“The making of offerings is an antidote to the pattern of attachment and greed.”
Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche
Now that you have set up a basic shrine, it’s time to learn to make offerings, which is one of the core purposes of a shrine. The most basic and common type of offering made on a Tibetan Buddhist shrine are yonchap — water offerings.
You will need seven bowls for this, and if you have beautifully designed bowls made of silver or other precious metals, that’s wonderful, but it is not at all critical. Your bowls can be made of just about any material — such as copper, glass, or wood — as long as they are clean and represent, in your mind, an offering to the Buddha that is respectful and generous.
Your water offering bowls should be used only for your water offerings — you don’t want to use bowls from your kitchen that you also use for eating.
Why Do We Offer Water?
One reason that we offer water is that water in Tibet has traditionally been considered plentiful and free, and therefore painless to give. The idea is that all of our offerings should be given as freely as we would give water.
A primary purpose of any offering, along with honoring the Buddha and his teachings, is a pure motivation to cultivate generosity, and to reduce our selfishness, stinginess and greed.
We seek to give with an open, pure heart, with no attachment to what we are giving, and with no motivation of receiving something in return.
Paradoxically, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama often teaches, cultivating generosity and devoting ourselves to the welfare of others increases our own happiness in many ways, as we release the painful, stiff worry that accompanies greed and self-centeredness.
His Holiness encourages us to become selfishly altruistic, to become happy people by concerning ourselves primarily with the well being of others.
What Do the Seven Bowls Represent?
The water offering bowls are often considered to represent the seven aspects of prayer in the common “Seven Limb Prayer” or “Seven Part Practice”*:
- offerings to the Buddhas
- confessing our wrongs
- rejoicing in the good qualities of oneself and others
- requesting the Buddhas to remain in this world
- beseeching the Buddhas to teach others
- dedicating the merit of ourselves and others which has been accumulated throughout time, in order that all sentient beings may enjoy happiness and virtue
See the handout in the Weekly Practice sidebar for the Seven Limb Prayer in Tibetan and English.
How Should I Set Up the Water Offering Bowls?
Traditionally in Tibetan homes, someone in the family makes yonchap every morning. But in our busy lives in exile in the west, this does not tend to happen daily anymore. In our home, we only make the offerings on special holidays, like Losar and Saka Dawa. To set up the bowls:
- Start with seven clean bowls — called ting in Tibetan — and a pitcher of fresh water. Tibetans usually use silver, brass or copper bowls, which range from very plain to carved and intricately decorated treasures.
- One by one, pour a little water in each bowl before you place it on the shrine, lining the bowls up from left to right as you face the shrine. The reason to start with a little water in each bowl is that it is inauspicious to have a bowl sitting upright and empty on the shrine. (We sometimes have the bowls upside down on the shrine, while drying or between offerings.)
- Tibetan Buddhist masters explain that each bowl should be the distance of one barley seed from the next one.
- Starting from left to right, fill each bowl with water, almost to the top. Again, the common thought is that you leave the space of one barley seed from the rim of the bowl.
- While setting up your offering bowls, it is common for Tibetans to recite one of the more common mantras, like:
— Om mani padme hung (Avalokiteshvara’s mantra)
— Om muni muni maha munaye soha (Buddha Shakyamuni’s mantra)
— Om tare tuttare ture soha (Tara’s mantra)
- Others may recite what is called the kyamdro prayer. (See Week 6 for common prayers.) The prayer can be whatever you choose. What is most important is that you pray with a sincere wish to cultivate generosity and an open heart.
- In the same spirit, you might visualize that you are offering endless quantities of everything beautiful and precious, plus all the good qualities in our hearts and minds, to a vast assembly of Buddhas.
- You can put a butter lamp between the third and fourth bowls, or between the fourth and fifth bowls, symbolizing the light of wisdom, dispelling the darkness of ignorance.
- Once the bowls are filled, it is common to bless the offerings with kusha grass (also called elephant grass) or any kind of clean straw or grasses, or even a thin stick that you may have access to. To do this, you dip your grasses into one of the bowls and sprinkle the shrine with water, reciting the purifying mantra “om a hum.” (From Khandro.net) We have gotten out of the habit of doing this in the U.S. simply due to a lack of kusha grass, though of course one could use any clean straw or grasses or stick!
- Finally, you can dedicate the merit you have gained by the offerings to the elimination of suffering and its causes for all sentient beings.
Removing the Offerings
Normally, we will remove the bowls at the end of each day, any time before sunset. In central Tibet, this commonly happens as early as 3 p.m., but you can do it any time.
- Empty the bowls one by one, starting from the right this time, drying each one as you empty it with a clean cloth.
- When you are done, stack the bowls upside down as you see in the images here, and if you can, offer the used water to your plants.
May water offerings help you to cultivate generosity and to be relieved of the pain of selfishness and greed!
* See a very nice teaching on the Seven-Limb Practice at the Berzin Archives site >>
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Dorothea Lobsang Liebel says
I just want to say thank you for all your teachings!
Qi Yong says
Can I ask if it is appropriate to use shot glasses (brand new) for the water offering? I tried using brass bowls but I find that they get tarnished by water. Personally, I was thinking of using glass as a material because they don’t tarnish.
Any advice on the matter is greatly appreciated!! Thank you.
Lobsang and Yolanda says
Yes that’s fine. Your intention is the important thing.
Ellen Mefford says
Thank you for this instruction. I am very grateful.
Lobsang and Yolanda says
It’s our pleasure Ellen! We are happy this is useful for you!
Gina Feliciano says
Truly appreciate the lessons and explanations. It’s helping me further my practice and study. I’m really moved and inspired ( for lack of better words!).
Lobsang and Yolanda says
Thanks so much Gina! We are glad this helps you and appreciate your kind words!
Graham Edds says
Thank you for giving these lessons! I was wondering however if you should do anything in particular with the water when removing the offerings?
Many thanks in advance.
Thanks, Graham! You can use it to water plants, or if you have to can just discard.
Piper O'Sullivan says
I’m really enjoying this course. Thank you for the wonderful lessons– suggested readings and videos!
William Swain says
Thank you for your teachings which great fully aid my offerings to the Buddhas. Many blessings G’s be returned to you abundantly. the
Thank you so much for your kind thoughts and wishes, William!
Michael Cunningham says
Much gratitude for your site! Your explanations of the physical practices helps greatly to fill in details and underlying basis for the practices. Thanks again.
Barbara Schuetz says
I have had a set of small brass offering bowls for a long time but was never quite sure how to use them properly. Thank you so much for this teaching and video. I can now put them to good use!