Mandala Offering – A Powerful Method to Accumulate Merits
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Offering of the Mandala by Kensur Lobsang Tharchin
It is of tremendous benefit for you to give rise to this attitude, before you undertake any activity. There is a widely followed practice in Tibetan Buddhism which is called the Four Preliminary Activities. This practice is the accumulation of 100,000 prostrations, 100,000 acts of refuge, 100,000 Mandala Offerings, and also 100,000 recitations of the one~hundred syllable mantra of Vajrasattva. This practice has been performed innumerable times in Tibet and is still being practiced daily by a great many Buddhists in India. I am reasonably sure that it is even practiced by a number of persons in this country as well.
The Sanskrit word Mandala signifies “to take something of essence.” The lowest level is to assume a human birth in a future life. The next level is that of achieving Nirvana. And the level above that, or the ultimate goal, is the attainment of Perfect Buddhahood. Further, there are two ways in which one can achieve this goal of Buddhahood: one is according to the path of the Sutras, while the other way is according to the path of the Tantras.
Thus, these three goals involve four different levels of practice and they also represent the types of “essence” one might possibly choose to strive for. The particular level one would pursue would depend upon the individual’s capacities.
In every act we undertake, we are impelled by a specific motivation. It is very important to be aware of what one’s motivations are, because they are, in fact, the determining factor with regard to the consequences or results which follow from any given act. For example, if one offers the Mandala with a motivation that is the desire to assume a human birth in a future life, then this act will be a cause for bringing about that result.
Similarly, if one offers the Mandala with a motivation which is a desire to achieve Nirvana, although the act itself is identical, the motivation will direct that same act to become, then, a cause for the attainment of Nirvana.
Regarding the two forms of Mahayana practice, that of the Sutras and that of the Tantras, the ultimate goal of both is exactly the same. The only difference between them, then, lies in the methods which are used in pursuit of that goal. According to the Sutras, it is necessary that one accumulate merit for a period of Three “Countless Kalpas.”
On the other hand, according to the Path of the Tantras the same quantity of merit can be accumulated, at the very longest, within the comparatively short period of sixteen human lifetimes. The above was stated explicitly by Buddha, in one of the Tantra scriptures.
In fact, it is possible to achieve Buddhahood in much less time than that. Specifically one can achieve Buddhahood immediately after one’s death while in the Bardo state. Or it is even possible that one might be able to achieve Buddhahood within this very lifetime prior to one’s death.
Many great beings have been able to accomplish this, both in India and Tibet. I’m sure that most of you have heard of the Saint Milarepa who, although he had accumulated great sin during the earlier years of his life, was still able to attain Perfect Enlightenment in the later part.
In more recent times, a Tibetan Lama named Trehor Kyorpon, who escaped Tibet the same year as the Dalai Lama, was able to attain Perfect Enlightenment during his lifetime. This Geshe from Drepung Monastery passed away only a few years ago in Dalhousie.
Also, presently living in Dharmsala, India, is His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is the reincarnation of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezik). With him are the Senior Tutor of the Dalai Lama, Ling Rinpoche, who is in his actual nature the Buddha Yamantaka (Shinie She), and the Junior Tutor Trichang Rinpoche, actually the Buddha Chakra Samvara (Khorlo Dompa). So there are really such people alive in the world today. Because we cannot see the actual nature of their wisdom through looking at their appearance we are not aware of this.
They are living examples of what we can aspire to; for through our own sincere efforts we, too, can achieve Enlightenment within this very lifetime. Further, it is even possible to attain this goal in the short period of twelve years. Also, it is possible to attain Enlightenment within an even shorter period, of three years and three months. In fact, there is even a practice for achieving Enlightenment by determining not to rise from your meditation posture until your goal is attained. If you entertain doubts about whether it is really possible to achieve this ideal, you need not have that uncertainty, because through your own determination and efforts you can achieve Perfection in any of these ways.
