Tibetan Traditions: Water Bowl Offerings

Traditional foundational practices within Vajrayana Buddhism (and many sects of Mayahana Buddhism as well) include giving offerings and prostrations to the Three Jewels — Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Yongchap practice involves the offering of seven water bowls and is very common within Vajrayana practices. Occasionally eight bowls is offered as well, to signify sound.

“The significance of offering seven water bowls is to create the cause to achieve the seven limbs, or aspects, or qualities of the Vajradhara state — enlightenment. But that does not mean that you cannot offer more, that offering more is some kind of interference!” — His Holiness Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche

In these traditions these offerings are thought to be a cure to greed and attachment. Charitable and self-less actions are considered to be helpful in releasing one from selfish attachments. Offering to the Buddhas, usually done before eating in the morning, is thought to demonstrate dedication to their teachers and deities. There is no bearing on what exactly may be offered, but it is generally recognized that such offerings should be pleasureful to the five senses, which is why incense and fruit are common offerings. When giving these offerings, it is common for Vajrayana practitioners to say or reflect upon the seven-limb prayer.

With my body, speech, and mind, humbly I prostrate.
I make offerings both set out and imagined.
I declare every unwholesome action I have ever committed.
I rejoice in the virtues of all beings.
Please stay until samsara ends,
And please turn the Wheel of Dharma for us.
I dedicate all these virtues to the great Enlightenment.

Water Offerings

Although sometimes offerings are symbolic, and the bowls simply hold water, the symbolic offerings are water for drinking, water for bathing, flowers, incense, light, perfume, and food. People who practice this generally visualize the water bowls from left to right in this manner. It is not uncommon for offerings of the real nature to be used as well.

Traditionally, in many Asian countries, these offerings are often given to honored visitors as well.

  • Water for drinking (Argham)
  • Water for washing (Padyam)
  • Flowers (Pushpe)
  • Incense (Dhupe)
  • Light: candlelight, butterlamps or fire (Aloke)
  • Perfume (Ghande)
  • Food (Naividya)
  • Sound and Music (Shabda): in eight bowl offerings, the eighth bowl represents sound. This offering is not present in the seven bowl tradition.

Over time, these offerings became known as the 8 Auspicious offerings and are thought to symbolize the forth-coming of the Buddha’s teachings to the world.

Basic Water Offering in the Morning

  1. Find seven or eight clean bowls. Most commonly used is copper, but brass, silver, porcelain or glass may be used as well.
  2. Fill a vessel with clean water. Many practitioners chant ‘OM AH HUM’ during this time.
  3. Do not place empty bowls on the shrine. Clear a space and fill the bowls before putting them upon the altar.
  4. Placing the bowls left to right, there should not be much space in-between them. Chanting is often continued during this time, although the specific mantra may vary.
  5. After all the bowls are filled and placed you may make your dedication..

Milarepa and the Empty Pot

“Before putting the bowls on the altar you should put some water in them. There is a reason for this. You may have read Milarepa’s life-story. When Milarepa made an offering to Marpa of, I think, a big copper pot, he offered it empty. It is said that he had to live on only nettles and bear great hardships in regard to food and the necessities of life because of the dependent arising due to that inauspicious offering.

Marpa, knowing that it was a little inauspicious used a skillful method and asked Mila to fill the pot with butter and wax and make a light offering. That auspicious offering was the cause for Milarepa to be able to realize shunyata and generate the clear light and illusory body in that life.” — Lama Zopa Rinpoche

End of the Day Removal of Bowls

Under normal circumstances the bowls would be emptied and dried at the end of the day, although some complete the task the morning after, at the time of their next offering.

  1. Remove the bowls, one at a time, from right to left.
  2. After drying each bowl, you may either put them face-down on the altar, or elsewhere.
  3. The water is simply disposed of in any normal manner.

This article was last revised on 02/28/2020.

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