The Empty Nature of Offering
At the highest levels of practice in our tradition, one works toward an understanding of the true nature of things, which is emptiness. In terms of the offering ritual, a high view might realize the insubstantial nature of the gifts, no matter how expensive or elaborate they might be, and the lack of boundary between giver and receiver. Offering in this way allows the practitioner to gather the second accumulation, wisdom. Although I don’t pretend to have any realization of this view, I think perhaps that I witnessed it in action in India this past February.
On February 25th, the festival of Chotrul Duchen just after Losar (Tibetan New Year), Thrangu Rinpoche made an elaborate long life offering to His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa. The event took place at Thrangu Rinpoche’s monastic college, the Vajravidya Institute, in Sarnath, India, which His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa often visits around Losar. It was powerful to watch Thrangu Rinpoche, the receiver of so many offerings at his 80th birthday celebration in November, turn around and offer everything back to His Holiness, as a support for His Holiness’s long life. It was equally powerful to watch His Holiness, whom I think of as constantly giving to us, receiving the offering with heartfelt gratitude.
Rinpoche had to do a great deal of work to make this elaborate offering. First, there was a lama dance of six long-life dakinis. Then there was a long succession of offerings: the eight precious substances, the eight auspicious symbols, the seven articles of royalty, and so forth (see Part II for a description of these). Wearing the pandit hat, Rinpoche chanted through the same lengthy offering text that Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche had presented at Namo Buddha, Nepal, in November. Supported by his lamas, khenpos and attendants, Rinpoche repeatedly mounted a high step in order to reach His Holiness, who was seated on a very high throne at the front of the shrine room. His Holiness had to lean way over to accept the offerings from him, and His Holiness’s attendant repeatedly reached high up to take these articles from His Holiness and place them carefully on a shrine table to the side.
I don’t speak Tibetan, nor do I have the realization necessary to comprehend the more subtle and profound aspects of the ceremony. Nonetheless, I found this ritual extremely moving and helpful. First of all, Thrangu Rinpoche was still recovering from about 18 months of ill health. He had lost a lot of weight and appeared visibly shrunken and much aged. Yet here he was, stepping repeatedly onto his bad knee to climb the steep step to His Holiness’s throne, engaged in a lengthy and physically demanding ritual. He was focused, yet completely relaxed and natural. On the other hand, there was His Holiness. Although he is no ordinary person, it can’t be easy to face the incredible daily obstacles he faces – unable to travel, living in a borrowed monastery, unable to see his aging parents or enact his activity as he wishes. During the teachings he gave that week, he admitted to feeling discouraged and confessed that he feels he hasn’t accomplished even a small part of what previous Karmapas accomplished. Yet here he was, focused and serene, accepting Rinpoche’s offering totally.
This was the moment when I realized that the offering ceremony takes one outside oneself and one’s cares, ills, and worries. Previously I had understood that the ritual was an experience of joy. I had felt my own joy and witnessed it in so many other faces. But on this occasion I suddenly understood that the offering ceremony is one of freedom – in offering everything, including one’s own perceptions, one is suddenly free of the weight of everything that commonly presses in on us. Perhaps this freedom is the fruit of true practice, springing from the realization of the empty nature of all that we experience.
And, of course, our teachers also show us that to give is to receive, and to receive is to give. After Thrangu Rinpoche’s formal offering ceremony, many lay devotees and monastics followed up with their own offerings. I watched one young Chinese woman offer His Holiness a card. To my surprise, he took it, opened it, and read it right there on the throne, in the middle of the ceremony. When I asked her about it later, she was thrilled that His Holiness had read the card, which was from her mother. It was His Holiness’s gift back to her.
Our gurus fulfill our every wish, both by giving and by receiving our gifts. I believe the rituals of offering are meant to train us to understand that giving and receiving are basically the same thing. To the extent this is true, we enrich ourselves and others immeasurably, and simultaneously, when we participate in these ancient rituals.
Thus, I am looking forward to the Ten Day teaching with a special sense of excitement and anticipation. On this occasion, our beloved abbot and teacher, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, will be the receiver, as he was the giver last November in Nepal. Together with our teachers and fellow practitioners, and blessed with the special presence of Lodro Nyima Rinpoche, we will all have the chance to experience a taste of true joy and freedom.
— Amy Schwartz