Images and Decorations
This essay will begin with a discussion of what makes a Buddhist image different from a common picture, and will then go on to describe the proper attitude and treatment of an image by a Buddhist practitioner. The last section will deal with the essentials of setting up an altar and the theory and philosophy behind the seven offerings as well as other basic daily practices at one's altar.
Since coming to America I have visited many modern monasteries and private alters of American Buddhist students and I have found that even in monasteries, images are being used as decoration. People think if they do not hang a certain number of pictures in a certain way it is not beautiful. I feel somehow very sad about this and for a long time have wanted to talk about this problem. Surely a picture is for beauty and an image is a kind of picture and may be considered decoration. In this modern age there are many different schools of Art such as Impressionism and Cubism, and there are many different kinds of pictures. There is no need to talk about the varieties of ordinary pictures, but I will speak of the difference between Buddhist images and pictures for decoration.
The basic materials for creating images and ordinay pictures are the same whether you use paper, cloth, or various colors; all the essential materials are the same. But inside, the quality of an image is quite different from that of a picture.
First of all, the artist who draws a Buddhist image and the artist who creates an ordinary picture follow quite different practices. A very Good Tibetan artist lived with me in my hermitage so I am familiar with the steps taken to make an image properly. This artist said to me that to make an image you must start by reading the rituals on whatever deity you are to paint. You must then repeat the incantation of that deity and be able to strongly visualize it. Whatever the ritual says about the deity, how many eyes, what kind of head, how many arms and what hand positions are all details and measurements which must be very precise in the artist's visualization before the beginning of the drawing process. Then the artist can draw every part. He must also constantly repeat the incantation of the deity that is represented throughout the creation process. Suppose you want to draw a dragon king, then you must visualize the dragon king and repeat the dragon king's incantation continuously until the image is finished.
For the good quality ordinary picture, the artist must also have some special imagination in his mind and then he can draw from it. In China a proverb runs, "When the artist has an all made-up bamboo in his mind, then he can draw a bamboo." Even if the ordinary artist does not so seriously hold in his imagination a picture, he can still draw whatever he likes according to his habit or from a model or book. So the manner of the two types of artists is very different. One is very seriously connected with religion, and the other is not very seriously connected and draws whatever he likes. The ordinary artist emphasizes his own interest much more than anything else. That is why some artists like to drink; first they drink a lot and when they are drunk they quickly draw what they wish. This subjective manner of the ordinary artist who is motivated only by his own selfish interest is very different from the religious artist who is very seriously motivated by the idea of what is to be painted.
The objective of an ordinary picture and an image is also quite different. The objective of the image must be an offering to invite the real God to come to the picture. But for the decorative picture the artist does not do such a thing. The ordinary artist may draw very roughly or draw very refined as the objective is nothing to him. He has only the subjective sense as seen in Impressionism which is different from the older style of Realism. In Realism, everything must be as the artist actually sees it; he draws a cup as if the cup was really there in front of the viewer. He does not invite the deity, but still a cup must look like a cup. This is called the realistic artist. For the Impressionist, whatever impression he has, he draws. So the objective of the ordinary picture and the Buddhist image is quite different, as the object of an image is to invite the deity inside, whereas the ordinary artist does not offer anything. He does not think that he is drawing anything real, he draws only what he has conceived in his mind, nothing else. As the image-maker uses the traditional original story from Buddhist history in order to properly draw the image, the image is connected with all of the religion, and the protectors of the religion in the eight realms protect all these images. So when you draw a Buddhist image, the protector deity also comes and makes the image very easy to inspire. It is not a simple picture but a real symbolism of a God. After drawing the picture of the image, it is always given to a believer, and the believer adds his devotion to the image. But for the picture in a museum or in a shop, you bring money and pay, there is nothing else, nothing. It makes the thing quite different.
