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Amitabha practice: Offering the mandala

Amitabha practice: Offering the mandala

Part of a series of short commentaries on the Amitabha sadhana given in preparation for the Amitabha Winter Retreat at Sravasti Abbey in 2017-2018.

  • The purpose of offering the mandala
  • Imagining our environment and everything in it as pure and offering it
  • Cultivating a feeling of generosity and relinquishment

We’re going to continue with the teachings on Amitabha. In the sadhana we had gone through the visualization at the beginning, refuge and bodhicitta, the four immeasurables, the seven-limb prayer. The seven-limb prayer is for accumulating merit and purification of negativities. Then the step after that is the mandala offering.

The mandala offering is found in many, many practices. Most practices, I would say, in the Tibetan tradition. And there are different kinds of mandala offering. There’s the outer, the inner, the secret, and the suchness. Amitabha has just the first two, the outer and the inner.

This ground, anointed with perfume, flowers strewn,
Mount Meru, four lands, sun and moon,
Imagined as a Buddha land and offered to you.
May all beings enjoy this pure land.

The outer mandala—that’s the one that starts, “This ground anointed….”—that is offering the external environment and everything beautiful in it. The idea there being that we want to cut our own attachment to the sense objects around us, because we’re usually so glued to sense objects, including people. This is really giving everything to the Buddha. And instead of just imagining that we’re giving this polluted, dirty place, we imagine it as a pure land, so that we’re giving something that’s really beautiful.

In the outer you imagine everything in the world. Here you’re visualizing it as the structure of the universe as seen in ancient Indian cosmology. A flat earth. Mount Meru, four continents, and so on. I have a friend, Rob Preece, in one of his books he rewrote the mandala for modern times, which he did in a very nice way. We talked about it one time in the past. So we can also rewrite it to fit us, too.

The idea here is to have the feeling of generosity and relinquishment, and you’re giving without a sense of loss. That’s a really important part of it. It’s not like i’m giving the world but I’m holding onto it.

Doing this is very helpful because when we think that we’re giving the world and everybody in it—in a purified form—to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, then we no longer have ownership over any of it. That means that when we use tables and chairs and computers and vehicles and all the things that we use every day, we don’t have the sense of MY computer, MY vehicle, MY clothes, MY this, MY that, because we’ve already offered everything to the Three Jewels. Very effective in our minds for breaking attachment to these things. It also makes us recognize that then when we use the things around us, we are using things that we have offered to the Three Jewels, that are the property of the Three Jewels, so we must treat them respectfully. That makes us much more mindful not to break things. Or if we accidentally do, to repair them or to replace them ourselves, not just relying on whoever they belong to, or the community, or someone else to do that. To really think these don’t belong to ME, and I’m using them due to other people’s kindness. We’re using our bowl, receiving food, using kitchen utensils, everything we have we’ve given to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. It also makes us think, “When I use these things, am I using them in accord with the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha?” The way the Three Jewels would want them used? Then for people who handle money, “Am I spending my money in a virtuous way? Or am I buying intoxicants. Or am I wasting my time with what I do?” Because the money is not MINE, I’ve offered it in the mandala to the Three Jewels.

This is very effective for getting us to think. We really have to check when we’re offering the mandala, are we really offering it? Or, “Buddha, I’m giving you everything that I don’t really want, but everything I want I’ll keep for myself and that’s not included in the mandala. Anyway, I don’t believe in the flat world, the Mount Meru, and the four continents, so that’s easy for me to offer. And you know, all these goddesses, sure you can have them, I don’t believe in them. And the special harvest, and all these. I don’t believe…. You can have all those, Buddha. But my computer, my money, my car, my credit card, I’m keeping those because anyway, they’re not so good to offer to you….”

We’re very good at that, aren’t we? Our sneaky mind. So, to really feel when we’re offering the mandala we’re giving it. That gives us some responsibility when we use things.

Also what’s very effective, if you’re quite attached to somebody and you’re having a lot of problems with attachment to somebody—whether it’s a parent or a spouse or a child or friend or boyfriend/girlfriend—or some substance, some food you’re attached to, or something, make sure you put that in the mandala. When it says “skies full of offering,” you can have skies full of your favorite food, and skies full of your relatives and your friends. And you may be a little bit hesitant, “Well maybe I shouldn’t, it’s not really proper to offer somebody to the Buddha. That’s like those old Jataka tales where the Buddha in a previous life offered his spouse and children. I don’t think that’s proper, so I shouldn’t offer my spouse and children and anybody I’m attached to now, because that’s like those old things, like these people are my property and they aren’t.” Don’t think like that. Rather, think, “These are things I’m attached to, people I’m attached to, and aren’t they much better off under the care of the Buddha than they are under the care of my grasping, selfish mind?” Think about that when you’re really attached to somebody. Or when you really want somebody to do things a certain way. Offer that person. And it’s like, “Yes, they really are going to be much better off under the Buddha’s guidance than with my grasping mind.”

This mandala offering is very helpful for breaking attachment to things. In that way, too, you can see why we accumulate so much merit from offering the mandala.

That’s the outer mandala. The inner one is also in here:

The objects of attachment, aversion, and ignorance. Friends, enemies, and strangers. My body, wealth, and enjoyments, I offer these without any sense of loss. Please accept them with pleasure and inspire me and others to be free from the three poisonous attitudes.

