Offering (Tib. mchod pa) is a remedy of attachment and greed. It is a basic practice and a token of devotion in Vajrayana Buddhism. Without the total extinction of these, no one could have a pure state of mind like a Buddha has. According to Buddhist ethics, the purpose of human life is not only to solve individual problem but also to facilitate all sentient beings to have ultimate happiness. One should have calm, compassionate and wisdom mind to help others. Buddhist followers make offerings in front of the Buddha, Bodhisattva and other holy beings although they do not need it. It is a big contemplative gratitude to Triple Gems.
Types of Offerings
Broadly, offerings in Vajrayāna Buddhism can be categorized into symbolic and non-symbolic offerings. Symbolic offerings are material offerings that represent something higher valued objects. For example, in Vajrayana practice, offering sand can be symbolized as offering of gold granules. Symbolic offerings are offered to honor the Triple Jewels and other deities. Non-symbolic offerings include images of the Buddha and other deities, food stuff, forest products, garments, medicine, cash and other required materials to Buddhist organization. Material offerings are offered to Buddhist religious community i.e sangha. Material offerings began since the time of the Buddha. Buddhist laity at that time offered to the Buddhist sangha. After Mahāparīnirvāṇa of the Buddha, he was offered perfume, flowers, incense, and music. Later, these practices became the ritual. Besides, in Mahayana gonpa, ornaments of the gonpa such as animal skins, masks, animal head with horns and hair are offered. Similarly, religious objects such as prayer-wheel, thānkā and lung-tā are also taken as material offerings. In addition to these, construction materials of Buddhist shrine or monuments such as stone, wood, cement, color and land itself are offered. All of such beings do not need offerings but offering develops generosity on the mind of a person who offers.
Offering of service is another type of offering. Physical works such as cleaning gonpa, altar and image of deity, labor donations for the construction or renovation of gonpas, construction of road or bridge to access to the gonpa or deities shrine are service offerings. Cleaning of the residences of monastic community, preparing meal for them and laundry service are the offerings to homage. All types of offering cut pride and ego of the practitioner so it accumulates virtues. It cuts the effect of bad karma due to this the present and the future lives would be happy. In sum, offering either provides better rebirth in the better realms or it would release from the world of suffering.
Altar of a Mahayana gonpa is a place where varieties of both symbolic and non-symbolic things are offered. Altar might be a table or flat-topped block used as the focus for a religious ritual, especially for making offerings. Among the symbolic offerings, offering a set of seven water bowls is a prominent symbolic offering in Mahayana Buddhism.
Offering Seven Water Bowls
The eyes of a visitor charismatically are attracted by the altar when a visitor enters into a Mahayana monastery. Generally, altar has golden colored statues, beautiful lights, bowls full of water, flowers, incenses, fruits, thankas, wrapped Buddhist texts in traditional golden clothes and many religious objects. These objects magnetize the mind of a visitor. Among all of these objects, this article is focused only on seven water bowls which can be seen in all Mahayana gonpa. Sometimes, gonpa may have more than a set such water bowls offerings. These bowls are placed in front of and a little below the representatives of ‘Three Jewels’. One can see seven bowls full of water is offered in the prayer-room (choey-khang) of a house as well.
The concept of seven water-bowls offering was originated from ancient Indian civilization. It showed the culture how the people at that time welcomed their guest. In those days, when a guest came to a home, first he would be welcomed by offering a cup of water to drink and then water for washing feet. A guest would be offered garland, lighted lamp and burned incense to give pleasure to him. Water with perfume would be given to refresh him then delicious food would be served followed by wonderful music for peaceful feeling. This concept was applied in Vajrayana tradition to honor Triple Jewels and other deities. In this offering, water is symbolized all eight substances mentioned above. It is better to offer water into precious bowls made up of gold or silver if possible. However, if it is not available, one can use cupper or brass or crystal or ceramic or any available bowls. Normally, bowls for daily use have 3-4 inches in diameter. However, in a wide altar or in great rituals, the number of bowls could be many and bigger size but must be a set of seven. Each seven bowl has its own symbolic meaning as follows.