Now I will tell some stories about images. Once in China a beautiful Buddhist statue of Chen-Huang, the God of the City, was made. It was very beautifully made, many people came to worship and celebrate it ever since the day it was first displayed. In this city there was a beautiful girl whom even many rich merchants asked to marry, but she did not accept. She went to the monastery where this image was and worshipped it. She fell in love with the image and although the image was not a human being she treated it as such and cried, "If I marry, I will only marry you." When she went home, she dreamed that this God sent her many good presents and a carriage to bring her to him. The next day she died in peace. The image really married her. Her bed was placed in the monastery and people could come and touch her bed which was as warm as if somebody slept inside. This has been written about in Chinese history. In India I have also heard of similar things. A girl wants to marry Shiva and afterwards really does it. So it is not just superstition.
When I lived in Kalimpong, I had many images and one of them was of Vajrapani. Vajrapani is one of the three sages of Sukhavati--Amitabha is in the middle, Avalokitsesvara on the right, and Vajrapani on the left. He is a great Bodhisattva and has two kinds of images. One is of him alone, single, and one is of him in Heruka form, double, with his Dakini. The one I had was just drawn according to the Mahayana, not according to the Tantra, so it was the single one. This single image was in a frame with glass. That night the fire of the candle, by my negligence, touched the glass when I was already asleep. It passed through the glass and this image began to roast. At that time Vajrapani himself came to me, appeared man-size and said, "There's a fire." Then I got up, and put out the fire, and immediately asked for forgiveness. I said, the next time I draw you, I will draw you with your wife! So I had a Tantric image of him drawn with his Dakini. These two I still have and brought here. To an ordinary person if an image is an image, made of brass or paper, how can it do such a thing, but to me he is just like a friend and he came to wake me up. Suppose this image was burned up, the house would also have been burnt, so he saved my life.
There are also many stories in China about Chinese Gods. Gesa was a marshall of the three kingdoms. He was a very good person who could fight very well. He died by violence and his head was cut off. He became a ghost and went about crying out, "I must retrieve my head!" A monastery abbot said to him, "You killed so many persons, did you return their heads?" Gesa recognized the truth of this, worshiped, and took refuge from that monk. That monk became the founder of the T'ien Tai School. The monk asked, "Who are you?" and Gesa told his story. Later the monk said, if you can really help me, I am going to build a monastery. Gesa said, I am now a God of the Earth and can help to gather some materials. So the same night they cut down many big trees by the river and floated them to the place where the monastery was planned to be built. Since then, Chinese T'ien Tai monasteries like to have his image because the founder said, "I have given initiation to him, and now he is a protector of the monastery, so every monastery should make an image of him as a protector." In Chinatown there is even a trading company in which an image of him reading books is arranged.
Once in a Chinese monastery there were rats that liked to take the oil from the oil lamps at night when the candles in these big oil lamps were put out. So the master said, "Gesa, you must drive away these rats, otherwise I will not allow you to stay here." The next morning, every rat had been killed and hung up by the candles. Then the master said, "You are too cruel, I did not want you to kill the rats, you are too rough. If you do so again, I will drive you away." The next morning the image itself had moved outside. All this is written about in the history of the monastery, not for fun or as a joke.
In India there are many more stories, some of which are engraved on mountains, in caves or on rocks. One of these stories is about the Goddess Tara. She was worshipped by a certain Indian Buddhist sage who had a great debate with another sage. Both had a very long argument together. Tara used to help that monk whose wisdom is enough but who could not speak very well, so she taught him how to debate with words and gestures. Once a person who was not involved in the debate saw this Tara image in the debating mudra, but after the image was discovered by that person it remained in the same posture. This image is still in India, and is called the Argument Tara.
