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    Tuesday, March 23, 2010

    Water Bowl Offerings

    For this entry I’m going to explain one way to make water bowl offerings. There are many ways to do this practice, this is just is the way I do it.

    Water bowl offering is a simple way to start your day or any meditation session. I think it helps me generate the mind of Bodhicitta, the desire to quickly attain enlightenment so as to be of the greatest possible benefit for others, which is really the whole point of Buddhist practice.  Its said that water bowl offerings were introduced to Tibet by the great scholar Atisha in the 10th century CE. So you can see this is a very traditional practice but its also one that fits easily into the modern world.

    There is a seven bowl offering and also an eight bowl offering practice. I’m going to talk about the seven bowl offering. Type tibetan water bowls into Google and you’ll find dozens of merchants who sell them.

    Let’s talk about the water. Its just plain cool tap water. One of the main benefits of this practice is to transform greed into generosity.  In order to make an offering wholeheartedly, with none of that "gee I kinda wish I hadn't given you that" kind of remorse is to give something that one has little attachment to.  Since water is inexpensive and plentiful I'm able to offer it with no attachment.

    Some people make a strong cup of tea made from saffron or turmeric and then add this to the water. If your bowls are clear this gives a very nice effect. Since my bowls are copper, I skip that. The main thing to visualize as you’re filling the pitcher, is to imagine the water is of the nature of heavenly soma, the food of the sentient beings in the God realm.

    When not in use, the bowls are left inverted on the shrine. This is because leaving an empty upright bowl on the shrine is like refusing to fill the Buddha’s begging bowl as he made his daily rounds.

    So to begin I start by taking refuge and then turn the bowls upright and leave them stacked. I then begin filling the top bowl. When pouring the water you need to be mindful. Pour the water first in a gentle stream, then increasing the rate and then trailing off to a gentle stream again. If you’re familiar with the nine fold cleansing breath that can be done before starting a prayer or mantra you’ll remember that the exhalation breath starts out soft, then becomes strong then trails off as the lungs become empty.  As you pour the water repeat the mantra, OM AH HUM which refers to enlightened body, speech and mind.

    The other thing to be mindful about is that one should try to fill the first bowl almost to the rim leaving a gap about the width of one grain of barley between the rim and the surface of the water.  If your floor is uneven (like mine) just do the best you can.
    Take this top bowl and then pour almost all of the water into the second bowl. Put the first bowl to the right and then fill the third bowl using the second bowl. Continue like this until all seven bowls have water in them and are laid out in a straight row. If your shrine is small just arrange the bowls neatly. Be sure to place each bowl about the width of a barley grain apart from each other.

    Now fill each bowl almost to the rim, using water from the pitcher, again repeating the mantra OM AH HUM as each bowl is filled.

    Finally one dedicates the merit of this offering, but first I want to talk about what to do with this water after the ritual is done.  As I said, this is a good ritual to start the day. At the end of the day typically you pour the water back into the pitcher starting with the bowl on the right and drying the bowl with a clean cloth. As you clean the bowl, imagine that you are removing your own and others obscurations that prevent you from realizing your own and other’s Buddha nature.  I like to always have some kind of offering on the shrine, so I often light a candle once the bowls are empty and leave it burning over night.  Use common sense about leaving a flame unattended.  More than a few monasteries have burnt down due to unattended butter lamps.

    The water can be used to water your plants, put it into your pet’s water bowl, a bird bath or even poured down the drain as a last resort. Whatever you end up doing, make the aspiration that this water will be the cause of enlightenment for all who come in contact with it.

    This was only a very quick overview of water bowl offerings. There are many layers of symbolism that I haven’t touched on and numerous other rituals that incorporate water bowls. I’m just a lazy Dharma student so I have only presented the barest outline. Talk to a qualified lama for more information.

    So after filling all the bowls it is time to dedicate the merit of this offering for the benefit of all sentient beings. Imagine all the sentient beings - your parents, your friends, your enemies, animals, each and everyone who has been your kind mother in countless lifetimes before - now gathered around making this offering with you and making this prayer...

                       By this merit, may all attain omniscience
                       And defeat the enemy, wrong doing.
                       From the stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness and death
                       From the ocean of existence, may all beings be free!

    The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs, by Robert Beer has an excellent article on water bowl offerings.
    Ven. Thubten Chodron's book Guided Meditations on The Stages of the Path contains instructions on water bowl offerings.
    Advice from Lama Zopa can be found here.
    You can make "imaginary offerings" with virtual water too.


    Anonymous said...

    I enjoyed your description and procedure for water bowl offerings. I'm not a buddhist but love these rituals and you explained it quite simply and it was very enjoyable.


    Anonymous said...

    It is inauspicious to have empty bowls on the alter. Pour just a bit of water into each bowl, then place on alter, left to right, making mantra as you do this. Once all bowls are placed, go again to first and pour more water, to near the top, but not completely full. About one barley seed from top.

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