MAKING OFFERINGS is part of the practice of Buddhism, and certain offerings are apparent on every shrine that is done in the traditional way. However, these offerings are much more than a ritualistic system and form, they are a viable extension of the commitment to serve all beings.
The making of offerings is an antidote to the pattern of attachment and greed. There is a material aspect to offerings, where a person offers from his or her possessions something particularly valued. Or someone may symbolically offer the totality of their possessions with the thought of bringing about benefit for all sentient beings, that the material deprivation of all beings may be remedied and their perfection of generosity take place. In general, offerings on a shrine are in a set of seven, in seven bowls, and there are specific meanings for each of the seven offerings.
1. Drinking Water
The first offering is that of pure drinking water. It is offered with the thought that whatever benefit one accumulates may, for the present, bring about the annihilation of suffering through thirst among beings. Especially beings in realms such as the pretas, or hungry ghosts, may receive relief from the suffering of thirst. The offering is also made so that ultimately all beings may be permeated by loving kindness and compassion.
2. Bathing Water
Bathing and drinking waters are offered to the body of the Buddhas, not because they are thirsty or need cleansing, but because by making such an offering to the objects of refuge, sufficient merit may be gained to bring about physical purification and cleansing of our own bodies, which are subject to negativity and are very vulnerable. The offering is also made, ultimately, to dissolve obscurations that interfere with meditation, that block Dharma understanding, and to purify all obstacles to Dharma practice.
The third offering is the offering of flowers to the awakened ones to beautify their surroundings, though the gift of flowers is quite unnecessary in the perfection of their Buddha realms. Again it is for the benefit of those who make the offering and it is made with the intention that all beings might find noble forms to inhabit, and ultimately, that all beings might embody in their forms all of the marks and attributes of enlightenment, like the awakened ones.
Incense, or good fragrances, are offered not because the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are in need of assistance to get rid of any bad odors. Rather, incense if offered so that the annihilation of all unpleasant and unhealthful smells may take place, and, ultimately, that the merit accumulated might bring about the realization of perfection of the profound scent of discipline. It has been said that whoever has perfected the discipline is surrounded by a sweet fragrance.
The fifth offering is the offering of the lamp. The awakened ones, seeing through their wisdom eyes, have no need for such a small light, yet the offering of it is made with the thought that ignorance may be purified in all beings. It is made so that ultimately the merit of such offerings of light might cause the transcendental knowledge and experience to become manifest in all beings just as it has in the Buddhas and enlightened ones.
Of course, the radiant and perfect bodies of the awakened ones have no real need of an ordinary perfume in their experience of spontaneous perfection, but we make the offering so that temporarily all negative patterns may be purified, such as aggression, ignorance and attachment, and that ultimately not only the habitual patterns of beings but also the outer environment may become purified and perfected.
The seventh offering is the offering of food. The awakened ones have no need to indulge in material food offerings, but the purpose of such offerings made to the enlightened objects of refuge is to temporarily relieve suffering that beings experience through hunger and starvation, and to bring about an abundance of food. Ultimately, the offering is made so that beings may experience the perfect state of meditation, of samadhi, and that all beings may live on the spontaneous food of meditation.