All the images I have talked about were very carefully made, and the real deity invited to come inside, and after a long time of giving offerings, it became inspired, almost as a real deity. Another story speaks about this. Biwapa was an Indian sage who used to teach personally with his flesh body, but he wanted to also do something else, so he transformed himself into an image of stone to sit and meditate there. He was greatly inspired. If somebody asked him to give a blessing, then his hand would open and the person would put a stone in his palm for a blessing and after touching his hand, it became gold. In such a way many beggars became rich. The king learned of this matter and also sent someone to do this, but no blessing was given, as it is right to help only the poor. So the king wanted to cut off the stone hand of the image, but the person who was sent by the Rajah to perform this deed was harmed. Afterwards, Biwapa returned to his flesh body. To the sages, matter and spirit, the real and the unreal, are no different.
Among images and even pictures there are many different kinds of quality. Decorative pictures drawn by very good artists may also have some inspiration. Once a monk drew a dragon on a wall but he did not paint the dragon's eye. His sponsor asked, "Why do you not draw the eye? The artist answered, "I drew this dragon and asked for the dragon's help. I was inspired and in a dream the dragon showed me his very good manners and countenance. I carefully kept his spirit inside this painting, but if I paint the pupil of his eye, the Dragon spirit may fly away." The sponsor said that he did not believe this and said, "Never mind if he flies away, I want to see the dragon's eye." The next morning the artist painted the two eyes, and the wall seemed to become light and the image flew away. This can also be read about in history.
I had a neighbor Mr. Wang who was very rich. He collected many paintings, one of which was of some birds. The birds were drawn using the artist's saliva; every color was made with this as the artist wanted the birds to really seem to fly. Afterwards, the artist put rice on the ground and every morning the birds flew down and took the rice and flew back to the picture again. Many have seen this. So even if you draw an ordinary picture that is not about a deity, if you use devotion and very essential spirit and have deep faith in it, it can be made as a deity. Western philosophy talks about the three principles of truth, beauty and goodness. An image has this trinity of truth, beauty, and goodness, therefore, it is very easy to be inspired by it. In the same manner if you draw an ordinary picture but at least know of truth, beauty, and goodness, and spend a long time drawing it, you may also be easily inspired by it.
The treatment of an image which we will discuss in greater detail later in this essay is also different from that of an ordinary picture. An image has a different purpose, different situation and a different direction of placement than an ordinary picture. Suppose you are a believer of the Pure Land School. You have an image of Amitabha and must arrange it in a certain direction, facing toward the East. Why? Because the Amitabha Sutra said in the Western direction there is such a Pureland and there is such a Buddha, so it cannot be placed as you like it, but it is necessary for the image's purpose, as the image likes. You should arrange the image well, in the right direction, and everyday place offerings before it. The ordinary picture has no such offerings given to it; it can be hung up at any place, in any direction, without any special consideration. If an image has been treated with offerings and devotion for many years, generation after generation, it will be quite different from a new one.
Once a poor woman inherited from her great grandfather an image of Drong Quay, a Chinese God of the Ghosts. She placed the statue upon an altar. A person who had good meditation experience and whose wisdom-eye was open, happened to pass by and saw some light different from the ordinary, a high and bright light above the woman's house. He thought there must be a very good person or image inside. He went inside and saw an altar and an image above it. He asked about the image and the woman said that it had been in her family many generations and had become black with smoke and soot and hadn't been washed or cleaned. The person said to the lady, "Would you please sell this image to me?" "Yes", she said, "Whatever you would like to give me." Then he paid her and she said, "This image has been in my family so many years, I would like to keep it with me this one more night and give a good offering to it and then you can take it." He agreed. She was so kind that first she took off all the dirt, as it was not a painting but made out of wood, and washed it clean. When the person came back the next morning, Oh, the light is gone! "Why have you washed it!" "You have spent so much money for it that I had to clean it for you," the woman said. "Oh, I am sorry, I do not want it now." You know in India those Yogis put many ashes on their face and they do not feel this is dirty. In every altar there is much smoke and much incense ash that is never washed away. The Western person thinks, Oh, this is so dirty! But, this is quite different.
