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The Symbolism of Offerings and Self - Sacrifice

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by Sangharakshita

... and self-sacrifice that we are concerned this evening.

Now, the Buddha lived as Buddha that is to say, as an enlightened individual, for 45 years, and then came what tradition calls the parinirvana, the final passing away, the dissociation of the enlightened consciousness from the physical body. But after the parinirvana, after the physical passing away of the Buddha people still felt intense gratitude towards the Buddha, felt gratitude for the teaching, if anything, as the teaching spread, as people found it more and more effective in practice they felt more grateful than ever. And they still wanted, even after the parinirvana, still wanted to express that gratitude. But the Buddha, having passed away was no longer present in the flesh to receive the expressions of their gratitude, to receive their offerings. So we find in the century or so after the parinirvana that the practice developed of making offerings, offerings which would have been made to the Buddha, had he still been living, making offerings to the Stupas, or rather making them to relics of the Buddha, ashes, fragments of bone and so on enshrined in the stupas. Or even making them to the stupas in memory of the Buddha. And you may recollect that we dealt with the Tantric symbolism of the stupa in the course of the second lecture.

Now, this practice of making offerings to stupas is usually known in English books on the subject as 'stupa worship'. But it isn't really that. If anyone is being worshipped through the stupa, it's the Buddha, worshipped, if we can use that expression at all out of a feeling of gratitude, gratitude for the teaching. So we find that for several hundred years after the parinirvana stupa worship, as we may call it, was a prominent feature of all forms of Buddhism, a prominent feature, that is to say, of popular Buddhism. It occupied a very important place in the religious life, the practical religious life of the laity. As far as we know the monks were still not so much concerned with stupa worship. They devoted themselves rather to meditation. Now, we find, we know from literary records, archaeological evidence, we know that the stupas during this period were not only worshipped, the Buddha not only worshipped through the stupa, but we find that the stupas were also elaborately decorated. We find that they were festooned with garlands of flowers, they were hung with flags and banners, and bells, and, in fact, we find that they became centres eventually of great religious festivals. People would spend years upon years building a magnificent stupa and then spend months decorating it, then there'd be festivals going on for weeks and weeks, and during these festivals people would spend the whole day circumambulating the stupa, chanting and making offerings of various kinds, lighting lamps especially. So this sort of practice, this sort of cult, if you like, centring upon the stupa, was a very prominent feature of popular Buddhism in India for some hundreds of years after the parinirvana. But the, we find, a change took place. And what was that change? The change was that the Buddha image appeared. Now, there is no general agreement among scholars and historians as to exactly where the first image of the Buddha, the first representation of the Buddha in stone appeared. Some say it was in Gandhara, others in Matura, others even say that it was in Ceylon. But wheresover it first appeared it very quickly became popular all over India and all over the Buddhist East. It was taken up by all forms of Buddhism. And the Buddha image had remained, as we know, popular right to the present, so much so that we can hardly think, nowadays, of Buddhism without the Buddha image. And for some people, perhaps not very well informed the Buddha image is Buddhism.

Now, the introduction of the Buddha image had important consequences for the whole of popular Buddhism. As a result of the introduction of the Buddha image stupa worship declined in popularity. Popular devotion was largely transferred to the Buddha image. It's not that the stupa was entirely neglected, in fact, it continued to be venerated right to modern times, but, for all practical purposes, the Buddha image became THE object, THE centre of popular worship, popular devotion. And the offerings which formerly were made to the stupas now came to be made to the images. Indeed we may say that after the introduction of the Buddha image offerings became more and more elaborate, not only that, but assumed a deeper and deeper significance.

So, it's to the significance, to the symbolism of these offerings that we now direct our attention.

And we are going to consider the symbolism of offerings and of self-sacrifice first in the Hinayana, then in the Mahayana, and finally in the Vajrayana or the Tantra. And we'll consider the symbolism of the offerings and self-sacrifice in greater detail when we come to the Vajrayana or Tantra. So, first of all, symbolism of offerings in the Hinayana. The Hinayana consisted, originally, of quite a number of different schools. Traditionally there were 18 Hinayana schools, but only one of these survives as an independent entity, and that is the school known as the Theravada school or tradition of the Elders, - elders here means the elder monks, senior monks.

