It took me more than twenty years of Buddhist practice to develop even a limited understanding of the ritual of making offerings. Since it has been a relatively short time that I have practiced making offerings in any kind of meaningful way, what I have to share here does not qualify as a complete explanation. Other people with more experience can do a better job explaining why we make offerings. But I do think that the process that I went through to come to my current appreciation of making offerings is a worthwhile lesson in curiosity, diligent investigation, and the development of evidence-based faith.
I need things to make sense. I need to know that what I am doing has a purpose and leads to a measurable outcome. I’m not fond of hypothetical constructs, blind faith, magical thinking, adherence to protocol, or unquestioning obedience to authority. If somebody tells me to do something “because it’s good,” but then offers no reasonable explanation as to why it is good, I tend to walk away. I suppose that’s a useful personality trait, in the sense it means that I only put my energy into things that are meaningful to me, but it also means that sometimes I convince myself that things are nonsense, only to realize later that I was pushing aside something beautiful. Such was the case for me when it came to making offerings.
I’m embarrassed to say that I have listened to many teachings from many qualified teachers, and while I’m sure they did an excellent job explaining why we make offerings, I was closed to their wisdom. Like an upside-down pot, I refused to receive the nectar of instruction because I had it in my head that some things about Buddhism are just cultural remnants, vestigial appendages that harken back to the earlier religions, when human beings so often made offerings to appease angry gods and demons. If that was all that was going on, I’d pretend to make offerings in order not to offend the Sangha, but my heart was not in it.
Just a few years ago, my teacher Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche made a special point to emphasize how important it was for us to make a small offering while receiving an empowerment. He said it is not important what we offer, just that we offer something. He said it was an activity that we could do that would in some way connect us to the activity that he was doing – he was giving an empowerment, and we were offering a gesture of gratitude, which would connect us to the merit. Specifically, he wanted each of us to present him with a flower. So, before the empowerment, everyone went out and picked wildflowers. Not wanting to offend, I did as I was told, and presented my teacher with a sad little wilted flower. Closed to the teaching, I had no idea why I was making the offering. I was just doing it not to be rude.
Nonetheless, because my teachers kept saying how important and beneficial it is to make offerings, I kept trying to figure out why. In the midst of my stubborn attitude, my need for tangible proof of everything, I have faith in the wisdom of my teachers, but that is faith they have earned in the face of my relentless questioning. I have never made it easy for my teachers. “You’re telling me it’s good, but I still don’t see how. It just looks like an empty ritual to me. Nonetheless, I am going to keep looking for the truth until I see it.” To earn my faith, the teacher and the teaching have got to survive the gauntlet of meticulous and ruthless rational thinking that is my doubting mind.
As you can imagine, because of my doubting, questioning attitude, I have some hesitation about faith-based religious practices in general. It may seem uncharacteristic for me to say that I have faith in my teachers, but the Buddhist explanation of faith does not ask us to have faith in something we don’t have any contact with. We are not asked to have faith in the Buddha, for example, simply on the basis of a story that says he is special. Instead, we may start with curiosity about the teachings, and then after some initial investigation if we’re still interested, we may proceed forward with further investigation and maybe some practice. This we can do without any faith or belief whatsoever, just curiosity. At some point in that process, we may notice that what we are studying and practicing is genuinely interesting in some compelling way. At that point, we may develop the first kind of faith: inspired faith. We only develop faith in this context after we have something to be inspired about. Even in the beginning, Buddhist faith is faith in something that is tangible to us.
Inspired by our direct contact with something that we personally recognize as valuable, we may choose spend more time studying and practicing the Dharma. As we do that, we come to recognize that we are indeed suffering from deep-seeded delusions – mental and emotional habit patterns that not only influence our behaviors, but also shape the very way we view ourselves and the world around us. Simultaneously, through contact with the Dharma, and specifically through contact with a qualified teacher, we come to recognize that it is indeed possible to soften or even eliminate our delusions, and come to see ourselves and the world from an enlightened viewpoint. We may find ourselves aspiring toward that enlightened viewpoint, thinking, “I am going to study and practice more, because I think it is possible for me to realize my own Buddha nature.” While we are not yet enlightened, and we are still totally clouded by our delusions, we may develop the second kind of faith – aspiring faith. Through study and practice, we aspire to move along the path to awakening, as exemplified by our teachers. The second kind of faith is the aspiration to achieve the fruits of the path – real qualities that we see embodied in our teachers, the teachings, and the Sangha.