I have visited many monasteries in the San Francisco Bay area where some images are gathered at the altar, and some are scattered here and there and even the pathway has some image. Someplace I even saw an image in the lavatory! In India you never see such things, just in America. On the one hand you relieve yourself and on the other hand look at a picture! You should arrange all the Thankas and brass images together in one room, give offerings and have daily meditation practice there, then some inspiration will come and you will have a good meditation and your spiritual food will increase.
As discussed above, an image is very different from an ordinary picture and its treatment is very important. However you treat the image will determine your reward. If you treat it simply as a piece of paper, then you will receive from it only the function of paper; if you treat the image as a man, he will help you with the powers of a human being; if you treat him as a God, then he will help you as a God; if you treat him as a Buddha, he will reward you with a Buddha's merits and Full Enlightenment. Our holy being is himself a Buddha and needs nothing from you, but in order to give you help, he will accept what you offer and reward you accordingly with the same quality. So the question is, how can you treat him as a real Buddha? This is a very difficult thing to do even for a practitioner with much ability.
You may begin by treating him as a man, as your father or mother. You must hold this idea in your mind and every day say, "Father, Mother, I am going outside now so please help me to go everywhere without accident; don't let me meet any robbers, and when I buy something don't let me be cheated. When I return I will bring something to offer to you, my mother, my father." You must have devotion like this. This cannot be done by someone who does not treat their real father and mother well. You must have the good mind of a really kind and devoted person and treat the image as you should treat your father or mother. Only if you yourself have humanity and compassion for others and are a good person are you able to treat the image as a good man, as a father or mother. The image will then accept your good mind and manners and will surely give everything to you, "Oh, you are really my good daughter, son, and I will help you and give you whatever you wish." This can only happen when you and the image have established a real relationship of parent and child. Actually to ask a Buddha or Dakini to become your father or mother, we must defile them for they must come down to a human body to accept such a position. Deities don't like to be put in such a position, and based on this it is wrong to treat an image like a decorative picture, hanging here or there, even in the bathroom. So the first stage is to treat the image like your father or mother, and in this way not only you can get help from your parents but also if your mother or father really died, they will like it and be helped by the Buddha. If you do not treat your own mother and father well, how can you treat the picture on the paper well? By developing the qualities of a humble and kind person you will be able to treat your own parents and the image with devotion and receive great benefit. Even this first stage is very difficult to accomplish, but it is possible if you have kindness and devotion.
The second stage is to treat the image as a God but to do so you must have another knowledge, another ability, another quality. You must be not as a man, but as a sage, and as an angel in heaven. A heavenly being has gathered many more merits than a man. He never has evil thoughts, never has broken any law, and never is unkind. If you are not pure enough, if you are not good nough, even if you treat the image as God, he will not accept you. If you gather enough merit in this life and have enough meditative force from your practice so that you will be able to go to heavenly realms after your death, then you are really an angel here in this lifetime. If you are really an angel here, you are able to treat this image as a God. If you think, I treat you as a God because I believe you are a God, this is not enough. You must have the quality of an angel and worship him as being one of his people, then his quality can really become that of God. Then he can help you with his Almighty Will. This is a little different and a little difficult. You have to gather merit and rid yourself of every kind of evil; everyday you must examine yourself, "Was I an angel today? If so, I may treat him as God and Godhood will really come within him." This is considerably more difficult than treating an image as father or mother.
