Offering water bowls is an easy and pleasurable meritorious activity widely practiced in Tibetan Buddhism. When we visit a temple, we often see many silver or copper bowls filled with water. But, why do we offer water to inanimate statues? Nobody is drinking this water, so why do Buddhists offer it?
In this excerpt from his book, A Lamp Illuminating the Path to Liberation, Khenpo Gyaltsen relates the history of offering water. Moreover, he instructs us on the proper motivation and intention we should adopt when offering. Fortunately, most of us can afford to make water offerings even if we have very limited means. And as Khenpo explains, water’s purity gives it great power.
In the following commentary, Khenpo gives a detailed explanation of how to arrange the physical offerings. He has kindly anticipated many of our questions and gives very practical advice.
How to Make Water Offerings, and their Benefits
Offering butter lamps and making water offerings are known as material offerings. Making prostrations, circumambulations, and the like are known as offerings of veneration. Striving in study, contemplation, and meditation are known as offerings of practice.
Water Offerings Themselves
This tradition was accepted by the masters of the past as a practice unique to Tibet, established there by the peerless master Atisha and not found in any other land. The story goes that, when he first arrived in Ngari, Atisha was exceptionally taken with the landscape of the region. It made him think that one could accumulate limitless merit by simply offering water to the Three Jewels using the pure ground water so readily available in Tibet. Thereby, the tradition of making water offerings is said to have originated in that region. According to Gendun Chöpel, however, this tradition had already long been propagated in countries such as India and Burma.
Water offerings are said to have more powerful benefits than other material offerings, including even gold and silver. This is because water is unlike any other offering substance, for rich and poor alike can relinquish water more easily than any other offering substance. It can be offered without regret, untainted by stinginess and the like, for the sake of merit and virtue.
How to Make Water Offerings
When you make a water offering, it is best not to be attached to a specific number of offering bowls and to just offer as many bowls of water as possible. In general, it is not absolutely necessary to offer seven individual bowls except when making the seven traditional types of offering (drinking water, rinsing water, flowers, incense, lamps, perfumed water, and food). In olden times, offering bowls made of precious materials such as gold, silver, copper, and bronze, as well as those made of iron, were rare. Nevertheless, earthenware offering bowls and vessels are said to contain all the five precious substances, and so were regarded as important.
First, wipe clean the offering surface and the offering bowls. Then, stack the offering bowls and pour just a little water in the top bowl. Distribute that water to the other offering bowls, one by one, and arrange them in a line. When aligning them, you should start from the right and place them in a perfectly straight horizontal line. [Note than this is said from the perspective of the shrine itself, for instance the shrine’s right being one’s own left when facing the shrine.] It is taught that one should leave an empty space, enough to fit a single grain of barley, between the rims of the offering bowls and also between the rim and the top of the water. When offering the bowls, proceed from the right hand side.
When collecting them, they should be gathered up from the left. If possible, you should use separate containers for offering the water and for collecting it.
The actual water to be offered should ideally be endowed with the following eight qualities:
Cool, tasty, and light,
Soft, clear, and odorless,
Not harming the throat
Nor the stomach when drunk—
These are the qualities eight.
As stated above, the eight qualities are cool, tasty, light, soft, clear, odorless, not upsetting the stomach, and not harming the throat when drunk. If you cannot get such water, there is nothing wrong with offering the water you regularly drink yourself.
How to Adjust Your Initial Motivation When Making a Water Offering
The protector Nāgārjuna said:
Desire, anger, and ignorance
Generate karma which is non-virtuous.
Lack of desire, of anger, of ignorance—
These produce karma which is virtuous.
Thus, if one is able to generate the motivation that thinks, “In order to attain the state of buddhahood for the benefit of all my mother sentient beings, I will first make offerings to the Three Jewels in order to accumulate merit!” then the entire karma of the actual practice of making water offerings will become virtuous. Atisha has said:
If the root itself is medicine, then the branches become medicine.
This teaching is an excerpt from A Lamp Illuminating the Path to Liberation: An Explanation of Essential Topics for Dharma Students by Khenpo Gyaltsen (translated by Lhasey Lotsawa Translations, Nepal: 2014, pp. 86-92).
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