilege of making offerings

The privilege of making offerings

  • The proper attitude toward making offerings
  • Making a beautiful space for others to practice
  • The eight offerings and what they symbolize
  • How to make the offerings

After our Tara puja on Chinese New Year last week somebody said to me—because we had made such big and quite beautiful offerings during the puja—that it really made them think about the state of their own mind when they made offerings. So asked me to speak a little bit about that, and also about how to make offerings itself. Because this person realized—you know, we have a rota for making offerings—so then the mind says, “Well it’s just one more chore that I have to do at the Abbey. And since I have to get up a little bit early in the morning to do it it’s really a pain in the neck. So I go in the kitchen and I grab whatever is easiest, slap it in a bowl, throw it on the altar and I’ve done my chore.” And she said that after the puja on Thursday it really made her think that she somehow didn’t have the right attitude about making offerings. That it isn’t a chore, it’s actually a privilege. When you think about it, you can only make offerings when you have a mind that can understand the Dharma and the purpose of making offerings, and when you have the wherewithal…. I mean we’re making the actual offerings, if you don’t have actual things you can do it in your mind, but we start with having actual things—and we have that due to the kindness of the people who support the Abbey. So it’s like people are giving us the wherewithal so that we can create the merit of offering to the Three Jewels, which is a privilege for us to have that opportunity to do it. So somehow calling it a chore rota…. I think we need some different labels. Because the labels influence the attitude. Don’t they? So to really see it as something … what a beautiful opportunity that I have to do this.

And similarly, caring for the meditation hall in general, setting up for posadah, setting up for pujas, you have to rearrange the seats and everything like that. I mean, what a lovely “chore” to do to create a beautiful space for people to come and then meditate in and create merit in. And all you have to do is move a few cushions. We should approach these kinds of things with delight and with pleasure. Not just as one other thing that I’m supposed to do, or ought to do, or have to do, and why isn’t somebody helping me?

I remember when I lived in Italy there weren’t very many monastics there and so my job as—maybe I was the only one at that time—was to take care of the meditation hall. And I really loved that. Polishing the Buddha, cleaning the altar. The rest of the center was chaotic. And I got to stay in the hall and make a connection with the Buddha in this way. And I loved it.

So we should really kind of appreciate that opportunity. Similarly, when you’re making offerings here—this altar—or down in Ananda (Hall), or at your own altar, and also when you travel, take some small pictures or small statue with you, make offerings every day. You don’t have to take water bowls with you, that can be cumbersome. But it’s easy to make a food offering whenever you’re traveling. It’s very easy to do. If you’re not staying somewhere where they already have an altar, you just set your own up in your room and do that.

Then to explain, like the eight offerings. Because we already have a video about making water bowl offerings. But setting up the eight offerings when we’re doing pujas is a different kind of thing.

The eight offerings are water for rinsing your mouth, water for washing the feet, flowers, incense, light, perfume, food, and music. Those are the eight. And they come from an ancient Indian custom. Because it’s hot and dusty in India. When a guest came over the first thing you would do is you offer them something to drink. You make it [water] available to them so they can wash their feet. Then you had flowers. This was an important guest. You offered incense, put out lights, gave them some perfume, then you offer them a very nice meal. And after the meal there was some music for entertainment. So this was, in ancient India, the way the lay people welcomed their guests and treated their guests very well.

So it’s the same idea when we are making offerings to Tara or Medicine Buddha, or the merit field of Lama Chopa, or whatever.

We put the eight substances on the altar. You have the first two that are water—to rinse the mouth, to wash the feet. Then you put flowers. Then you put incense. If you don’t burn incense then you usually just put a few sticks of incense. Or you have a bowl maybe with some chips of sandalwood or something in it. And then light. The light can be a candle or it can be an electric light. Take care with this so that it doesn’t set a place on fire. And I’m not kidding, because I’ve known Dharma centers who have had problems with fire. So light. And then some perfume. You can have a bowl of water with a few drops of perfume in it. Or you can put a bottle of perfume. Some food. And then usually the music offering is when you play the bell and the drum during the pujas. So you usually don’t have to put out a separate instrument there. If you put a conch or a bell, that’s fine, nothing wrong with it. But if you don’t that’s completely fine, too.

For the Lama Chopa we usually put out four waters in the beginning because there’s also water for sprinkling and water for…. I forget what the fourth one is for. But something. Maybe bathing or…. I can’t remember. But we put four waters out.

