The Role of Offerings in Buddhism

An essay by Stephen Cimino

When we begin practicing Dharma we begin to notice that we are continually called upon to make real and imagined offerings to the three jewels of refuge, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  As our study of Buddhism deepens and expands, our teachers present practices that involve making offerings not only to the three refuges, but also to the Lama, the dakas and dakinis, the Dharma Protectors, and the meditational deity; all those who possess the eye of wisdom.  Other practices go beyond just making offerings to the wisdom beings and can include virtually all sentient beings everywhere. 


Why do we make offerings?   We do not make offerings as some kind of business deal.  There is no quid pro quo.  One of the major afflictions sentient beings experience is a lack of generosity due to our egoistic attachment to things we value and are greedy for in samsara.  So, the continual offering of our body, speech and mind, our wealth, and other things that we value is really an antidote to our greed and attachment.


In order to help bring about the conditions for the enlightenment of ourselves and other sentient beings, we need to create a vast field of merit that will aid us and others on the path of awakening.  Making offerings to the Three Jewels is so important in this regard.  How can we make progress on the path if we do not help create the proper conditions for practice, to subdue negativity, to find a favorable rebirth etc.?  The practice of generosity and the resulting accumulation of merit is responsible for most of the positive manifestations in our lives.  Indeed, it is highly unlikely that we would have met with the Dharma in this life without practicing generosity, i.e. making offerings, in the past. 


One of the first things we learn as Dharma practitioners is paying homage to, and taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  We express this through making three prostrations and expressing our devotion in this act with body, speech, and mind.  When we do prostrations to Buddha, we are symbolically offering our body, speech, and mind to the three jewels.  In the Mahayana tradition we make these fundamental offerings with the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.  We vow to forego our own ultimate enlightenment until all beings are liberated from samsara, the continuous round of birth, death, and rebirth. 


When we set up our altars or shrines, we place sacred statues and objects before us.  These statues, thankas or other sacred representations become objects of veneration, particularly consecrated statues.  These sacred images are only part of what we place on our shrines.  No shrine is complete without symbolic offerings to the objects of refuge.  So, a Buddhist altar/shrine is composed of sacred symbols of enlightenment and offerings to those symbols.  Typically, we make eight basic shrine offerings: water for drinking, water for bathing, flowers, incense, light, perfume, food, and music. 


These various offerings are represented on a shrine as seven small offering bowls filled with water.  A butter lamp or candle constitutes the eighth offering.  Oftentimes, we actually include real representations on the shrine such as  incense, food, precious/semi-precious gems, flowers, tingshas, etc.  


Ideally, shrine offerings should be changed often and the shrine itself should be kept clean.  If you are offering the seven water bowls, they should be poured out at the end of your practice session or at the end of the day.  The bowls should then be wiped dry using a towel and turned upside down on the shrine until they are used again.


Clearly, the enlightened ones we make offerings to have no real need for the things we are offering them.  The real beneficiaries of offering are ourselves and other sentient beings.  The act of offering to the objects of refuge as mentioned before creates a storehouse of merit which can help to diminish our obscurations and mental defilements. 


One of the most important aspects of making offerings is the dedication of merit for the benefit of all sentient beings.  That is, making the aspiration that all beings share in the merit that you dedicate at the end of each practice session.  The dedication of merit is central to the Mahayana path which holds that all beings possess the primordial wisdom nature also referred to as Buddha nature.  So as Bodhisattvas we look to achieve the two-fold benefit of self and others through our practice.  Since we aspire that all beings, including ourselves, be free from samsara, we dedicate the merit of our practice.  We are all in this together.