Tibetan religious ritual: The water offering

Tibetan Buddhist altar with the seven water offering bowls, and photo of His Holiness Dalai Lama.

Tibetan Buddhist altar with the seven water offering bowls, and photo of His Holiness Dalai Lama. Yowangdu.com

By Laden Tshering Samdup

KATHMANDU, Nepal, 21 February 2017

The water offering or Yongchap is a popular Tibetan religious ritual conducted in the early morning as a token of our selfless devotion to the deities and our gurus. The room is first cleaned, including the altar, and clean water is collected in a jug reciting the mantra Om Ah Hung.

Seven bowls are normally used. These bowls are purified before use by holding them over burning incense. The bowls are never laid out empty on the altar, as this is considered an inauspicious act. It is believed that Tibet’s great Yogi Milarepa in his apprenticeship years gifted a copper urn to his Guru Marpa but empty, and so during his years in meditative retreat, he had to subsist only on green nettles altering his very skin colour to green.

The recommended procedure, therefore, is to fill one bowl with water and then pour some of its water on to the next one. The second bowl with some water is then placed on the altar and so on, ensuring that the bowls are kept in a straight line starting from left to right and just one barley width apart. If kept too far apart you may be deprived of a virtuous guru, and if kept too near, you may develop a dull mind lacking sharp intelligence.

Holding the water jug with both hands, the bowls placed on the altar are then completely filled with water, ensuring that water level in each bowl is just one barley width below the rim of the bowl. Again, if water overflows during filling you may suffer from ethical omissions and if too little water is filled you may have a fall in prosperity.

While filling the bowls you may recite the mantras Om Mani Peme Hung or Om Tare Tu Tare Ture Soha or Om Muni Muni Maha Munaye Soha. I prefer to recite the prayer “The Verse for Offering Water” by His Holiness Dudjom Lingpa, given in the Lotsawa House website.

After all the bowls are filled, the offering is blessed by reciting Om Ah Hung three times, sprinkling the altar with water from the bowl preferably with Kusha grass. The mantra Om Ah Hung is believed to purify the offering and convert it to nectar of immense quantity.

In the evening before sunset, the water from the bowls is emptied right to left and the collected water is disposed of in a clean place, or if possible used for watering the plants. The bowls are cleaned and stacked facing downward. While cleaning the bowls you may mentally visualize you are cleaning away the defilements not only in your mind but from the minds of all sentient beings. During this entire proceeding, you should cover your mouth with cloth to protect the offering from your foul breath.

This ritual probably has its origins in the ancient Indian custom of reception of a honored guest, a ceremony in which the guest is first offered water to drink (Argham), then water to wash his feet (Padayam). Flowers and garlands are offered (Pushpe), pleasant fragrance in the house (Dhupe), the house is brightly lit (Aloke), with perfumes to sprinkle on him (Gendhe), good food and feast (Naividya), and music and dance (Shabda). The seven bowls of water offering and the butter lamp placed in between the fourth and fifth bowl signify these eight modes of invitation, and what a wonderful way to invite your deities and gurus to your house in the early morning.

Also, in line with above explanation, the water offering ritual could be modified by filling the first two bowls only with water and then the third one with rice with flowers on top, the fourth with rice and incense stick, the fifth is the butter lamp or candle or electric light, the sixth with water laced with sandalwood or perfume bottle, seventh with fruit or other eatables, and the eighth one can be Drilbu or a Sankha or a cymbal.

The use of water only in this ritual probably arose because everyone cannot afford an elaborate arrangement every day, and the dharma is needed to be practiced by everyone including the poorest of the poor. Also in Tibet clean water is available in plenty, and tantric dispensation of visualization allowed the water to be correlated to the different required substances. Also, the use of water only in the ritual aided practicing generosity without attachment. Water being available aplenty could be offered freely, that is, you develop the habit of giving without expecting anything in return. Such an attitude helps remove greed and craving, and their consequent suffering.

It is also said that a regular practice of water offering will develop good qualities in you corresponding to the eight qualities of water: Coolness of the water relates to development of pure ethics, delicious taste of the water relates to enjoyment of delicious food, lightness of water relates to healthy mind and body, softness of the water relates to gentle mind stream, clearness of the water relates to clear mind, water being free of foul smell relates to removal of karmic obscurations, water’s easy digestion relates to unharried life, and water being easy on the throat relates to pleasant speech.

For serious practitioners of the Dharma, the water offering ritual has deeper symbolic meaning and is an aid in the path to enlightenment. They visualize the seven bowls of water as part of the Seven-Limb Prayer, with the first bowl corresponding to homage and prostration, the second as offering, third as confession, fourth as rejoicing of virtues, fifth as request to the Buddhas for dharma teachings, sixth as imploring the Buddhas to remain in this world, and the seventh as dedication.

All Tibetan rituals, including this water offering, ritual have strong bonding with the Himalayas, and life in the Himalayas beckons you whenever you perform it. Early to bed and early to rise in the cold of the Himalayas, all padded up and performing the ritual, lost in the humming sound of the mantras, in blissful unawareness and one with the divine power.

This brings to my mind the famous words of Mao Tse Tung, that “religion is poison of the mind”. Communist China has often justified their occupation of Tibet by claiming to have emancipated the Tibetans from feudal rule and the slavery of religion. But visit now any Tibetan Buddhist home outside Tibet, and you will not fail to notice that even the most indigent home has an altar with the water bowls and the lamp lined up, bearing testimony to the fact that religion in Tibet was a people’s movement of free volition. The water offering ritual, instead of poisoning the mind, appears to refresh the mind, enabling you to face the day with renewed vigour and balance of mind — a balance of mind which the Communist Chinese appear to lack, going by their record of brutalities in Tibet.

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