The Eight Offerings: a practice for cultivating flexibility and 'give'

by Tarchin Hearn


(This essay was originally written and shared as an e-mail article in 2004.  It has been slightly modified for Green Dharma Treasury)

All of nature, in fact the entire living world, is a dance of continuous offering; one thing giving itself to another.  Rain moistening ground and ground water evaporating and birthing clouds.  Sunlight energising plants and plants modifying sunlight.  Creatures being food for others who, in turn, become food for yet others.  Parents caring for children and children caring for parents.  Giving and receiving.  Receiving and giving.  These flows of transformation comprise the ungraspable substance and beingness of everything and everyone.  From a Buddhist perspective, one could say that the entire path of awakening revolves around recognising, and releasing into, this spontaneous fluidity of responsive exchange.  All newness is generated from this dancing ‘generosity’.

In contrast, we might be facing a starkness of pain and suffering, anguish and worry, plotting and planning, the chaos of terror and the dreaming of security; these all too common energies, help to craft a frozen world of forgetfulness; a way of living that seems oblivious to the dynamic creative multi-weaving processes of generosity and generation that we are.

How can we thaw?
How can we soften?
How can we make the brittle more malleable and the stiff both warm and flexible,
– full of give –
– more giving?
This is a perennial question.  It is perhaps the fundamental challenge of living.

Most religions have practices that encourage the cultivation of generosity.  In the Tibetan tradition, especially in what are called the lower tantras, there are many public displays that involve making extensive and elaborate offerings.  Thousands of butter lamps, bowls of water, flowers, food and so forth, are stacked up in front of statues or paintings of the Buddha.  In Southeast Asia the temples are filled with offerings, often given by people who are materially very poor.  In 2001, we were travelling in Myanmar where it was explained to us that by making offerings, people were “accumulating merit”.  By giving as much as they could today, they hoped to be born wealthy in a future life.  This is the point where many western Buddhists can begin to experience flutterings of doubt and disconnect.  Psychologically, it seems too much like trying to bribe or placate ‘the deities’, not to mention looking like a very convenient way of financing the monasteries.  Undoubtedly, when in the flow of religious devotion, these rituals of giving can be very uplifting, but when you are exercising your intellect and capacity for critical thinking, you might find yourself wondering, what this religious tinsel and decoration has to do with the cultivation of mindfulness, awareness, and wise, compassionate activity?   Many people, I have spoken to, prefer to dispense with all ritual.  ‘It might be okay for those people, it’s part of their culture, but we need a practice that is in harmony with our culture.’

Actually, some of the things that are in harmony with our culture are quite bleak.  A culture is a growth medium – think of petri dishes or yogurt culture.  The one I grew up in, (and probably the one you grew up in), is a culture that is massively engaged in consumerism.  It is a culture dedicated to establishing and maintaining one’s identity on the basis of what one owns and also, on the degree to which one can control the material world.  Our sense of self is amazingly tied up with acquisition – whether it be of things or knowledge.  Success is commonly defined on the basis of having lots of stuff and lots of control.  We live and grow in a culture of grasping and self interest; a tragic mix of fantastic material wealth often running hand in hand with mindsets of poverty.  It seems ironic that in the midst of so much ‘plenty’ there is often a pervasive feeling of ‘never enough’, coupled with fear of loosing what we do have.  All of this yearning, striving and fearing contributes to an inflexibility, a lack of give; a stiffness in body, speech and mind that warps our ability to respond to others in creative, live-affirming ways.

In classical Buddhist teaching, the antidote to greed, self interest and compulsive grasping involves the cultivation of generosity; the intentional practice of giving and offering.  Here we can begin to understand the Burmese belief that by giving to the temple, they are ‘accumulating merit’.  The Sanskrit word punya, is  commonly translated as meritorious, auspicious or virtuous.  According to Namgyal Rinpoché, an inner meaning of punya is ‘power’.  ‘Accumulating merit’, through the practice of generosity, means to accumulate, or cultivate, or generate healthy energy; a powerful ability to compassionately, responsively and skilfully live in, and as, this constantly changing present-mystery of what is.

