A Ceremony of Offering to the Gurus: Part I, On the Importance of Making Offerings

90thbirthdayIn just a few days, many fortunate members of the KTD mandala will gather at KTD for the annual Ten Day Teaching. We will celebrate Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s 90th birthday with prayers and practices for his long life and the long lives of all the Kagyu gurus, especially His Holiness, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa.

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Lodro Nyima Rinpoche, Khenpo Karthar’s nephew

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On this auspicious occasion, we are especially blessed to have Lodro Nyima Rinpoche, Khenpo Karthar’s nephew, joining us from Thrangu Monastery in Tibet.

There will be many rituals of offering during the celebrations. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche is building a special White Tara shrine, to which many of us have contributed, and students will make additional offerings to the teachers and lineage masters. But what exactly goes into an offering, and how does one go about making it?

At first glance, the offering rituals in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition can seem foreign and even cryptic. Certainly they are quite ancient, having been been passed down to us by the faithful practitioners of Tibet who kept them intact through wars, invasions, and exile. Like all religious rituals, though, these practices are actually universally relevant and accessible. A small amount of cultural translation or familiarization is all that’s needed.  As Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche has said, one learns the meaning of the practice through doing the practice.[1]


Thrangu Rinpoche offers a mandala during a puja with His Holiness Gyalwang Karmapa, VVI, Sarnath, India, February, 2013. Photo by Karma Jangchup, VVFBP
Thrangu Rinpoche offers a mandala during a puja with His Holiness Gyalwang Karmapa, VVI, Sarnath, India, February, 2013. Photo by Karma Jangchup, VVFBP

One of the first rituals that new dharma students encounter is the offering of a mandala before any teaching.  Many of us spend this short four-line prayer fumbling to get our two hands into the intricate mudra of the offering mandala.  The word “mandala” gives some hint to the complexity of this seemingly simply ritual.  A mandala can be made of sand; it can be a geometric design painted on a wall or ceiling or thangka; or it can be a 3-dimensional palace, full of detailed parts and pieces, with a deity on a throne in its heart center.  Mandala is also the term for the multi-layered plate which Tibetan Buddhists fill with rice and offer to teachers and the three jewels (the Buddha, dharma and sangha). And Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s White Tara shrine is also a mandala. In all these cases, a mandala is a representation of the universe, with its various features.  By offering a mandala, we are in fact trying to give away everything possible, everything that exists, including our own way of seeing the universe.  This is possible because, as the teachers remind us, there is in fact no boundary between self or other, and no inherent, permanent existence to anything.  Thus we can lay claim to all of it, and give it all away. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche says about offering that mentally, you offer everything you have, everything you are, and everything you will become to your teacher or to the three jewels. Practically, you offer whatever you can afford. [2] You do these simultaneously.  In our tradition, you do it repeatedly.

Truly making a vast offering is quite difficult. It is hard for many of us westerners even to make a financial contribution of $50 or $100.  We’re accustomed to getting something in return for every transaction. We wonder how much we should give:  “What is this weekend teaching worth?”  We worry both about giving too much and giving too little.  We feel inadequate, or stingy, or profligate. These self-involved thoughts can overwhelm us and dominate our experience of offering.

His Holiness accepting offerings from Thrangu Rinpoche, VVI, Sarnath, India, Feb, 2013. Photo by Karma Jangchup, VVFBP
His Holiness accepting offerings from Thrangu Rinpoche, VVI, Sarnath, India, Feb, 2013. Photo by Karma Jangchup, VVFBP

Fortunately, as new students, we can follow the examples of our dharma friends and teachers.  They can point the way and shorten the journey for us. They can show us how to be less tight – financially and otherwise. On my recent trip to India and Nepal, I was deeply moved and powerfully instructed by the many rituals of offering I witnessed, and also by some that I participated in. I learned that the ritual of offering is meant to be an experience of great joy, a time for abandoning all thoughts of self, and a moment when we can get a real taste of freedom. I learned this from watching my precious teachers – the Very Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, and His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa – as they participated in these ancient rituals.

Although we may not be able to practice the offering rituals with the accomplishment and realization of great masters, we can train and follow their example, giving without regret, joyfully and freely. Through participating in the ritual of offering, we are practicing generosity, and the results can be transformative and profound. Thus we have a very special opportunity in the events lying just ahead of us.

— Amy Schwartz

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[1]“The true meaning is in actually doing the practice.”  Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, “Vajrasattva Practice Instruction,” p. 7
[2]Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, “The Garland of Pearls:  Gampopa’s Assembly Dharmas.” Audio CD. Hartford KTC, 2005-2006.

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