17th Gyalwa Karmapa"Buddhism is a way of life through which we develop the qualities of our mind.
This way of life is very unusual, as it is a means to attain happiness without harming others.



A shrine for enlightenment

Lama Gendun

We may sometimes be astonished to see piles of offerings, lights, flowers, incense, water, and food in Buddhist temples, or amazed at how much money is given to build stupas and the like. Our first reaction may be to ask, "What is the use of all that to the Buddha, what is behind it all?"

We must see that all of these are ways to set aside the habitual tendency we have to divert everything to our own ends. So far, our only concern has been to satisfy our ego, to protect it, and to this end we have tried unceasingly to take for ourselves everything we consider to be likeable, pleasant, or a source of happiness. This is what has brought us into the state of suffering and ignorance we are in at the moment, and the same goes for all living beings.

We have to get rid of this tendency, and the best way to do that is to develop a tendency in the opposite direction, one which leans towards generosity, altruism and sharing, which will work against greed, attachment and possessiveness. We therefore use the Buddha as a support, to help us in our actions of generosity. This is why we set up shrines, build stupas and other supports, which act as a focal point for our inner transformation.

This act of generosity, the means to transform all our ego-centred tendencies and especially greed and possessiveness, is accompanied by an act of trust. It is because we recognize the greatness, the superiority of enlightenment, that we make the offering. Each offering is at the same time both an act of openness and surrender, as well as an act of generosity. It takes us in a direction that will free us from our ego-clinging and be sure to bring us to enlightenment.

So offering is a very important practice, whether it is done in a very simple or a more elaborate way, and the most important element is the underlying intention or motivation that accompanies the act itself.

Yet offering is not simply an action, it is also a way of life, a whole attitude, just like greed or ego-clinging. When ego-clinging is at the heart of our behaviour, this habitual tendency in our mind will inspire all our actions. When we are self-centred and greedy, all our actions relate to ourselves. For generosity to become our way of life, it has to be integrated into all aspects of our daily activities. All our actions have to be reconsidered from the point of view of generosity, not simply when we are in front of our shrine.

When material generosity is supported by a mental offering, it becomes limitless. We can also offer to enlightenment anything owned by anyone, so that instead of seeing things only from our point of view and feeling jealous of what others have, we can cultivate generosity and offer it all to enlightenment. The things which don't belong to anyone in particular, such as the sun, the moon, and nature, can also be offered to enlightenment. In this way, anything that is a source of attachment becomes an offering to enlightenment. We find ourselves in a universe of offerings where we can evolve and completely transform our ego-centred attitude into one that has become totally dedicated to enlightenment.

We should make a shrine for enlightenment in our home, a support and reference point for our offerings and wishes. This will be the special place where we can come to develop this new tendency for generosity. It will also be where we voice all the wishes that will lead us in the direction of enlightenment. It is the support for our accumulation of merit. The shrine may be very simple — perhaps a single photo or statue, with some traditional offerings in front. We should start each day with an act of generosity, and accompany it with wishes such as the refuge or bodhicitta prayer. This will put us in the right frame of mind for making progress along the path to enlightenment.

Bowls of offerings

What is the meaning behind the seven traditional bowls and their offerings? Through the sensory experiences of sight, smell, and so on., we have become attached since time without beginning to many things, and have accumulated many negative deeds in pursuit of these attachments. Now that we have become aware of how dependent we are and how unskillfully we have behaved because of that, we decide to work against this through making offerings of the sensory experiences.

For this kind of counteracting effect to work, we really have to do something physically as well as mentally, which is why we do actually offer incense, water, butter lamps etc. We should be aware that our actions since time without beginning, motivated by sensory attachments, have built up a lot of negative karma which now governs our present attitudes and actions. We must therefore make a constant effort to reverse this, which is why we should make frequent offerings. If we really offer, with our mind in complete union with what we are doing physically, our offering will have enough power to purify those negative tendencies and accumulate positive ones by creating merit.

We know that by acting in a certain way we have created negative karma, and by now acting differently we will accumulate positive karma until we reach the point where what has been accumulated previously will be completely purified. Everything depends on the mind, so it is very important to change our attitude and way of thinking, because all negative karma is first created in the mind due to the negative intentions that underlie our behaviour. But since the mind is behind it all, when we really decide to change the direction of our mind and develop in a more positive sense, then we can be sure that all our expressions of body and speech will be just as positive, because mind is essential in the creation of karma.

