(2.15) To the Able Ones, the supreme objects of offering,
I offer all the beautiful, scented flowers –
Mandaras, upalas, lotuses, and so forth –
And exquisite garlands, finely arranged.
(2.16) I offer them vast and fragrant clouds
Of supreme incense that steal the mind;
And I offer delicacies of the gods,
Together with a variety of food and drink.
(2.17) I also offer jewelled lamps
Arranged on golden lotuses;
And on polished ground sprinkled with scent
And scattered with beautiful flower petals,
In our Tantric practices, we transform the five objects of desire (forms, smells, sounds, tastes and objects of touch) into five different types of offering goddess, which then make exquisite offerings to all the Buddhas and by extension to all living beings. Whether an object is contaminated or an object is pure depends entirely upon the mind. Nothing is intrinsically samsaric and nothing is intrinsically pure. But by offering completely purified five objects of desire, we create powerful causes to be able to experience all things in this way. Then, we can bestow the same experience upon others.
When an artist creates a piece of art, they pour everything they have into making something beautiful which inspires those who see it. Who is not inspired and lifted emotionally by the ceilings in the Sistine Chapel? We should be the same with our offerings. Our goal is to create unsurpassed objects of beauty that inspire and lift emotionally all living beings. In the early days of the tradition, when there would be an empowerment, the offering table would be filled with all sorts bags of chips, cans of Coke, and a whole lot of different types of English cookies. Of course, it was nice to see all of these offerings being made. But now, the offering tables for the empowerments are true works of art that naturally fill the heart with joy. Go on YouTube and look for the videos of the Asian Festival in Hong Kong in 2014. See the arrangement of offerings that were made for the Vajraygoini table. One cannot help but be left in awe.
Some might object thinking it is a waste to spend so much money on making beautiful offerings, when that same money could be going to helping the poor, etc. Helping the poor is of course good, and we should do that too, but making beautiful temples and offering is far more beneficial. Why? Geshe-la explains that beholding an image of a Buddha, even with an angry mind, plants non-contaminated karmic seeds on the mind of those who behold it which will ripen in the future in the form of them finding the path to enlightenment. Every year at Kadampa temples around the world, thousands of school children and retired tourists come through, see the temple, look at all the Buddhas, and leave with pure karma on their mind. Gen-la Losang once asked his students, “who is more important, those who come to the center and stay or those who come to the center and leave?” He said the latter are more important for the simple reason that there are more of them. He said we shouldn’t grasp at trying to get them to come back, but rather aim that if it is their last time to ever step foot in a Dharma center they leave thinking, “those Buddhists ain’t half bad!” If seeing an image of a Buddha even with a mind of anger creates the causes for them to find the path in the future, imagine what will happen if they leave with a happy and peaceful mind, inspired by the beauty and loving-kindness they found? Making our Dharma centers pleasant and filled with beautiful offerings should be seen in this larger context. We may not get busloads of school children coming through, but we do get quite a number of new people who come only once.
Just as when we make offerings we should not be miserly and Spartan, so too we should not overdo it. When making offerings at our center, our aim should be beautiful, but not ostentatious. Inspiring, but not gaudy. Abundant, but not gluttonous. Different countries will have different cultural norms and expectations in this sense, so we should aim to be tactful and act within the norms and conventions of the culture we find ourselves. We invest in well-crafted shrine cabinets as a sign of our respect for the Buddhas they house, but they should not seem indulgent and excessively ornate.
In the same way, we should make the floors, seats and images on the wall pleasant and comfortable. I remember when we first started the center in Geneva we had these very uncomfortable folding chairs. Some people saw no need to waste money buying more expensive chairs. But that is sacrificing a larger virtue on the altar of a smaller one. If people do not come back to the center because it is simply too uncomfortable for them to do so, then we may have saved some money and felt like we were not being indulgent by buying comfortable chairs, but have we really done the more beneficial thing if as a result many people do not return? All of our investments in comfort and a pleasant environment in our centers should follow a similar logic.
Within our minds, though, we can go all out and fill the universe with the most sublime offerings imaginable. We can imagine that from every pore of our body comes another body, and from every pore of those bodies come yet more bodies, and all of these bodies make endless offerings to all the holy beings without limit. Within our own mind, we can never overdo it!