Buddhist Philosophy

Shrine Offerings: Accumulation of Merit and Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a popular buzz-word these days. Yet we may be under the impression that mindfulness applies either to silent meditation on our cushions, or more “popular” versions such as mindful eating. But offering practice is an important form of mind training!

Here we present a complete explanation of shrine offerings. In the accompanying two videos, Tulku Migmar explains step-by-step both the elaborate shrine offerings and the daily water bowl offerings. Tulku-la explains that the practice is an accumulation of merit, but also a form of mind-training as we must take the opportunity to practice mindfulness when we make offerings.

The practice of offering is taught throughout the Buddha’s teachings, in both sutra and tantras. We make offerings as a skillful and supportive method to cultivate indispensable merit while on the path to enlightenment.

The practice of making offerings is not simply a dry method, technique, or cultural custom; it is a truly profound practice. Phakchok Rinpoche often stresses the importance of taking the time to make proper offerings. Offerings can be either simple or elaborate and are a powerfully transformative factor when understood and practiced with both the heart and the mind.

In the practice of offering it is of central importance to have both an actual physical offering as well as the proper inner state of mind. Thus, we take time to consider our motivation and change it when necessary. We also practice visualization and non-distraction. Sentient beings all possess destructive emotions such as greed, stinginess, clinging, self cherishing, lack of care for others, pride, jealousy, etc. In order to reduce these tendencies and come to manifest their pure inner nature, the practice of offering is supreme.

The Eight Outer Offerings

A simple Buddhist shrine contains an image of the Buddha, representing the enlightened body. Additionally, we add a sutra text, representing enlightened speech. And finally, we place a stupa (or a photo of a stupa), representing the enlightened mind. All sentient beings naturally possess this enlightened body, speech, and mind but we have yet to realize it. As a way to express respect, joy, and aspiration in front of these supports, we place offerings in front of these representations on the shrine.

The eight outer offerings are also essential to have on one’s shrine when engaging in the sādhana (means of accomplishing) practice of the yidam deity. The deity is the wisdom manifestation of one’s pure and enlightened nature, thus making beautiful and fresh offerings to the deity is of great importance and a tremendous source of merit.

Whether one is a beginning or seasoned dharma practitioner, the eight outer offerings are a simple yet profound way to cultivate merit, respect for oneself and others, and a proper environment for spiritual practice.

  1. Water for drinking
  2. Water for washing
  3. Flowers
  4. Incense
  5. Light
  6. Perfumed/scented water
  7. Food
  8. Music/sound

In the following video, Tulku Migmar shows us the proper placement and gives more instruction on how to make these offerings.

Water Offerings

Tulku-la then explains how we can also make offerings of pure water on a daily basis. In this video, he gives very detailed teaching on how to correctly make water offerings.

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6 responses on "Shrine Offerings: Accumulation of Merit and Mindfulness"

  1. Very helpful video, many thanks. Please confirm the right level of water in owls… It looks like not right up to the top, am I right?

    • Hi Phil, that is correct–the bowls should be full but not to the very top–on the traditional bowls there is usually a slight line in the metal where it flares a bit and that is the correct level. Tulku-la said to pour slowly and carefully so that they are all at the same level–another mindfulness practice!

  2. Hello. Thanks for the teaching. I have doubt what to do after. I read somewhere we should empty the water bowls defore dawn and leave them upside down in front of the altar. Is it correct? Should I collect the offered water and give it to plants?

    • Tsunma-la Jamyang offers this advice:

      The water bowls are wiped clean and then turned upside down. At this point I like to say a dedication for the benefit of all sentient beings….as a way of dedicating the days offerings. In the morning when you awaken after your first initial reflection upon waking, you then wipe them again and refill.

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Suggested Reading

Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, trans. and ed. by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991), vol. 1, pages 468–474.

Ngawang Zangpo, Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times, Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2002.

Nyoshul Khenpo, A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage, trans. Richard Barron (Junction City: Padma Publishing, 2005), pages 41–48.

Padmasambhava, Legend of the Great Stupa, Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1973

Padmasambhava & Jamgön Kongtrul, The Light of Wisdom, trans. by Erik Pema Kunsang (Boudhanath: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1986-1999), pages 43-47 & Appendix 5.

Taranatha, The Life of Padmasambhava, Shang Shung Edizioni, 2005

Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles, Shambhala, 1996.

Yeshe Tsogyal, Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, translated by Kenneth Douglas and Gwendolyn Bays (Emeryville: Dharma Publishing, 1978, republished 2008).

Yeshe Tsogyal, Lotus Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2004.

‘The Life of Guru Padmasambhava’ in A Great Treasure of Blessings, The Tertön Sogyal Trust, 2004.