In Giving There is Joy
As beginners in the dharma, we can easily become distracted or seduced by the beauty and power of Tibetan Buddhist rituals. However, our aim as practitioners is not just to watch, but also to practice! To that end, our teachers often remind us to look beneath the richly textured outer layer of these rituals, and penetrate to their heart. We can only do this through repeatedly joining our minds to the texts and rituals, and letting them gradually work on us. Whether making offerings, prostrating, taking vows, or saying mantras, we work with these practices until they make sense to us, beyond the initial outer level of simply doing them “correctly.” As we gradually move from mere gestures to genuine practice, these rituals are our supports. Even so, we must acknowledge that these practices are incredibly profound, with levels of meaning we may not achieve or realize in our current lifetime. Luckily, though, we can get quite far, even if we are beginners! And we can learn so much by following the example of our teachers.
Last November, I had the good fortune to attend a ten-day long life ceremony in honor of the Very Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche’s 80th birthday. It’s traditional for Tibetan practitioners to make offerings to the gurus on special occasions such as birthday celebrations, prayer festivals such as the Kagyu Monlam, Losar (Tibetan New Year), and the end of a teaching. Making an offering allows the giver to generate merit, which can then be dedicated to the welfare of others. Offering to the entire sangha (all the monastics in attendance), however small the monetary gift, allows the giver to form a karmic connection with the monks and nuns, and to support their practice of dharma.
For this ceremony, hundreds of Thrangu Rinpoche’s khenpos, monks and nuns, his Asian and western lay students, and the realized lamas of Thrangu Monastery in Tibet, including Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche and Lodro Nyima Rinpoche, converged at Namo Buddha, Thrangu Rinpoche’s mountaintop monastery in Nepal.
Those in attendance made countless offerings for Thrangu Rinpoche’s long life and flourishing dharma practice. Each day, a long line of devotees snaked along the shrine room’s central aisle and down the stairs into the vast foyer underneath the temple. I was extremely happy and fortunate to be able to make an offering at this auspicious occasion, using money left to me by my father, who had died a few months earlier. In fact I got to make two, because I also participated in making KTD’s offering. The number, variety, and beauty of the various offerings were simply amazing. They included a crystal stupa holding a relic, so holy we were forbidden to photograph it; a large, 3-dimensional mandala palace gilded in gold; a set of new rugs for the shrine room, made in Tibet; a complete set of the texts of the Geluk tradition; applique’ed thangkas; statues; many sets of the eight auspicious substances, the eight auspicious symbols, and the seven precious articles of royalty; and countless mandala plates gilded in silver or gold, as well as monetary offerings. Thrangu Rinpoche’s Hong Kong center also made a substantial offering to the local community on his behalf: it gave a large sack of rice to every villager who showed up to claim one.
Despite the pomp, Thrangu Rinpoche was completely at ease with this effusive display of reverence and generosity. When we were making KTD’s offering, the aisle was so crowded that I got stuck to one side, right next to Rinpoche’s throne. I couldn’t get around the traffic flow, so I just relaxed there. It was wonderful to witness up close Rinpoche’s joy as he blessed each person filing by. He was surrounded by piles of khatas and offerings, but he was completely relaxed and natural. I had the sense that his evident joy was all on our behalf; he was happy to meet us in such an auspicious way, and he was happy that we were generating merit!
Another deeply moving example of offering was the moment when Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, the senior lama in attendance, chanted the ritual text of offering to Thrangu Rinpoche. He offered, in succession, the above-mentioned precious substances, symbols and articles, and probably much else (I could not understand the text). For this occasion, Khenpo Rinpoche wore his most formal robes, including the pandit hat. It was a long ceremony, and he sometimes sat on a chair in between the various offering sections; Lama Karma Drodhul was at his side, holding his text and helping him. Rinpoche’s trip to Nepal at the age of 89 could be seen as a part of this offering; it was surely not an easy journey for him. We might also see the dedication of his entire life to the dharma as part of his offering. Although I was at the back of the shrine room and could not see Rinpoche, I could hear him very clearly. I knew there was much I was missing, yet what I received was immeasurably great.
This event brought home to me the dharma’s incredible potential for transformation. Givers and receiver alike were filled with joy, and a spirit of abundance and well-being pervaded the entire event, spilling over to encompass the local people in the nearby village.
— Amy Schwartz
 According to Thrangu Rinpoche, these traditional offerings recall events in the Buddha’s life, aspects of the Buddha’s appearance in the world, and the key elements of dharma practice. The 8 auspicious substances are the conch shell, yogurt, durva grass, vermillion, bilva fruit, the mirror, givam (medicine made from an elephant’s bladder), and white mustard seed. The 8 auspicious symbols are the umbrella (the Buddha’s head), the fish (his eyes), the vase (his throat), the conch (his speech), the victory banner (his form), the glorious knot (his mind and heart), the lotus flower (his tongue), and the wheel (his feet, turning toward the dharma). The 7 articles of royalty are the wheel (penetrating insight), the jewel (faith), the queen (Samadhi, meditative absorption), the minister (joy), the elephant (mindfulness), the horse (diligence), and the general (equanimity). See Thrangu Rinpoche’s Medicine Buddha teachings, published in several formats.