The first bowl of water represents argham. It represents the water for drinking to the deities. It is also called ‘greeting water’. It is actually a drink served to the peaceful deities. In special occasion or in big ritual or in festival observation, the bowl is filled with special beverage such as milk, yoghurt, tea, honey or molasses instead of pure water. The second bowl of water represents pādhyam (T. zhabs bsil). This is the water for refreshing or washing foot for the deities. The water must be clean, cool and pure. The third bowl of water represents pūspam (T. me tog) or flowers. This represents a garland to a deity. It is better to offer fresh flowers. Due to unavailability of natural flowers in all seasons in the Himalayan region including Tibet, these days, artificial plastic flowers, papers or wax are used instead. Sometimes, flower embroidered on cloth or piece of silk are offered to represent flower. In ritual, bowl filled with grains such as rice, wheat or barley and flowers and petals are sprayed over it. Similarly, the fourth bowl of water represents dhūpam (T.bDug spos) or incense. Aroma emitted by burning of incense like juniper twig, fragrant herbs like sunpātī are offered to please the sense of smell. In ritual, the bowl is filled with white gains or rice and put sticks of incense on it. The fifth bowl of water represents dvīpam (T. mar me) or light. A butter lamp with cotton wick is offered to please the sense of sight of the deity. The light represents the illumination of wisdom. The light is always offered though fifth bowl represents it. The place of the lamp is in between the fourth and fifth bowls. The sixth bowl represents perfume or scented water (T. Dri chab). This is the deodorant offered to the deity for use after bathing or refreshing. In ritual, water is replaced by aromatic herbs are offered as a visible substance into the bowl. In the same way, the seventh bowl full of water represents the delicious food (T. zhal zab) to honor the deity. Sometimes, fruits, various kinds of breads, cheese or even chocolate are offered as food. The Tibetan food offering usually consist of red and while conical shaped gtor ma. During offering the devotee should visualize various types of delicious vegetarian foods. These are filling the skies around the numbers of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In ritual, tormā is offered as food.
Generally, there are only seven bowls offered on the altar. The eighth position on the altar is the position of music (T. Rol mo) so live music is offered during prayer and chanting. Ting śhags, a small pair of cymbals or conch shell is placed at the side of the seventh bowl to represent the music. Music symbolizes the Buddha’s wisdom mind. In daily practice at home, mostly drum is played after making offerings but in monastic live music is offered by playing many religious musical instruments. L. Austine Waddell has written that all of these offerings were offered by some celestial such Indra, the king of heaven, the King of Naga etc.
During offering, mantras om argham ah hum, om padyam ah hum, om vajra pushpe ah hum, om vajra dhupe ah hum, om vajra alok ah hum, om vajra gandhe ah hum, om vajra naividya ah hum om vajra shapta ah hum are recited respectively from the first to eights bowls.
Setting of Water Bowls on the Altar
As a morning practice, water bowls should be offered every day before dawn in a prescribed manner. Especially, body and hands of a person should be clean before making offering. Besides, offering bowls should be wiped out three times in clockwise and counter-clockwise directions to dispel all negativities crated with owns body, speech and mind and to bring to oneself the blessings of the Buddhas’ body, speech and mind respectively. Then these bowls should pass through burning incense smoke to purify and mantra om ah hum is recited to consecrated. Traditional ways of offering water into the bowls begin with the newly incensed bowls piled upside down to right side on the altar. Piled bowls should be hold in the left hand and a pitcher-pot should be carried on the right hand to fill the top-bowl from the pile. It should be partially filled. Then, the most of the water from the first bowl should pour into the second bowl before placing it on the altar and the first bowl should be placed towards the left hand side on the altar. Similarly, most of the water from the second bowl should pour into the third bowl and again it should be placed just to the right of the first bowl. This process should be continued until all seven or eight bowls. In this way, ‘seeding’ the bowls is completed. Continuation of the pouring of water from first to seventh or eighth bowls symbolizes the transformation of Buddhas’ teachings from previous generation to new generations or it shows the continuation of teachings over the generations. After seeding, all of these bowls should be placed on the shrine from left to right in a straight line without touching each other. The distance between each bowl should be equal. The gap between two bowls should not be more than a grain of barley. The water should be poured slowly at first, faster in the middle and then slowly again into the bowls without making any noise. The level of water should be full but not overflow a single drop. Overflow of water is ethical demerits. The mantra om ah hum is recited while filling the water bowls or the long manta written below for blessing and multiplying the offerings three times.