The third and most difficult stage is to treat him as a Buddha. Don't think that just because you have become a Buddhist you can treat the image as a Buddha. You must have some quality which connects you to Buddhahood, then Buddha will come. The Buddha is so far away and so difficult to touch; you cannot connect with him without great compassion, deep wisdom and deep samadhi. Even if you take the Bodhisattva vow, even though you read many Buddhist books and meditate many years, if you do not possess some quality of great compassion, some quality of deep wisdom and recognize non-egoism, then you are not really a Bodhisattva. It is only a Bodhisattva who can see the Buddha. You may treat him as a Buddha, speak and believe and worship like this, but it is not enough. Many Buddhists say they take refuge from the Buddha, but actually they cannot really do so because they cannot touch his quality. So you must really read about and practice the Bodhicitta, many, many times a day, and examine yourself, "Oh, I really have a little Bodhisattva spirit and can ask help from the Buddhahood and really make contact with Buddha. Even though his quality is so high and so pure and perfect, I have already touched his outline, touched a little of his edge and as he is merciful, he just gives his hand to me and will bring me up." In this way you can treat him as Buddha. Even if you really do not have the Bodhicitta or a Bodhisattva's supernatural powers, you can still try to practice the Bodhicitta. Even if you have not realized the truth of non-egoism, you can still have the interest to always think "This is a very important theory, this is very important knowledge and I should believe in it and try to practice it daily." This is the way you should really treat Buddhahood. You may call the Buddha "Come", but he would not come if called by a person who did not know about Buddhism, who did not know the importance of great compassion and about non-egoism, and who just had some faith in God; for such a person he will come as a God, not as Buddha, because the quality of the practitioner becomes identified with the object of devotion. Suppose I like football and have an interest in it, then I will learn how to play and can invite a friend to come and play football with me. If you have evil habits like smoking or drinking, then you will have friends who do the same thing, and so you will negatively influence each other.
If you want to be helped by Buddha then you have to try to practice the Bodhicitta, the great compassion, and non-egoism. Try to always pray for these things for this is the condition of the Buddha, who has nothing else. Practice this and eventually you will connect with the Buddha and he will really come and abide with you. This ability is very difficult. You have to not only know the theory but start with samatha practice and gradually the mind will come to really abide on the great compassion, really abide on the deep wisdom and non-egoism. Then the Buddha will come within the paper image, or even without the paper, he will come into your dreams and into every moment of your daily life. He will be with you when you go outside, he will be with you when you quietly stay inside, and with you when you sleep.
At present you must begin by trying to keep the thought and devotion toward the image as toward a person; there is really someone here, not just paper and color and form, but a real presence here. Always hold to such an attitude and then a change can occur in your spiritual state.
To begin our proper relationship with the image we must establish our own altar place. It should be a private quiet place. Treat it as your hermitage. There are four kinds of images that can be arranged; the first is guru, the second is yidam, the third is dakini, and the fourth is protector. They should be kept in this order with the Guru the highest at the altar, the yidam next, the dakini separate or joined with yidam comes third, and the lowest is the protectors. In India the emphasis is from right to left, with the Guru, the highest one, on the right, proceeding to the protector, the lowest one on the far left. In an arrangement I helped with at a friend's house the Guru's images are at the top of the wall, with Adi Buddha in the center, Padmasambhava to the right and Sakyamuni Buddha to the left. In this case, all three are gurus who represent the Nirmanakaya (Sakyamuni), the Sambhogakaya (Padmasambhava) and the Dharmakaya (Adi Buddha).
The direction that the images face can also be important, depending on your yidam and the nature of your offering. For worshiping Amitabha, the image should be on the West wall facing East while you sit against the East wall and face West. This is special for Amitabha as he is said to be found in the Western heaven. For Tantra, every direction is good, because the five Buddhas face the five directions. Suppose you have a special puja for the God of Wealth, then you can arrange this image to sit against the North wall facing South, because Vaishravana is said to be found in the Northern heaven. The Healing Buddha should sit against the East and face West. The direction may also be according to your yidam. For choosing a yidam, please see my Booklet New No. 21 "Buddhist Problems Answered."
In the center, below the images, should be a table used only for offerings. On the table should be the eight ordinary offerings which are water for bathing, water for drinking, flowers, incense, a lit candle, perfumed water, food, and music. These eight are both represented by seven offering cups filled with water and by the actual objects, either all or in part. There should at least be a candle, flower, and some incense, in addition to the seven cups. A conch shell which opens on the right is good for music. The offering cups should be made of an unbreakable material, such as gold, silver, or brass. Do not use glass or porcelain, as they may be broken and when they fall, it is a bad sign.