And Theravada, as probably everybody knows, is that form of Buddhism which now prevails in Ceylon, in Burma, in Thailand and so on. And if we turn to these countries, if we visit these countries, or even read about them or look at picture books devoted to them, we find that in all these countries, in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand and so on, there are very many temples, beautiful temples. And in the temples there are enshrined an enormous number of beautiful Buddha images. And to these images offerings are made every day. And usually, in Theravada countries, only three things are offered. First of all lighted lamps or candles, then flowers and then lighted incense sticks. And the offerings are made by each person individually, usually there is no such thing as congregational worship. You go along in your way, at your time, at your own convenience, with your little tray of offerings and you offer them yourself directly, at the feet, as it were, of the Buddha. And there may be a number of people making their offerings to the same image of the Buddha at the same time, or you may be on your own entirely. But as you offer each item you recite appropriate verses in Pali. And these verses remind you of the significance, if you like, of the symbolism, of what you are offering. For instance, when you offer lights, when you offer a lighted lamp or a lighted candle, you recite a little verse which says, incidentally, as part of the verse: 'I offer this light to the Buddha who is the light of the three worlds' - and this acts as a reminder, the Buddha is the light of the three worlds illuminating the three worlds, that is to say, the whole of mundane existence with the light of his wisdom, the light of his knowledge, the light of his supreme realisation. So this is the first thing that the offering of the light reminds one of. And then it suggests that one light, one lamp can be lit from another, in the same way that the Buddha has lit the lamp of wisdom in his heart, we too can light the lamp of wisdom in our hearts, lighting it, as it were, from the already kindled light which is the Buddha's wisdom. And we find in some ceremonies, on some occasions, in the Theravada countries that there are on the altar 37 candles, or 37 lamps. And these symbolise the 37 Bodhipakyadhammas, as they are called, or 37 practices leading to enlightenment. And in the course of the ceremony, each candle, each of the 37 candles is lit from a larger central candle which, of course, symbolises the Buddha. So here we see the symbolism of the offerings of the lamp or light in the Theravada countries.

And secondly, flowers are offered. Here there are quite a number of verses, one can usually take one's choice or even recite them all. And one of the verses, or one of the lines rather, tells us, or reminds us that the flowers which we offer are now fresh and bright and beautiful, perhaps with the dew still glistening upon them, but what will they look like later on? Even that very evening? They'll be dry, they'll be withered, perhaps even a little smelly. So, the verse goes on to remind us that all mundane things are like that, today bright, beautiful, attractive and so on, but tomorrow dry, withered, perhaps even malodorous. So the offering of the flowers is a reminder of the fact of the truth of universal impermanence, that nothing lasts, nothing stays, everything fades, everything flows, so that one should not be attached to anything, not hang on to anything, - experience, yes, enjoy even, but as it goes, and letting it go, not trying to hang on, not trying to cling on, wanting something is essentially impermanent to be made permanent, which is impossible. And at the same time underneath the flow, underneath the flux of transient things seeing just like the unmoved depths of the ocean, deep underneath the waves of the surface, seeing ultimate reality itself, unchanging, eternal, with which through the flux of phenomena one can be, if one sees deeply enough, looks deeply enough, in contact. So this is the symbolism of the flower offering in the Theravada.

And then thirdly, one offers lighted incense sticks. And here too there is a variety of verses for choice. One is reminded that the sweet fragrance of the lighted incense stick spreads in all directions, a little of it goes a very long way. Scent, we are told, is a very wonderful thing, that a tiny, tiny quantity, absolutely microscopic, can make itself felt over a very wide area. And it's just like that with the practice of the Dharma, the practice of the truth, practice of the teaching.

You practise it even a little and there is an effect, ...

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