The latter methods of practice I have discussed involve the Path of the Tantras. However, no matter what path you follow, the only way that you can actually achieve Enlightenment is through accumulating merit, and the Mandala offering is one very good way for you to do this. Indeed, it is one of the most effective practices which one can undertake for this purpose.
There are many unique properties about the Mandala offering. For instance, if one offers one’s own material riches to the Three Ratnas for the purpose of paying homage to them, regardless of what the face value of the offering might be, it is most important for one to make the offering without feeling the slightest reluctance or unwillingness. However, it is usually the case that in the making of any such offering, there usually does arise a degree of reluctance. Or, if you do not experience such a feeling, you quite possibly will feel some degree of attachment to fame. That is, you might be thinking of yourself, as you are making the offering: “This is, indeed, a wonderful thing that I am doing. How virtuous other people will consider me for making this valuable offering!” Due to such an attitude, what would otherwise have been a truly virtuous act becomes robbed of much of its worth.
However, in making a Mandala Offering, you will hardly be able to experience an ungenerous thought. And there is actually no reason for feeling any desire for fame, either. When making an offering of material riches one must do so in such a way that this offering will not lead to the accumulation of a bad deed. Not only is the manner in which you make this offering important but, also, an object being offered should not have been acquired through any devious means, such as by theft. Here too it is not actually possible for a Mandala Offering to have such a fault.
These are a few of the unique qualities of this practice which make it especially valuable. The Mandala Offering is, also, very easy to practice because there is very little physical effort required to perform it.
In any description of the many benefits of the Mandala Offering, one usually is told the story of the Bikshuni Padma. She had been an Indian princess before she became a nun and, through the practice of the Mandala Offering, she was able to meet directly the Bodhisattva Arya Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezik), as clearly as we can see one another here in this room. And by asking for and receiving instruction from this great Bodhisattva she, as a result, was able to attain Enlightenment.
Also, the great Tzongkapa was able to meet many Buddhas by practicing the Mandala Offering. In particular, this practice was extremely helpful to him in his efforts to realize in a direct way the most profound of all meanings, the Shunyata Nature of all things.
Another illustration of the great importance of this practice is the story about a meeting between two of the disciples of Atisha. Atisha’s closest Tibetan disciple, who was an Upasaka named Dromtonpa, one day visited the place where another disciple, named Gonpawa, was staying. It happened that the latter’s ritual instrument for practicing the Mandala Offering was covered with dust, as it had not been used for some time.
Dromtonpa asked the reason why he had not been practicing the Mandala Offering. Gonpawa answered, “I spend all my time meditating so I have not been able to find time to offer the Mandala.” Upon hearing this, Dromtopa criticized him strongly saying that even Atisha, their guru, whose spiritual development was vastly greater than Gonpawa’s, and whose meditation was much more profound than his, offered the Mandala three times every day. After this, Gonpawa practiced the Mandala Offering more assiduously and so as a result the depth of his understanding was greatly furthered.
These accounts are mentioned for the purpose of inspiring you to take up this practice of the Mandala Offering.
The proper motivation that one should have for making the Mandala Offering was mentioned earlier. The practice consists of the ritual offering of the world, and all its wealth, to the Object of Refuge as an act of veneration. The Mandala itself is a symbolic representation of the world and the most valuable things that are contained in it. There are actually three forms to the practice: the Offering of the Outer Mandala, the Offering of the Inner Mandala, and the Offering of the Secret Mandala. The last of these is a practice that is done by followers of the Tantra Path.
First, I will describe to you how to perform the Practice of the Outer Mandala. To begin with, the base of the Mandala, called the Vajra Bhumi, or Indestructible Ground of Gold, is held with the left hand. It must never be held with an empty hand. Therefore, you must also have some grain in your hand as you hold it. At the same time, holding some more grain in your right hand, begin alternately sprinkling grain on the surface of the base and wiping it with your right forearm. At first you should rub the base in a clockwise direction, quite a few times.
