What follows now in Shantideva’s guide is an extensive explanation of the preparatory practices for being able to take the bodhisattva vows. Specifically this chapter will look at offerings, prostrations, going for refuge and purification. Then, in the next chapter we will look at the remaining limbs. All of these should be specifically understood in the context of preparing ourselves to take the bodhisattva vows.
(2.1) To maintain this precious mind of bodhichitta,
I make excellent offerings to the oceans of good qualities –
The Buddhas, the stainless jewel of the holy Dharma,
And the assembly of Bodhisattvas.
(2.2) However many flowers and fruits there are,
And all the different types of medicine;
All the jewels there are in the world,
And all the pure, refreshing waters;
(2.3) Mountains of jewels, forest groves,
And quiet and joyful places;
Heavenly trees adorned with flowers,
And trees whose branches hang with delicious fruits;
(2.4) Scents that come from the celestial realms,
Incense, wish-granting trees, and jewelled trees;
Harvests that need no cultivation,
And all ornaments that are suitable to be offered;
(2.5) Lakes and pools adorned with lotuses,
And the beautiful call of wild geese;
Everything that is unowned
Throughout all worlds as extensive as space –
(2.6) Holding these in my mind, I offer them well
To the supreme beings, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
O Compassionate Ones, holy objects of offering,
Think of me kindly and accept what I offer.
(2.7) Lacking merit, I am destitute
And have nothing else that I can offer;
Therefore, O Protectors, who think of the welfare of others,
Please accept these for my sake.
First, we need to ask why do we make offerings? We make offerings in order to accumulate merit. Merit is sometimes known as positive mental energy, virtuous karma or even good luck. We can also think of it as our inner wealth, or spiritual gasoline. With merit, we can fulfill all our wishes. Ultimately, to attain enlightenment we need to complete two collections: the collection of merit, which is the cause of a Buddha’s form body; and the collection of wisdom, which is the cause of a Buddha’s mind.
The mind of bodhichitta is the most virtuous mind that exists. To generate it requires a tremendous amount of spiritual energy, or merit. Our mind is the substantial cause of bodhichitta, but the circumstantial causes are an abundance of merit, the clearing away of all negative karmic obstacles and a rain of powerful blessings. To launch a rocket into space requires a tremendous amount of high quality fuel. In the same way to lift our mind up to bodhichitta requires a tremendous amount of high quality merit. We accumulate that merit through making offerings.
Essentially here we are offering a mandala. A mandala offering is an offering of the entire universe and all the beings within it imagined as completely pure. The main idea is we mentally offer the final result of our practice, promising that we will continue to work until this final goal is achieved. Because we are offering the eventual enlightenment of all living beings, there can be no higher offering and thus no greater way of accumulating merit. There are many stories of people who gained profound realizations through mandala offerings, and it is one of the great preliminary guides for engaging in Vajrayana Mahamudra retreat.
For the practice of offering to be qualified, there needs to be some sense of actually giving away what we offer. Normally when we encounter pleasant objects, such as those described above, we want to enjoy them for ourselves. When we make offerings, our mind wishes to give away these things to the Buddhas, we would rather give them away to the Buddhas than have these things for ourself.
There are many different ways we can do this. We could do so thinking, “by giving these things away, I can accumulate great merit, with which I can gain realizations and fulfill all my virtuous wishes.” We can think, “I would gladly give these things away so that I may gain realizations because I see clearly that realizations are worth far more than these things.” Alternatively, we can think, “I give these things to the Buddhas because I know they will use them in the most beneficial way for the enlightenment of all beings.” The point is, our practice of offering should be accompanied with a definite feeling of gladly giving these things away.
We might object saying, “how can I give something away that I do not myself own?” But these things are appearing to our mind, and since all things are nothing but mere appearance, we can say we “own” the appearance, even if conventionally speaking we are not the owner. Regardless, we can mentally imagine we do own it, and generate the mind that thinks we would gladly give it away for the sake of merit and realizations.
When we offer a mandala, we can also use it as a powerful method for overcoming our delusions. For example, imagine we have strong attachment to alcohol or to an attractive person. When we offer the mandala, we can also “offer up” our object of attachment. We give it away, we let it go, and we request the Buddhas to bless our mind to be able to once and for all let go of our attachment to these objects. Likewise, if there are certain objects that give rise to great anger, jealousy, and so forth, we can offer these as well requesting to be freed from our delusions with respect to these objects. Ultimately, to generate a qualified bodhichitta we need to realize we need to leave all of samsara behind. We can take nothing in samsara with us.
Finally, offering mandalas is a powerful method for attaining the pure land at the time of our death. When we offer a mandala, we are offering the entire universe as having been completely purified. If we offer a pure land, we create the causes to be born into one.