This also emphasizes some of the things that we offered in the outer mandala, in the first verse. It’s emphasizing some of the same things, but what’s special in this verse here is that we’re offering our body. Our body is one of the things we’re most attached to. We’re with it from the time we’re conceived until the time we die. And so much of our life is about pleasing this body, and making it comfortable, and making it good looking, and doing everything to make this body happy. We’re really slaves to our body in many ways. So offering our body, also, to the Three Jewels in the inner offering…. Outer offering, the first verse, outer refers to things in the environment that are not part of our mental continuum. Inner offering is referring to things that are part of our continuum. Not our mental continuum, I should say the continuum of the self. Our body is something that the self, we commonly say, “My body.”

What’s very nice about the inner mandala is that we imagine our body becoming the earth, and Mount Meru, and the four continents, and everything, and then offering our body in that form, as a buddha land, being transformed into something very beautiful, as a buddha land, to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, so it’s very effective for releasing attachment to our body.

Releasing attachment to our body is so important because that’s going to be, possibly, one of the big things that hangs us up at death time is we don’t want to be attached to our body. Friends and relatives, maybe I can give up, whatever. My possessions I can give up. But my body, no! And especially if the body is painful, then so difficult at the time of death. And also difficult while we’re living, isn’t it? Being attached to this body.

There’s a very nice visualization for this. Our skin becomes the golden ground. Our torso is Mount Meru. Our two arms and two legs are the four continents. The seven rings of mountains around Mount Meru are our intestines. You’re taking all this stuff…. Remember, you’re transforming it into a pure land. You’re not just offering the Buddha your gushy intestines. Then all your inner organs, your spleen, your kidneys, your stomach, your liver, your gallbladder, your pancreas, these all become many of the offerings in the sky. Your two ears are the parasol and the victory banner. Your two eyes are the sun and moon. Your head is the jewel at the top of Mount Meru. You offer your whole body. It’s very effective for your mind, because you’re imagining dismantling your body and making it into that universe. And then that universe transforming into a pure land and you’re offering that to the Three Jewels. Then this body you’re transforming it, so you’re not seeing it in the same way. You’ve given it to the Buddha, so it’s not yours, so don’t fuss so much about it. Don’t worry so much about it. Keep it clean, keep it healthy. Don’t get so frenetic when your little toe hurts. Relax. Give up your body. Practice giving up your body because at death we’ve got to give it up whether we want to or not.

I find this very effective for decreasing attachment to the body. Especially if you’re concerned about how you look when you get older. You’re seeing the wrinkles, the gray hair, the extra layers of flab (that also happens when you’re younger…). Then you’re, “Oh, what do I look like?” You just transform it and offer it. It’s quite beautiful. And you really do it sincerely. “This no longer belongs to me.”

Here we’re offering the outer and inner mandalas in the context of the Amitabha sadhana. Another time when we offer the mandala is before Dharma teachings and after Dharma teachings. There we usually do the outer mandala and then we do another verse that is requesting the teachings (before the Dharma talk), or after the Dharma talk of requesting long life for our spiritual mentors.

It’s important when you do the mandala offering before and after teachings that your mind is thinking the Dharma is more precious than my body, than my friends and relatives, than all my possessions, because I’m offering all these things to the Three Jewels with the request, “Please teach me the Dharma.” That’s the mind we should have about how precious the Dharma teachings are.

When we offer the Mandala we shouldn’t just be spaced out, “This ground anointed [yawn] with perfume….” Not thinking about what you’re doing and not thinking about why you’re doing it. But really focused on, “I’m offering these things. They don’t belong to me. Why am I offering them? Because they’re the most valuable things I have. Even if I look at them and they’re kind of dirty and polluted, and caused by karma and afflictions, I’m still offering them, transforming them into something beautiful, and I’m offering them because that is the value of receiving a Dharma teaching.” One Dharma teaching is worth much more than possessing my body, possessions, friends, and relatives. And then you have to think, “Why is hearing one Dharma teaching more important than all your worldly things?” Why?

Think about that. If you don’t understand why, then you really need to listen to more Dharma teachings so you understand why. Really think, why are these things so important? Why should I have the attitude of giving up my attachment to all my worldly things in order to receive even one Dharma teaching? Or in order to say “thank you” after I’ve received a Dharma teaching? It’s really showing the value of what the Buddha taught us.

Audience: I really enjoyed hearing about envisioning your body, transforming it. I hadn’t heard of that before. I’m wondering what is the source? And then also, one of my SAFE students, she says that she has a lot of anxiety about her health, and she wants to know what kind of practices she can do to let go of that concern. I’m going to tell her to watch this BBC. Are there any others?

Venerable Thubten Chodron: Visualizing the Buddha and light from the Buddha coming in to relax the mind and ease the anxiety. To feel like you’re filled up with light from the Buddha. That would be a good technique. But also offering the body.

And the source of this, it’s usually taught in the teachings on Lama Chopa, or Jorcho.

[In response to audience] Idam guru ratna mandalakam niryatayami means “I offer this precious universe to my guru and the Three Jewels.”

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.