Om namo bhagavate vajra sara pramardane/
Tathagataya/ arhate samyaksam buddhaya/
Tadyatha/om vajra vajra/ maha vajra/ maha taja vajra/
Maha vidya vajra/ maha bodhichitta vajra/
maha bodhi mando pasam kramana vajra/
Sarva karma avarana visho dhana vajra svaha
The offerings are purified by sprinkling holy water to the bowls from the vase as a confession if some wrong is made during the offering. Offering bowls can be represented as Buddhist realms. One bowl represents one realm while the seventh bowl represents the intermediate state. While offering, each bowl is offered with particular hand-gesture.
How to Remove the Bowls in the Evening
At the end of the day in the evening, before dusk, water bowls from right to left is collected in a clean pitcher and then it is disposed in clean place like garden or on flower pots where it will not be stepped over. The bowls are placed upside down on the altar after making dry. Flowers should be put in a clean place outside. Offered food may be left for few days on the altar if it can remains for longer. Then food can be taken as a holy food.
Water Bowls for Meditation
Meditation on water bowls can be practiced with the smaller size water bowls. For this, piled seven bowls should be holding on a left hand and water should be poured into the uppermost bowl by the right hand. Then the pitcher should be placed on the table and most of the water from the first bowl should be poured into the second bowls and then only the first bowl should be placed in the altar with a right hand. One should visualize that he/she is filling the bowl with ocean of nectar and at the same time his/her mind is filled with positive qualities that needs to cultivate to get enlightenment. In such practices, left hand represents wisdom and the right hand represents method as in Vajrayana tradition. In the evening, when drying the bowls, the bowl in the left hand represents mind and clothes held in the right hand represents dharma. Pouring water out of the bowl Vajrasattva mantra should be recited. At the time of drying the bowls, practitioner should think that he/she is cleaning the mind with the dharma. at the time of removing bowls from the altar. Then the bowls should be put upside down position in the altar.
Another way of analyzing the seven bowls of offering is as a mental worship to develop Bodhicittva or representing seven aspects of prayer. Thus, it is also called saptāńga or saptavidhānotara Pūjā which includes, prostrating (vandanā) or bowing down to the Triple Jewels, bodhisattvas and immediate teacher, offering to the Buddha (pūjan), confession of sins (pāp desanā), confession of negative actions purifies the non virtuous deeds, rejoicing (puṇya anumodana), rejoicing is the virtue of others, beseeching the Buddha to teach others (Buddha yācanā), requesting to turn the wheel of the dharma, Buddha to remain in this world (Buddha addhesanā), asking the Buddha not to take mahaparinirvāṇa but keep coming back in the earth to liberate all sentient beings and dedicating the merit accumulated for the welfare of all beings (bodhipariṇamana) dedicating the merits to other sentient beings is a virtuous action and way of gaining merits.
Offering seven water bowls is a culture of symbolic offering of Vajrayana Buddhist followers to Triple Gems and pantheon of deities in the morning. Offering of water bowls give an idea how the deities in Vajrayana tradition are honored. As a religious practice filling of bowls, placing them on the altar, offering and removing those in the evening should be performed in ethical manner. These offerings can be used as Vajrayana meditation, skillful means and a way of seven aspects of mental worship to cultivate compassion and wisdom. Hence, Buddhism provides equal opportunity both to the rich and the poor to accumulate merits and cultivate bodhicitta because of the provision of symbolic offerings.