Just as an engineer or architect considers the degree of ‘give’ or flexibility in the materials they use for a bridge or a building, thus ensuring that it can gently flex and bend in response to wind and earthquake – a brittle structure might fracture and fall down – so too, we practice ‘give’ or ‘giving’ in order to help cultivate a wider and more subtle range of responsiveness, so that we can move well with any situation or circumstance.  This responsive moving is the fundamental language, or languaging, of all relationship and communal living.

In the teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism, there are eight traditional offerings: water for drinking, water for washing the feet, flowers, incense, light, perfumes, food, and music or sound.  Each day, and sometimes many times a day, these would be offered to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, (or to other symbols that, for the practitioner, represent the blossoming of wisdom and compassion) .  At the deepest level, these offerings can be profoundly liberating practices that have little to do with giving flowers and incense to brass statues or paintings, or even living teachers.  The Buddha really doesn’t need water and candles and incense.  Liberation can’t be bought for 100,000 butter lamps!

The eight offerings represent inner qualities of being that we aspire to cultivate and bring forth into the world through the various activities of our body, speech and mind.  Although this process is often enacted in real and tangible ways – so many bowls of water and so many sticks of incense – this offering practice can become a yoga or a sadhana which has the power to profoundly transform the way we live.  By cultivating the essential meaning hinted at by these eight symbols, we remind ourselves of what is truly valuable.  Loosening the strings of attachment, and resting with increasing confidence in an inexhaustible flow of mutual shaping and support, we gradually recognise and appreciate the real wealth that is in all of us.  Entering this vast flow of offering is the heart and vitality of true empowerment.  It is naturally discoverable in any situation or circumstance.

The following words are written in the first person.  Please take them to heart and make them your own.  This is you speaking – whisperings of encouragement from your own wellspring of intuition and deep understanding.  See if you can allow the intent behind these images to flower in the midst of your on-going direct experience.


A Practice of Eight Offerings

I rest at ease, enjoying the flow of my breathing.  Within me and around me is the shrine of the world – a monastery of becoming.  The clouds in the sky, the rabbits on the lawn, the meditators in their huts, the birds singing bell-like in the bush, the river rushing in the valley, the farmer bringing in the cows for milking, this is where I am.  (Open your senses to appreciate the specific situation and circumstances of where you are.  Relish the detail and marinate in the fullness of the scene around you.)

I feel the presence of my mentors and teachers inspiring awakening in the marrow of my being.  I sense my ancestors, a river of talent flowing through the changing landscapes of time.  I rest in the immense ecology of this living world, breathing with a matrix of beings and being.  I pray for the well-fare of all of you and make offerings to give myself away.

To all of you, teachers, ancestors and the immeasurable matrix of life, I offer water for drinking.  Crystal water flowing through my body purifying the sense doors.  Cleansing my seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and mental activity so that I can meet the world, just as it is, to be utterly present and compassionately responsive to every arising object, whether inner or outer, animate or inanimate.  To offer water for drinking is to flood the entire of being with the fluid bliss of seeing clearly without judgment, of hearing without confusion, of touching with wonderment and curiosity, of smelling with vast sensitivity, of tasting with fine and subtle discrimination, of remembering, emotioning, thinking, and conceptualising whilst clearly knowing that this is what is happening.  This is the offering of water for drinking and I offer it without attachment.

To all of you, teachers, ancestors and the immeasurable matrix of life, I offer water for washing the feet.  This represents the purification and nourishing of the foundation of motivation, my heart/foundation (and feet) of awakening (bodhicitta).  The act of purifying is the act of hundred percenting, the act of being utterly present, giving all of my attention to whatever is arising.  Instead of a chaos of conflicting projects, whirlwinds of hopes and fears that churn the ocean of my life, through washing the mud from my feet I reveal a mystery of awakening that is already in process.  I nourish a deepening appreciation for the interdependency of everything and feel a conscious determination to unfold myriad talents and good qualities in order to help all beings flourish in this tapestry of awakening star dust that is our living world.  This is the offering water for washing the feet and I offer it without attachment.

To all of you, teachers, ancestors and the immeasurable matrix of life, I offer flowers, mysteries of living beauty.  Not dead plants, not style or fashion, but the natural beauty that shines forth when we feel utterly in tune, when the inner and the outer mesh together in a harmonious burst of creativity birthing newness into the world for others.  Ultimately, offering flowers is to offer the beauty of buddhahood, the flowering of wisdom and compassion, tolerance and kindness, the budding, the bodhi, the buddha that is everyone’s very nature shining forth and functioning well through body, speech and mind.  I offer the flowering beauty of my life and I offer it without attachment.