We do not offer things because the Lama or the Three Jewels or the Meditation Deities are hungry or thirsty, there is not this kind of dualistic thinking. When we offer a torma, there is no calculation behind the act: “If I offer this torma, I can ask for this or that and in return my wishes will be fulfilled. I can make a kind of deal with the deities or the Three Jewels so that I can get everything I want”. It does not work like this. Everything is created by the mind, so when we make prayers for our wishes to be fulfilled, for all positive actions to be accomplished and all adverse conditions to be dispelled, in fact we are not asking someone else to do this, it is just the mind. The deity to whom we pray or make requests is also part of our own mind, and we shouldn't think of it as something different.
It is through the power of mind that we make things happen in a certain way — it is just mind dealing with mind. There is a kind of conviction involved: through making wishes and prayers, a positive mind will develop, and as a result, positive things will take place, and the negative mind will be overcome and with it the negative results.

Devotion and offering

It is the attitude behind the actual gesture of offering which is the most important, it is this which creates the accumulation of merit and determines whether it becomes infinite and inconceivable or not. Each act of generosity should therefore be accompanied by an attitude that is both free of self-interest and at the same time infinite, meaning that we are not limiting the act of offering to the material offering alone. This is important, because if our mind limits the offering, our offering will be limited.

Offering is something that happens on the three levels of body, speech and mind. By offering at these three levels, we purify all three levels. The actions of the body, whether the actual physical movements of generosity or the movements involved in a ritual practice that includes generosity, will be the support for the development of our generous attitude of mind. We use speech, in the case of a ritual for example, to express our intentions, the fact that we recognize the qualities of enlightenment and aspire to reach it through offering all our possessions, everything that is an object of attachment for us. With the mind, we develop confidence, devotion and conviction in the qualities of enlightenment, and we also use our mind to multiply our material offerings to infinity.
Our offering is therefore a complete one, something that happens simultaneously on the levels of body, speech and mind, enabling a real purification to happen at the same time at all three levels of our being.

Once, someone offered Shakyamuni a single flower, with a one-pointed mind full of trust and devotion, mentally multiplying the offering infinitely. The Buddha responded by saying that because this person at the moment of the offering had recognized the qualities of enlightenment, aspired to reach it, and considered the act of offering the flower as symbolizing the renunciation of all attachments, then the offering had served to sow the seed of enlightenment in the mind of the person.

This tells us how important it is to pay attention to the right attitude of mind and make sure it accompanies all our acts of generosity. When we make offerings, our mind must be filled with trust and devotion. We should consider that the Buddha is actually present before us while we make the offering, and it is this devotion which makes the action into one that will accumulate much merit. If our mind is filled with trust and devotion while, in a movement of confidence and surrender, we offer everything, materially and in our imagination, to enlightenment, in that very moment attachment and ignorance disappear, and the accumulation of merit is inestimable. Without this attitude of mind, we may be outwardly generous and offer a great deal materially, but we are just like children playing shops or driving their toy cars through sand-castles they have built themselves, believing everything to be real.

We must understand that although the offerings are addressed to the enlightened ones, they are not meant to help them, but us. We shouldn't think that the Buddha has nowhere to live, so we have to make a shrine for him in our homes so that he has somewhere to sleep, and give him offerings of rice and water in little bowls or biscuits on little plates so that he does not go hungry or thirsty. This is foolish!

We have to realize that building up a shrine and making offerings regularly on it serves on the one hand to help us remember enlightenment and its qualities, and develop trust and devotion towards it, and on the other hand to rid ourselves of our avid greed, the tendency we have to always obtain for ourselves the best of everything. In a movement of generosity and devotion we offer the best and rid ourselves of this self-centredness which aims to keep everything for ourselves.

If the offering is done in a frame of mind where there is devotion, trust and respect, as well as the understanding that it is the way to get rid of our deep tendencies towards greed and possessiveness, then it is effective. Merit is accumulated and the tendencies are cleared up. Otherwise, making a shrine and filling the bowls on it every morning are nothing more than the actions of a child playing at parties.

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