There is great significance to these ritual gestures. It might appear that you are doing nothing more than, simply, wiping a round flat piece of metal with your forearm and intermittently scattering grain upon it. However, these acts have great meaning with regard to pursuing the Path. You should consider the dirt and tarnish, which are on the metal base of the Mandala, to be a representation of all the misdeeds of body, speech, and mind which have ever been committed by you, since beginningless time. The seeds of such acts remain within your being, their abiding force obscuring your mind with respect to the understanding of the true nature of reality.
The weight caused by such misdeeds can only be removed by relying upon the proper antidote to them. And of all the many types of antidotes to that bad karma, the one which is by far the most powerful is a mind which realizes the meaning of Shunyata. Thus, consider your right forearm as representing that mind, and the act of rubbing the foundation as symbolizing the application of that powerful antidote to your past misdeeds, thereby effecting a neutralization of their negative force.
Also, the grain that is sprinkled upon the surface of the base should be considered a symbol of the Six Paramitas of Dana (Generosity), Shila (Morality), Kshanti (Patience), Virya (Fortitude), Dhyana (Meditation), and, lastly, Prajna (Wisdom). The practice of these Paramitas, likewise, represents a formidable antidote to one’s bad karma. Thus, these gestures are meant to signify the process of purifying one’s past misdeeds.
The following short verse is a formula for taking refuge and also for generating the Bodhi Mind. It is to be recited while you perform these gestures
Sanggye chudang tsokkyi choknam la
Jangchup bardu dakni kyabsu chi
Dakgijinsok gyipa didak gi
Drola penchir sanggye drubpar shok.
I go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
Until Enlightenment is attained.
By these acts of Dana, etc., performed by me,
May I achieve Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.
After wiping the base of the Mandala numerous times in this clockwise fashion and reciting the formula for taking refuge and generating the Bodhi Mind, you should now do the following: wipe the base three more times, but now in a counterclockwise direction. As you are doing this, you should reflect either that this represents a receiving of the blessings of the body, speech, and mind of all of the Buddhas or that it symbolizes the attainment of all the three fundamental attitudes of the Path: Renunciation, Bodhi Mind, and Right View.
In addition to the symbolic meaning of the gestures, there is also another most significant reason for this rubbing of the base with the right forearm. It is taught in the Tantras that the human body contains 72,000 channels – or arteries – and that, through these channels (which are hollow in structure), pass vital airs. The nature of the mind is such that it will follow the movement of the vital airs, and the relationship between the two is often described as similar to that between a horse and its rider, the horse representing these vital airs of the body, and the rider representing the mind.
By coordinating the movement of this vital air, one is able to generate nobler attitudes and prevent baser ones from arising with much effectiveness. However, unless one is accomplished at this, the vital airs will not move easily through the proper channels. All these channels are connected to the heart. In particular, the one which has a direct influence on the arising of the Bodhi Mind is known to extend through the right forearm. Therefore, the external stimulus applied to that channel by rubbing the right forearm upon the base of the Mandala can serve to improve the movement of the vital air which flows along that channel and, as a result, one will be able to give rise to the Bodhi Mind with greater ease.
After these preparatory exercises one will at last be ready to arrange the Mandala Offering itself. It is explained in the Buddhist scriptures that – when the earth formed at the beginning of the present Kalpa – Mt. Sumeru, which is the greatest of all mountains, arose in the center. The outer rim of the world is said to consist of a wall-like mountain, which is made of iron.” Thus you should, first, form a thin circular line of grain on the outer edge of the Mandala base to represent the iron mountain, and then place a heap of grain in the center to represent Mt. Sumeru.
Next, in the quarter which is facing you, place a heap of grain to represent the Continent of the Eastern Direction, which is named Purva Videha.“ Proceeding now in a clock- wise direction place another heap of grain in the second quarter, to represent the Southern Continent, Jambudvipa In the third quarter, place another heap to represent the Western Continent, Godaniya and in the final, fourth quarter, place a heap to represent the Northern Continent, Uttarakuru.
Then, in the same order, place one heap on either side of each of the four continents to represent the eight subcontinents.
