During ancient times in India, devoted Buddhist households would make offerings to the Buddha, monks and nuns as part of their daily customs. In general, offerings are considered as an antidote to greed and attachment. Offering to the Buddha and his disciples (usually in the morning before one eats) demonstrates the devotee’s selfless dedication to his/her Bodhisattva vows and acts as a way to express gratitude and respect for the Buddha.
Anything can be offered, as long as it is pleasing to the five senses. Hence, the offerings usually include clean water for drinking and bathing, flowers, incense, light or lamp, perfume and music. These offerings eventually became known as the Eight Auspicious Offerings and represents the coming forth of the Buddha’s precious teachings into the world.
Typically, there are seven offering bowls and one light on a Tibetan Buddhist altar. They are arranged on the altar in a straight line close together. Each offering has a symbolic meaning and purpose that corresponds to a significant Buddhist prayer called the Seven Limb Puja.
First Offering Bowl – Water for Drinking | ARGHAM
Water has eight qualities, which are crystal clarity, coolness, sweetness, lightness, softness, freedom from impurities, soothing to the stomach and makes the throat clear and free. As such, water is offered to the Buddha for drinking and to cleanse his mouth or face. This offering symbolizes the auspicious results of all virtuous causes and conditions. In the Seven Limb Puja, it represents Homage and Prostration.
Second Offering Bowl – Water for Bathing | PADHYAM
Pure and clean water is offered to the Buddha for bathing. Usually, the water is scented with sandalwood, and is used to bathe the feet. This offering symbolizes purification of our negative karma and obscuration. In the Seven Limb Puja it represents Offering.
Third Offering Bowl – Flowers | PUSHPE
All types of flowers can be offered, including medicinal flowers, fruits and grains. The offering of flowers symbolizes the beauty and flowering of Enlightenment and signifies the opening of one’s heart. In the Seven Limb Puja, the flower represents Confession.
Fourth Offering Bowl – Incense | DHUPE
Incense emits a beautiful scent. When offered to the Buddha, it symbolizes morality, ethics and discipline which are the basic causes and conditions from which pure enlightened qualities are cultivated. In the Seven Limb Puja, incense represents Rejoicing in all the virtue in the world.
Fifth Offering Bowl – Light | ALOKHE
This light used for offering comes in different forms, including all natural light, such as the sun, moon and stars, as well as all types of man-made forms of light such as lamps and candles. This offering symbolizes the dispelling of all darkness of the mind and all ignorance. In the Seven Limb Puja, light represents Requesting the Buddha to always offer Dharma teaching.
Sixth Offering Bowl – Perfume | GENDHE
All types of beautiful fragrance or perfume that one can smell or put on the body can be used for this offering. Perfume is offered to the Buddha’s mind and symbolizes the perseverance and joyful effort that is the heart of Enlightenment. Without perseverance, all the other enlightened qualities could not arise in the mind. In the Seven Limb Puja, the perfume represents Beseeching the Buddha to remain in the world.
Seventh Offering Bowl – Celestial Food | NEVIDHYA
Excellent, delicious food of all kinds and various tastes is offered to the Three Jewels. This offering symbolizes the clear and stable mind of Samadhi, or meditative absorption. In the Seven Limb Puja, food represents Dedication of all merit for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Eighth Offering Bowl – Music | SHABTA
Musical instruments such as cymbals, bells, lutes, and string instruments that create beautiful sound is offered to the ears of the Buddha. Sound symbolizes the Buddha’s Wisdom nature and the extraordinary Compassion that arises naturally from the Wisdom mind. In the Seven Limb Puja, it is said that there is no eighth bowl for sound because sound is non-visual.
Water for Purity
Other practices emphasizes just seven bowls of water, which represents the absolute purity of the Buddha. The Buddha obviously do not require food, incense or water. Hence, the act of offering is for our own benefit instead, to show we think of our Bodhisattva vows first, that we wish to overcome attachments to these very things we offer.
Offerings should be easy to obtain in Buddhism. If we are somehow compelled to offer precious gems, gold and money that we do not have, we might hurt others by cheating, stealing or holding back our normal generosity (giving less) just to pay for offerings. This is against the principles of Buddhist offerings. For this reason, water, the most plentiful substance in most areas, is the chosen offering. When we have nothing to offer, it is more than sufficient to offer just over selves and our prayers, thoughts and meritorious actions.
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