Most important is to choose a time for your morning devotion, and practice at that time habitually every day. You should fill the seven offering bowls while keeping a concentrated mind and repeating "OM AH HUM." The spacing between the bowls is also important: if they are too close, our mind is also close and many delusions come; if too wide, sleepy mind is caused. They should be kept just slightly separated, the length of a grain of long rice apart. You should sit directly opposite the images facing them at a slightly lower elevation than the offering table and should repeat the incantation of your yidam or some Buddhist holy being for at least 108 times. In the evening time you should remove the water, wash and clean the offering cups. Whenever you leave your home, you should take leave of the images and request their protection until your return. When you come back, you should first pay your respects to them and show them your deep devotion.
Once your altar is properly set up, it is customary to invite the holy conditions to come into the paper images, so that they will not be paper again. I do this by chanting the Conditional Incantation. This means that we gather a condition together that includes the whole Dharmadhatu, the four holy worlds, and the six realms, the whole universe, holy and unholy. This is done by chanting all the letters of the Tibetan alphabet, starting with the vowels and then the consonants, so that all of the language is gathered in this mantra; everything and every condition has a name, and by using this mantra which includes all names we are gathering everything in the Universe together with this Conditional Incantation. So we say "OM" to gather all the personal conditions of the bodies of these holy beings of the images; "AH" to gather his Dharma, his sacred teaching and instructions; "HUM" for his mind of great compassion to remember us, think of us and bless us, his great wisdom which knows all three periods of time and every kind of philosophy and science as well as every sentient being's consciousness and how to transmute it, and his deep samadhi; "So" for his merits; and "HA" for all his accomplishment. So these five aspects of Buddha relating to all these five holy Dharmas I invite to come into the paper image by the incantation of "OM AH HUM SOHA MAHASUKHA DITZA PUNZA." "Mahasukha" means "happily" and "ditza punza" means "abide here eternally." So we invite the holy beings to come and abide here happily and continuously as a diamond without changing and we throw rice as an offering. Actually we cannot really say the deity is happy or not happy for Buddhhood is one with happiness. Whether he is happy or not depends on your offering and your mind.
I will now talk about why seven symbolic offerings are emphasized in Tibetan and Tantric practice. The most important thing is the quality of the offering practice. The knowledge of how these seven offerings identify with the Sunyata is to be stressed. The quality of the seven offerings identify not only with the Sunyata but also with the holy light of full Enlightenment and with the great compassion. For details on this matter please see my "Commentary on the Tantric Ritual of Avalokitesvara", Part I and II (Booklets New Nos. 73 and 74) in which this identification with the seven offerings has already been explained. But in that commentary there is a lack of discussion about the quantity--why are these small offerings so important and practiced so widely and for such a long time by the Tibetans and are still a habit that is going on? Very little has been said on this subject, so I will add a little complement to the above mentioned commentary.
The largest quantity units are the elements, the five basic elements of space, wind, fire, water, and earth. In Chinese we use the term Greatness to refer to these elements. Greatness means pervading everywhere. The whole universe is composed of these elements; if even a small inch could be found without any of these five, then the term Greatness could not be used. So the seven offerings include the five Greatness elements. The first cup of water symbolizes the water offerings. There is water for washing and water for drinking; whether river water, stream, or ocean water, water is the water element, it is very easy to understand. The flower offering symbolizes the space element because it is arranged nicely in space; this petal opens next to that petal and in their relationship in space there is beauty. The incense is a mixture of the earth element, as its basic material comes from the earth. The fire element is the candle or lamp. The perfume is in water and is again the water element, and the earth element is represented in the food. The wind element is with the incense and also is symbolized by the music. When a regular ritual is performed, a song is sung to obtain the blessing of the God or Buddha. There are many stanzas recited at that time and the bell, damaru and big horn are played; all this music cannot be heard without wind to carry it; that is why music symbolizes the wind element. So all the five Greatnesses are included in these seven offerings which should be thought of as comprising the entire Dharmadhatu.