To all of you, teachers, ancestors and the immeasurable matrix of life, I offer an immense cloud of incense, the incense of pure moral conduct, scenting each activity of my body, speech and mind.  Appreciating and supporting life, cultivating a mind of spontaneous generosity, actively using the senses to explore the world, communicating skilfully and compassionately, and nourishing myself and all beings in ways that support awakening; all these actions pervading my relationships with people, animals, plants and landscapes, with micro beings too small to see  and macro beings beyond my comprehension, with inner thoughts and feelings and memories, with each and every facet of this vast dance of life.  To offer incense is to perfume every action with love, compassion, clear seeing and deepening understanding.  May the activities of my body, speech and mind become perfume for all that I meet.  This is the offering of incense and I offer it without attachment.

To all of you, teachers, ancestors and the immeasurable matrix of life, I offer light, not merely candles or butter lamps, but the illumination of wisdom; knowing with appreciative understanding the profound interconnectedness and interdependence of everything and everyone.  Just as the light from one candle can ignite another, so the natural play of broad and inclusive continuously fresh awareness, awakens others to broad loving inclusiveness and this in turn awaken others; a fire of love and understanding spreading in every direction.  Dwelling in the domain of the all embracive, I offer the light of deepening wisdom.  May all beings shine forth illuminating the best in each other.  This is the offering of light and I offer it without attachment.

To all of you, teachers, ancestors and the immeasurable matrix of life, I offer the perfume of sincere devotion.  This is an offering of love and support for all that is wholesome, perfuming each moment with immense energy; a heart felt commitment to uplift beings. Devotion to truth.  Devotion to honesty.  Devotion to compassion.  Devotion to questioning and exploring freely. Devotion to looking deeply into whatever is arising and then to living according to the implications of what is discovered.  May all beings enhance the world with the perfume of total engagement flowing from a fearless heart.  This is the offering of perfume and I offer it without attachment.

To all of you, teachers, ancestors and the immeasurable matrix of life, I offer a banquet of food.  This represents abundance, an abundance of talents, interests and engagements all laid out as a magnificent feast to feed beings, each according to their needs.  I offer the food of delight which comes from living in accord with dharma.  I offer the food of samadhi, the harmonizing of body and mind through meditation.  I offer the food of prajña, the wisdom of seeing through the illusion of separateness.  May the activities of my body, speech and mind become a banquet for all beings.  This is the offering of the food of abundance and I offer it without attachment.

To all of you, teachers, ancestors and the immeasurable matrix of life, I offer music, the voice of Dharma, a symphony of teaching, encouraging, cajoling, inspiring, instructing, humouring, reasoning, uplifting and, demonstrating through the voice of silent action.  I offer the wonderful rhythms, harmonies, syncopations and surprises, the music of heart and mind functioning beautifully, singing the song of awakening to all and with all that I meet.  This is the offering of music and I offer it to all without attachment.

Standing in the midst of this miracle of being,
I offer all that I am and all that I have.

E, MA,  HOH!

Resting in a beginningless endless stream of offering;
parent to child, child to parent,
teacher to student, student to teacher,
friend to friend and friends to friends,
creature to creature, being to being,
this is a yoga/sadhana of eight offerings, a celebration of life.
May I carry it through every situation of the coming day.

These prayers of offering contain whispers of ancient wisdom from the treasury of a multitude of cultures.  Reflect on them again and again until they become inseparably braided into the cloth of your life.  Please take this practice and make it your own.  Find your own words to call forth the essence in an intimate and personal way.  Bring to life the meaning behind the words and manifest it in the market place, the current shrine of global culture.

May all of us together dissolve the madness of
desperate grasping, with the solvent of remembering,
releasing into the vast flow of giving and receiving –
a sentient volume of time and space
weaving meaning, and empathy,
and understanding,
in the living loom of now.


A slightly different version of this meditation called “The Yoga of Eight Offerings” can be found in the Green Dharma Treasury collection
under ‘Writings/Practices’.

© Tarchin Hearn 2012

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