The last kind of faith, confident faith, was born in me through exhaustion. Exhaustion is one of my favorite aspects of the Buddhist path, precisely because it is the antithesis of blind faith. At some point, we become so exhausted by our failed attempts to find lasting contentment in material things that we simply give up seeking wealth and leisure. We become so exhausted by our failed attempts to find lasting contentment in name, fame, and reputation that we simply give up trying to get recognition. We become so exhausted by our failed attempts to manipulate ourselves and the world around us into complying with our ideas about how things should be that we simply give up and accept things as they are. And lastly, we become so exhausted by our attempts to find flaw in the Dharma that, after diligent investigation, questioning, testing, and doubting, we finally give up and move into a place of confident faith.
Confident faith isn’t something that is earned easily. It is the product of a long relationship that has survived the trials of time and changing circumstances. For me personally, I have created many kinds of uncomfortable problems in my life, and always, no matter what, the Dharma has always been there in a perfect way. No matter how many times I have ignored the teachings, they have never abandoned me. And perhaps most importantly for my particular temperament, the logic and indelible truth of the Dharma has always withstood my stubborn scrutiny, doubt, and close-mindedness. After so many attempts to ignore every truth that the Dharma presented to me, at some point, I gave up, and found myself exhausted in confident faith. Even when I don’t understand, I have faith that at some point, I will.
It was from that place of confident faith that I simply waited for the meaning and purpose of the practice of making offerings to reveal itself to me. I no longer needed to poke and prod the teachings, because I knew that at some point, some tangible meaning would arise. “It’s not you, it’s me,” I’d say to the Dharma, knowing that the only reason it wasn’t making sense was that I was in some way closed off to it.
Then, one day, I found myself saying a remarkable thing to one of my closest friends. I said, “Mo, anything that is mine is yours. Any object, any money, any time or skill that I have to offer is yours for the taking. All you have to do is ask.” I had the feeling that the life of this friend of mine was more valuable to me than my own. So long as she is alive and kicking, even if I die today, I know that my own aspirations will be fulfilled through her activity. I realized that everything I put my energy into, she also puts her energy into, so supporting her is the same as supporting myself. In fact, supporting her is better than supporting myself, because in making an offering of everything that I have, I am transforming all that I have into the merit of generosity. In that moment of feeling profound generosity toward my dear friend, I was making offerings for the first time in a genuine way.
Subsequently, I entered into a consideration of all of the people in my life for whom I have similar feelings. My mother and father. My daughter. My wife. All of my friends scattered around the planet. My teachers. Suffering people. The suffering planet… Naturally, the list grew, and grew, until I realized that nothing I have is of any value at all when kept to myself – it is only of value when given to others. There is no being who cannot benefit from the offerings that I can make, and if I don’t make those offerings, then all of the riches and knowledge and merit that I have accumulated through my hard work will amount to absolutely nothing. I have from now until the moment that I die to give away everything that I have accumulated.
The act of giving, of making an offering, is a gesture that transforms something held into something set free, whereas hoarding things and keeping them to ourselves is ripe with greed, self-interest, and closed energy. When I die, which is inevitable and unpredictable, if I have not given everything away, then all that I have accumulated will be lost, in the sense that I will no longer have the opportunity to turn it into merit and benefit for others through generosity.
There are many outward ways to make offerings, from basic generosity toward others to complicated rituals with fancy implements, chants, and mudras. The important thing is the inner essence of the gesture. Here, we are not getting caught up in magical thinking that says, “If I have the right mental attitude when I make offerings, then the merit will radiate out and benefit others like fairy dust.” Instead, we carefully consider the effect the mental attitude of making offerings has on our frame of reference. It is our frame of reference that determines whether or not we are interacting with samsara, nirvana, or the wholeness of their unity.
The essential gesture of making offerings is something that happens within us, and the action of making offerings is an expression of that essential gesture. Before we make offerings in an outward way, we let go of the concepts of object and ownership, the story that self is giving things to others. We may use language, “I make offerings,” that seems to imply self and other, but where do things come from, and where do they go? What is ownership? When we possess objects that are precious to us, we might be able to hold them in our hands, or lock them in our houses, but no matter how hard we try, we cannot actually possess anything. No matter what we do, everything decays, everything transforms. Everything is sand, slipping through our fingers. Since we cannot hold on to it, we might as well give it away, because doing so transforms that sand into gold.
Making offerings as a practice, we intend to give away everything that we can. We release the concept of ownership and embrace the beauty of the change that happens to objects when they become offerings. In the giving of a gift, there is great power, because that which is given becomes special. Since it is usually impractical to give everything away, we give just a little bit away, but in our attitude, we have already performed the deeper gesture of letting go of ownership and giving as an act of compassion.
Though the root of the practice of making offerings happens at the level of our perspective, there is something important about making some kind of physical gesture in connection with the internal one, so it is good in the very least to make the mudra of the mandala offering, light some incense, or offer a flower.
Share this Post