Again the visualization is always used to enlarge the offerings. When you pour water into the first cup you should think of it as representing the entire offerings of the Heaven of Desire. There are three kinds of heavens, the first of which is the Heaven of Desire which contains all the precious wish-fulfilling gems; whatever you wish for is yours. There are gems of food, silks, diamond and gold, to fulfill every kind of desire. So you pour the water and think not only of the five elements but also that this first cup is a kind of offering to Buddha representative of all the very best things of the realms of the Heaven of Desire.
With the second cup you think of all the good things of the Heaven of Form. Of special value are not only worldly material things such as gold and gems which are connected with desire, but the realm of forms, of colors, shapes, and curves; these are also to be offered to the Buddha. Some people do not care for diamonds and riches, what is the use of such things they think, but they are especially fond of forms, of beauty and art; riches are one thing, art is another. This second cup of water represents all the colors and shapes in the Heaven of Form. Whatever the artist can possibly conceive of, whatever is seen in meditation and dreams, all the sparkling colors and lights in the sky, are all inside this second cup and offered up to the Buddha.
The third cup represents the Heaven of Non-Form. What kind of things are these? Some people are very rich and have many beautiful gardens, concubines, children, luxuries, and still they are not happy. The Heaven of Non-Form is full of very great happiness which can not be described by words. All those sages sitting in meditation feel no time limitation, no space limitation, feel great equanimity, at ease and happy. This kind of thing, the happiness that comes from samadhi, is all together in the Heaven of Non-Form and in the third cup.
The three haveness of the worldly, desire, form and nonform, have all been represented and offered but these are still only worldly things and are nothing to the Buddha. The higher four are many, many good things which we cannot really describe. The fourth cup represents the happiness of Samadhi and the Sunyata philosophy of the Truth, of the non-ego personality. The enjoyment of this kind of Samadhi is in the fourth cup. The fifth contains the happiness of the Pratyekabuddha. The sixth cup represents the Bodhisattva's happiness. Bodhisattvas have passed through the ten Bhumis which are stages of happiness, the philosophy and the truth of non-ego, in Dharma. All are included in the highest attainment of a Bodhisattva and in this offering cup. The last is Buddha's merits. All of his great compassion and deep wisdom is included together within this seventh offering.
The seven offerings are also identified with the five wisdoms. First is the Great Mirror Wisdom which means that every inch of the mirror reflects the brightness of its wisdom. It also symbolizes Equality Wisdom. The flower symbolizes the Discriminating Wisdom because of the diversity and differences in its beauty. Incense symbolizes the Universal Wisdom because its smell can pervade and permeate many places. The lamp also connects with the Discriminating Wisdom for its light helps one clearly see. The perfume pervading odor is another symbol of the Universal Wisdom. Food is the Wisdom of Attainment, as it is the final produce of the earth. Music also symbolizes the Wisdom of Attainment for it is created out of joy of successful achievement and that of the Universal Wisdom as its sound permeates everywhere.
These seven offerings also connect with our five sense organs. Water is connected with the body; we use it to wash the body and to drink. As such it is connected with the skin and sense of touch, as well as the tongue and sense of taste. The flower affects the visual senses and the organ of the eye, as well as candlelight which allows us to see. Incense and perfume connect directly with the nose and the sense of smell. Music reaches our ears and sense of hearing, while food goes into our mouths and activates our sense of taste.
