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The Symbolism of Offerings and Self - Sacrifice

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 108: the Symbolism of Offerings and Self-sacrifice

There is much that could be said about the Buddha's teaching, about the Dharma, said from a number of different points of view, but one, at least of the most significant, one, at least, of the most weighty things that can be said about it, is that the Buddha's teaching is a communication, that is to say the Buddha's teaching is a communication from one individual to another. It's a communication, essentially, from an enlightened human being, an enlightened individual, a Buddha, to an individual who is not, as yet, enlightened, not, as yet, a Buddha, but who is, nevertheless, potentially enlightened. And what we call the Buddhist scriptures are really, we may say, just so many records of that communication, that communication from the enlightened to the unenlightened individual, the enlightened to the unenlightened mind. And looking at some, at least, of these records which we call the scriptures, what is it that we see happening? We see first of all the Indian scene. We see the cloudless blue skies, we see, because this was 2500 years ago, we see the vast tracts of jungle, we see little paths making their way through the jungle. We see also at that time the Buddha walking from place to place, walking along the jungle paths, walking from village to village, sometimes even venturing into the towns, staying sometimes even on the outskirts of the towns. And as he goes from place to place, of course, on foot, the Buddha from time to time meets someone, some fellow traveller. Or else we see not walking, not for the moment walking but sitting at the foot of a tree, possibly a great banyan tree with vast overspreading branches. Or again, we see him sometimes sitting at the door of a little palm leaf hut, even sometimes at the mouth of a cave. And as he sits there by himself, perhaps in the cool of the evening, we see someone coming to see him, perhaps someone just happening to pass by and having their attention arrested by the figure of the Buddha just sitting there calmly, peacefully, radiantly. But howsoever it happens there is a meeting. The Buddha meets someone, - and as the ancient Indian custom was, especially among wanderers, - and as it still is, in fact, - what are referred to as friendly greetings are exchanged. One usually asks after the other person's health. And after the friendly greetings have been exchanged, after the usual enquiries have been made, after, as it were, to some extent provisionally identities have been established, a discussion ensues. The Buddha and the person he meets start discussing serious things, and eventually the Buddha, as it were, starts teaching. The Buddha starts, we may say, communicating, when he finds the other person attuned and ready. And what is it that the Buddha starts communicating, what is it in a word in which the essence of the teaching consists. What the Buddha starts communicating is not just any idea, any concept, any philosophy, any view, any doctrine, not even any teaching strictly speaking. What the Buddha starts communicating is nothing else than his own experience, his own direct experience of enlightenment and the way leading to that experience. He may, of course, incidentally, in order to create a sort of medium of communication, he may speak about the Four Noble Truths, about the Noble Eightfold Path.

We find him, according to the scriptures, speaking on these topics very frequently. or he may speak about mindfulness, about meditation, about the experience of higher states of consciousness, even about the various super-normal faculties which pertain to them, and even, if the listener is particularly receptive, he may start speaking, though not very often, start speaking about Nirvana itself, about the Ultimate, about the Absolute, about Reality. And according to the occasion, according to the temperaments, the background of the person to whom he is speaking, the Buddha may speak just a very few words, or, on the other hand, he may deliver a lengthy discourse lasting for several hours. On most occasions, at least according to those records that we call the scriptures, on most occasions the Buddha would, of course, speak in prose. But sometimes when the Buddha himself was particularly moved, or when the topic under discussion was of a particularly solemn nature, or when the listener seems to be extraordinarily receptive, then the Buddha would burst, as it were, into poetry, or at least, into verse. But whatever he said, and howsoever he said it, the Buddha would be communicating, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, he'd be communicating his own experience of enlightenment, his own experience of reality, communicating what it was that made him what he was, a Buddha, in short, he would be communicating himself, would, in a sense be giving himself in the course of that teaching, in the course of that communication. And what would be the effect of all this on the listener? What would be the effect of the communication? Well, to begin with, the listener might be anyone, the listener might happen to be a nobleman or a priest, might happen to be a wealthy merchant or a humble tiller of the soil, might happen to be one deeply versed in metaphysical subtleties, able to enter into all sorts of abstruse and abstract discussions, or one entirely ignorant of all that, might be a pious hermit, one who spent many, many years in penance, self-mortification, might be a robber. But whosoever the listener was, the effect of the Buddha's teaching, the Buddha's communication, the Buddha's self-communication was almost always the same. According to the scriptures the listener would be deeply impressed and deeply moved, and on occasion completely overwhelmed. And sometimes the scriptures represent the listener as saying that he or she felt as though a great light, brighter than thousand suns had suddenly arisen in the midst of blind darkness, as though something which had been knocked over had been now set upright and stood erect and strong, as though they had been wandering astray and the path had now been pointed out. Some people, we find, according to the scriptures, when the Buddha finished speaking, uttered exclamations of wonder and delight.