Each of these four continents also has a special treasure which is its greatest asset. In the Eastern Continent, it is a mountain of jewels,” in the Southern Continent, it is the wish-fulfilling tree,” in the Western Continent, it is a cow which gives an endless supply of gold,” and in the Northern Continent, it is crops which grow naturally, requiring no cultivation.” Thus you should place additional grain on top of each of the heaps which represent the various continents, in order to represent these four treasures.
The next part of the Mandala Offering concerns the wealth of sovereign authority. Traditionally, this is represented by the Seven Ratnas of the Chakravartin,” or the Wheel-Wielding Monarch. The Chakravartin is the monarch of highest sovereignty, and it is said that he appears in the world only during an age of very great fortune. The Seven Ratnas are his possessions, and they are as follows. The first is the Chakra Ratna,” or Precious Wheel, with which the Monarch is able to control the four continents. The second is the Mani Rama,” which is endowed with marvelous properties. Third is the Stri Ratna,” his queen. The fourth is the Parinayaka Ratna, the Monarch’s minister of state. Next we have the fifth, the Hasti Rama,” which is the elephant of great power and courage. Sixth is the Ashva Rama” the Monarch’s white horse of great stamina and discipline. Seventh is the Grihapati Ratna,” the chief of military forces. These seven Ratnas constitute the most important natural properties of a sovereign. In addition to these Seven Ratnas, the Vessel of Inexhaustible Wealth” is also to be included. Therefore, one should place another eight heaps of grain, in a circular fashion, just inside the circle of grain formed by the heaps representing the continents and the subcontinents.
The next part of the offering consists of the eight goddesses bearing offerings, intended to please the one to whom they are being presented. First is the goddess who performs pleasing gesticulation; second, the goddess who bears garlands; third is the goddess of song,” fourth, the goddess of drama,” fifth is the goddess of flowers,” sixth, the goddess of perfume,” seventh is the goddess who bears offerings of light,” and, lastly, the goddess bearing scented water.” These eight goddesses are represented by eight more heaps of grain, also arranged in the form of a circle forming a ring inside the previous two.
Then, slightly to the right of the center as you face the Mandala Offering, you should place one heap of grain as a representation of the Sun” and another heap on the left side to represent the Moon.” After this, place one more on the far side of the Mandala, as a representation of a jewel- studded parasol and one on the side nearest you, to represent the victory banner symbolizing a triumph over the mental obscurations.
Finally, over the entire Mandala Offering, you should pile still more grain, which represents all the remaining forms of riches and objects of enjoyment found in the world, and indulged in by both humans and deities alike.
If one uses the traditional ritual instrument for arranging the Mandala Offering, then one should complete the offering by adding on the three rings and top ornament to the mound of grain which has been constructed. With the rings, we signify the lower levels of Mt. Sumeru which, it is written, is made up of four levels, which reach to the awesome height of 80,000 Yojanas” On the very top of Sumeru lies the palace of the Lord of Deities, whose name is Shakra. This palace is represented by the crown ornament.
In short, this Mandala Offering is a symbolic representation of our world as it is described in the Buddhist scriptures. That entire world, together with all its many riches, is offered then to one’s Guru and the Three Ratnas as a form of homage and worship.
As I mentioned before, the purpose of this practice is to accumulate merit. If we are in fact able to accumulate merit by offering an object as small as a single stick of incense, then an offering of the entire world with all of its riches should certainly accumulate merit of an inconceivably great amount. Since, then, all the riches to be found in the world including both those which are human and also those which are divine could not be measured by the ordinary mind, one can surmise that an offering of such immensely great value would, likewise, result in the accumulation of a correspondingly immense degree of merit.
Some of you may feel uncertainty about the true value of this practice. Perhaps you wonder how it could be of any real value to imagine that a mound of grain heaped up in front of you is actually the entire world. However, such a though reflects a lack of understanding of what merit is, and of how it is accumulated.
All karma, good or bad, is of three fundamental types: karma of body, karma of speech, or karma of mind. The last of these three, or karma of mind, is the strongest, yielding the greatest results.