YOUTH IN FOCUS: Every morning, my parents ask me to make bowl-offerings and light a butter lamp on our altar. I am happy to do it, but I don’t understand the purpose. What do these offerings mean and how can they help me and others?

Tandin, Lhuentse

Well, Tandin, it is important to understand the symbolism of offerings and also to know how they can be used to benefit others and yourself. In this respect, you should bear in mind that the purpose of any Buddhist practice is to transform the mind, and rituals are just a means to accomplish this aim. 

Perhaps you can think of rituals like a boat on a river. Your aim is to cross to the other shore and a boat offers a means to do this. Therefore, you should preserve and respect the ritual, but ultimately you recognize that it is just a means to get somewhere. It is not a goal in itself and, like a boat, it can be abandoned once you have reached your destination.

As the tradition of making offerings began in the early days of Buddhism, the substances used in bowl-offerings are items that would have been presented to an honoured guest in ancient India. The first bowl represents pure water that is offered to quench the thirst of the traveller. As people traditionally walked bare foot in India, the second bowl of water is for bathing the feet. Flowers represent the Indian custom of presenting men with garlands to place around their neck and women with blossoms to adorn their hair, while incense pleases the sense of smell and purifies the environment. Light traditionally represented wisdom, while perfume is considered soothing to the mind and relaxing for the body. The offering of a small conical barley flour cake represents the feast that would be prepared for the honoured guest, and, finally, a small conch shell, flute or hand-drum placed in the final bowl represents the music that a host would arrange for his guest.                  

As with any Buddhist ritual, motivation is central to the practice, and so the people who make the offerings also do prostrations and offer aspirational prayers.

Now, you may be wondering how bowls containing water or perfume offered to a statue can benefit others. It is a reasonable question. To put things in context, think how social and structural changes occur. They all start as a thought in the mind, right? Even the Taj Mahal or a system like democracy began as a single thought in one person’s mind. Later, others shared the vision and it became a reality.

Therefore, to benefit others, we must first have positive thoughts and a compassionate vision. If these are lacking, then our words or deeds cannot benefit others, and so we need methods to help generate these kinds of thoughts. Starting the day by making offerings dedicated to the wellbeing of others is one such method that is commonly adopted by Buddhists.

Of course, as soon as we have completed the offering, we may encounter a difficult situation that immediately destroys our resolve to benefit others. Still, if a thought of kindness has been planted in our mind, then there is at least a chance that our subsequent words and action will benefit others. If there are no good thoughts, then it is impossible for positive words or action to arise. 

Now, imagine that if everyone in a city like Thimphu or a country like Bhutan starts the day with kind thoughts, then there is a huge potential for positive change. Think of it like pebbles dropped in a lake. If even a single pebble can cause ripples to spread out far and wide, imagine how much greater will be the affect of a large number dropped into the lake.  I hope this explanation makes sense.           

A butter lamp is also symbolic, and is similarly used to create positive circumstances.

First of all, we need to remind ourselves that the purpose of the offering is to benefit others, and so we can recite the following aspiration (or similar) as we light the lamp: ‘In the same way that the light from this lamp dispels the darkness in this room, so may the light of wisdom eliminate the darkness of ignorance in the world’.

Next, we can focus on the light and consider that in the same way that the flame only exists because of the gathering together of many causes and conditions, such as butter, wick, oxygen and fire, I and all things in the universe also only exist due to a number of factors temporarily joining together. Finally, we can reflect that as the flame will be exhausted once these factors disperse, so our own body and all things will also end once the forces that bind them together disappear.

After the flame has been lit, we should dedicate the merit from the act to the liberation of all beings from the darkness of ignorance and confusion. We can pray that they are guided by the light of wisdom and will ultimately gain freedom from suffering and the causes of suffering.

In order to genuinely help others, we need to replace our own ignorance with wisdom. Making offerings with a good motivation, contemplating the nature of the offerings and then dedicating the merit to others is a method that helps create the conditions to achieve this goal. 

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organising drug outreach programmes.

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