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Why do Buddhas and Enlightened Beings need offerings? The simple answer: they don’t. The better answer is…

Why do Buddhas and Enlightened Beings need offerings? The simple answer: they don’t. The better answer is…

Nothing confuses people interested in Buddhism — or new to the Dharma — more than the topic of offerings. It seems counter-intuitive from a “western” point-of-view. Buddhas have gone beyond all attachment, cravings or even the sense of “self” and “other” so why would an Enlightened Being appreciate an offering of fruit, incense, water, or a more elaborate Tsog feast. In fact, many teachers say, if you have time for no other practices, the two you should consider undertaking would be: offerings and meditation.

“The offering is not because the Buddhas need it or want it,” Venerable Zasep Rinpoche explained. “The offering is for you, an opportunity for you to create merit, good karma.”

 

Candles as light and incense and pleasant scents are two of the “sensory” offerings often presented to the Buddha daily by practicing Buddhists. They are not a shallow practice, nor symbolic. The activity of “offering” is a remedy for our attachments and greed, the opportunity to create merit and positive karma.

 

Nor is this just symbolic. Many people try to rationalize them that way, as metaphors and symbols — but they are much more than that. They are an important foundation practice for Buddhists, so much so — in some Tibetan schools — the basic foundation includes offering 100,000 water bowls to the Buddhas.

Offerings as “remedy”

In Buddhism, practices such as “offerings” and “prostrations” are sometimes seen as “remedies.” The metaphor of the healer/doctor is often used in Buddhist teachings: Buddha as the doctor, Dharma as the medicine, Sangha as the “supportive” team. In that metaphor, offerings are a remedy for our lifetime of “greed” and “attachment” in the same way that bowing or prostrations are a remedy for “pride” and “ego.” Ego and attachment are two of the biggest obstacles to Buddhist realizations. These two simple remedies are perfect ways to help overcome these issues (in Buddhism, often called “afflictions”, another medical metaphor.) [For a feature on the practice and benefits of prostrations, view this earlier feature>>]

 

The more time we spend on offerings, the more we appear to offer, the more we reinforce the activity of giving — and the positive merit the action accumulates. Even if this only works at the level of mind, this is an important reinforcement. Here, at a temple, all the sensory offerings are made, plus Tormas (cake offerings). The eight sensory offerings are: water for drinking, water for washing the feet of the Buddha, flowers, incense, light (candles), perfume (or perfumed water), food, and sound. Symbolically  many Buddhist try to place at least one of each in front of the Buddha each day — or, more simply, eight bowls of water symbolically representing the eight sensory offerings.

 

Over simplifying is always dangerous, but from the point of view of someone new to Buddhism, we are usually taught foundation practices in the beginning with two purposes in mind. In Tibetan Buddhism, this is very carefully outlined in precious Lamrim teachings, which include the topic of offerings.

Two purposes of foundation practices

If you simplify the purposes of the foundations they could generally be categorized as:

  • Creating merit
  • Purifying negativities.

These two aspects, the positive and negative, creating good karma, and purifying negative karma, are with the view of removing the obstacles to successful practice. To obtain realizations in our meditations, we need a calm mind, free of clinging, stress, anger and other afflictive emotions.

Simply put, offerings give us a precious opportunity to create merit. Even if the Buddha doesn’t need incense, we need the act of offering to start to “work out” our past “selfishness.”

If the fruit and incense offerings bother you, conflict your practice, then several teachers have recommended instead making an offering in the Buddha’s name to various charities. The point is to overcome the clinging and selfishness and greed by acts of giving and selflesness.

 

For special occasions, or in special places (here, the Holy place of Bodhghaya) the offerings tend to be even more elaborate. Note, especially, the gigantic Torma cakes with elaborate symbolism.

 

An offering to the yourself — your own Buddha Nature

The offerings are also implicitly — and explicitly — an offering to our own Buddha Nature. It’s implicit, of course, because in Mahayana Buddhism we are taught that we all have Buddha Nature. All sentient beings have the future potential to become a Buddha. Animals, insects and even criminals have the same Buddha Nature. When we make an offering to the Buddha — any Buddha — we are make offerings to ourselves and also to all beings, because we all have Buddha Nature.

 

The Buddha taught that each of us has “Buddha Nature”, Tatagatagharba, all sentient beings from the lowest to the highest. It is this nature that unites us in Oneness and Emptiness, and helps us feel Compassion for all beings. It is also why, when we offer to the Buddhas, we are also offering to ourselves — our own inner Buddha Nature, that will, one day, ripen into full Buddhahood.

 

Explicitly, because in advanced practices, in sadhanas (guided meditation practices), we are taught to visualize ourselves as Buddhas — as our own Buddha Nature ripened in the future to become a perfect Buddha. In the sadhanas we explicitly make “offerings to yourself as Buddha.” It can’t be more explicit than that. The role playing, including the offering to ourselves, is “training” of a sort.

To bring back the medical metaphor: ourselves as intern Buddhas.

Water bowl offerings

In Lamrim, we learn to make water bowl offerings. In fact, we are asked to — over a period of time — make 100,000 water bowl offerings. The great wisdom of this practice is that over the course of the year, or two, that we make these offerings, we gradually come to appreciate and understand the practice. Water bowl offerings are very special and precious and normally tied to a small performance of sound and action (mantra and mudra). [For a full how-to on Water Bowl offerings, see this feature>>]

Offerings continue throughout all our Dharma practice. In fact, as we move to more advanced or devoted practice, the offerings become much more elaborate.

The simplest and most elegant offering is water. The eight bowls represent the eight sensory offerings, but each is filled with water. The reason we offer water in this practice is it is consider pure. It also recognizes that all people, even someone who has nothing to offer, can generate good karma with offerings. With the exception of areas with shortage of water, generally water is the least expensive offering, accessible to all.

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