We put the actual substances out and we say om ah hung when we’re putting them out. But then what we do in our minds is we imagine that these are multiplied and purified, okay? So that we’re not just offering ordinary flowers and ordinary food, but we imagine that they are manifestations of the wisdom of bliss and emptiness so that when we offer them to the buddhas and bodhisattvas that they experience bliss and realize emptiness by virtue of our having made those offerings to them. And by thinking that they experience bliss and emptiness, it makes us think, “well what in the world is bliss and emptiness? And what would it feel like for me to experience this, too? And if the buddhas are seeing things in this way, maybe I should try and see them in this way as well.” Okay? And so you multiply and expand these things, you think that they’re very pure, they don’t create attachment in either you, or definitely not in the buddhas and bodhisattvas. But you know, you don’t want to see them with attachment either. And so when you offer fruit, you know, it doesn’t have chemicals, it doesn’t have a skin, it doesn’t have pits and things like that that you have to take out. You just imagine everything’s beautiful and made of light and sparkling and a manifestation of the mind of wisdom, which is what you’re really offering is your own mind of wisdom to the buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Before you make the offering you motivate with bodhicitta—to make the offering in order to attain awakening for the benefit of sentient beings. You make the offering slowly, mindfully, feeling your fortune in being able to make offerings. Afterwards you pause. You can say the mantra, the om namo bhagavate bendzay sarwaparma dana…. That mantra. And when you say that mantra you imagine that you expand all the offerings so that they fill the entire sky. And you can even think that the scene you’re creating exists on every atom of the universe, so on every atom of the universe there’s you offering to the Triple Gem and the whole sky filled with … just skies of offerings, to universes full of buddhas and bodhisattvas. And then at the end you dedicate the merit. And by this time you feel really rich because you’ve transformed your own attitude into bodhicitta. you’ve done this beautiful offering and thinking about beautiful offerings really lightens up our own mind, makes our own mind invigorated and feels very…. We approach life from a beautiful aspect when we imagine beautiful things around us. And then you dedicate the merit for the benefit of all sentient beings.

With regards to the eight offerings, I know the symbolism of some of them, not all of them. Clearly the water is for washing, for clearing away negativities and defilements. The flowers, sometimes, like in the Lama Chopa, the flowers represent the virtues of ourselves and others. Flowers also fade, so it reminds us of impermanence. But if you want to offer artificial flowers that don’t fade, that’s also perfectly fine. Because anyway, cut flowers that you buy at the flower store are very bad for the environment because they have to use a lot of chemicals to make them and then they have to transport them in planes which puts a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So if you have a regular plant, or you use artificial flowers, that’s also fine. The light usually represents wisdom. Perfume represents the scent of pure ethical conduct. Food, in the Lama Chopa, food represents the fruit of the path. So you offer fruit, so the fruits of the path, the three trainings, the six far-reaching practices, the two tantric stages. Food also represents attaining samadhi, because they say when you have very firm meditative stabilization that then you don’t need to eat gross food. And then sound represents impermanence and also, by implication, emptiness. So those are the ones that I know. So you can also think about those when you’re making the offerings.

In retreat you have the chance to make a lot of offerings. So I really recommend you take advantage of doing that.

Some people make the offerings in the morning and then leave it like that. Some people before each session might put a little bit more water in the bowls (just a drop more in each of the bowls) and again thinking that they’re making all of the eight offerings again. So that depends on your preference how you want to do that.

[In response to audience] When you take down the offerings, then with water, dumping it out, then you think you are taking all the defilements of sentient beings and dumping them out. And with the bowls that the water was in you can wipe them or not wipe them. If they’re bowls that don’t stain you can just put them on their side so that they air dry. That’s fine. If they’re ones that stain then best to dry them. And you always put the bowls upside-down. If you’re offering real flowers, and not plants or artificial flowers, then you can leave them until they start to fade, you don’t have to change them every day. Food I think it’s good to change every day if you can. And also we usually have the habit of making another food offering as well. And when you take down the food at the end of the day—I mean when you take down any of the offerings—you see yourself as the person who’s being the caretaker for what belongs to the Buddha. So it’s not like, “Well, there have been these nice chocolates on the altar and I’ve been craving them during the whole puja, now I get to eat them!” Not like that, okay? But you can take them down and you can share them with other people, you can eat them yourself.

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.