Others would be so deeply moved, so touched that quite spontaneously they burst into tears as soon as the Buddha finished speaking, and others who had something on their minds, maybe some crime committed in the past, some misdemeanour at least, would spontaneously confess it. And others again, sitting there listening to the Buddha, after he had finished speaking would experience a sort of profound spiritual convulsion, would feel themselves stirred right down to the very depths of their being, as though a sort of earthquake had taken place right at the very centre of themselves. And a few might even develop on the spot, as they listened to the Buddha, as the Buddha stopped speaking, develop a sort of spiritual, transcendental insight, would get a sudden glimpse of reality itself. And most of these people, most of these listeners, as a result of the Buddha's teaching, as a result of the Buddha's communication, as a result of what they had heard from the lips of the Buddha, would feel that they wanted to commit themselves, wanted to commit themselves to the Buddha, the ideal of enlightenment, to the Dharma, the way leading to that ideal, and the Sangha, the spiritual community of those following that way. In other words, in traditional language they would feel that they wanted to go for refuge. But we find that in the case of some of these people, even going for refuge was not enough. Even that did not fully express what they felt. The listener, the disciple, in Pali they are one and the same thing, savaka, the listener, the disciple felt that the Buddha had done so much for him, felt that the Buddha had opened his eyes, or rather his spiritual eye, his third eye, opened it to a whole new world of spiritual values, of spiritual experience, so felt therefore intensely grateful to the Buddha. And out of this feeling of gratitude, of love, of respect for the Buddha wanted to give something to the Buddha, wanted to do something for the Buddha. The person felt, the disciple, the listener felt that the Buddha has given him so much, in a sense had given himself, had given him, perhaps, a glimpse of reality, had given him, in a way, his own enlightened being to the extent that he was able to receive that. So the listener, the disciple wanted to give something to the Buddha. But what can you give to the Buddha? You can't give very much. What had he, or what had she to offer? Obviously, nothing spiritual. The listener, the disciple could offer only something material. So it happened that someone gave out of gratitude a piece of cloth, clothing, some, more imaginative, perhaps, gave a garland of flowers, or even a single flower, and others, those who were well-to-do offered even gardens and parks for use as retreats by the Buddha and his wandering disciples. In one of the lectures we hear that wealthy woman, after hearing a particularly edifying discourse, offered what the translators call her 'perour'. I'm not quite sure what a perour is, but it's apparently made of jewels and is extremely valuable, anyway, she gave that. What the Buddha did with it we are not told. But, often it happened that at that particular time, at that particular moment, when he or she wanted to give to the Buddha out of gratitude, the listener had nothing to hand, to give. So what did such a person do? The usual procedure was that he or she invited the Buddha home to his house, or her house for a meal the following day and expressed their gratitude, expressed their joy in a very simple, human way simply be feeding the Buddha when he came the next day. And this is the origin of the traditional Buddhist practice of making offerings.

And it's with the symbolism of offerings ...

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