There is also a connection to be made between our offerings and the three knowledges of Vinaya, Meditation and Wisdom. It is said that our meditation is at first just like water flowing very quickly and as meditation goes on, the water slows down and moves more slowly. Outwardly it seems as if there is no movement at all but actually the water is very gently going on. This is deep meditation knowledge which is connected with the water offerings. The flower is connected with the Wisdom Knowledge for you cannot enjoy the flower's beauty without wisdom. Incense is connected with the Vinaya Knowledge. Why is this? If a person keeps the commandments, his body sends out a good smell. If a monk does not keep his Vinaya, his body gives out a bad smell when he dies and is burnt. This is connected with the Vinaya so the incense and perfume are also connected with the Vinaya Knowledge. Candlelight symbolizes both Meditation and Wisdom Knowledge as both meditation and wisdom make one give off light. Food is related to Meditation Knowledge. With good meditation, a practitioner can always feel full even without taking any food. Music is connected with the Wisdom Knowledge for it can only be created with Wisdom. So the seven offerings are also identified with the three knowledges.
We can also talk about the relationship between our offerings and the three realms or wheels. These are the middle or earth realm which is the wheel above the ground, the heaven realm or the wheel in heaven, and the hell realm of ghosts, or the wheel under the ground. These three realms contain all the five elements and are connected with our seven offerings. The water is part of the lower realm; the flower is connected with the earth wheel; incense and perfume with the heaven wheel; the light of the lamp is also connected with the heavenly realm; the food is connected with earth realm; and music pervades everywhere and is connected with all three realms.
So altogether the seven offerings are connected with the five elements, the three heavens and the four holy realms, the five sense organs, the three knowledges, the five wisdoms, and the three wheels or realms.
We must talk not only about theory but also about practice as well. When you offer a flower, it is our inclination to subjectively face the pretty petals toward us, but actually we should face the beautiful aspect toward the images, because we are offering for the images to look at, not for us. We have so many things outside to look at, and he so little inside our room. But we still somehow think about ourselves rather than the images. This is practical information from my experience, not from a book. I always try to think, this side is very beautiful so I will turn it toward the image. You must keep in mind even such small things to make him happy. Then the image will think, "Oh, my son, how he loves me; how can I forget him? I must bless him." But you should not have that as a purpose. Always think when we offer water that we are washing his feet, and putting water into his mouth to drink. The flower should be arranged to offer him something beautiful to look at, the lamp to give him some brightness. The incense should be put close to his nose. Surely his sense pervades everywhere and there is no need to place it so close, but it is a sign of our devotion to do so. Place the food close to his mouth and the music near to his ear. Even though we can not directly meet his personality, we must think his personality is here; whatever we offer we think of him as really accepting it. In this way, our relationship with Buddhahood will become closer and more intimate every day. We personify him in our minds and connect not with a painting, not with a picture, but with his personality, his great compassion, and his full enlightenment in Samadhi. By this way we will never be separated from our devotional practice for even a minute; this is very important.
Faith and practice should be an essential part of our daily lives. Many centers have been founded and many people consider themselves Buddhists, but of those, how many actually find time for Buddhist practice in their lives every day? We do not have to say that we will practice Tantra and become a Buddha in this lifetime, but we at least must practice 15-20 minutes a day at a certain time before a certain image so that eventually some good will result. Just like taking drugs, if you take a little practice every day, eventually you will become addicted so that it will seem that you cannot survive without taking a little every day. Hold your practice as strongly as an addict does his drugs and the image will become your teacher and your guide.
Once a Tibetan lady asked her son who was about to leave on a pilgrimage to Bodhi Gaya in India to bring back a relic of the Buddha so that she might worship it. Please don't forget! But he forgot and the second time he forgot and so the third time that the son was about to go on a pilgrimage the mother was very angry. "This time if you don't bring me back a relic, I will not see you again." On the way back he remembered and found a dog's tooth on the ground and this he took to his mother. "This time I have brought a Buddhist relic back to you, so if you devote yourself to this you will get much profit." "Oh yes, I will worship it many times every day." She did so and eventually this dog's tooth shed light and this woman got a very good rebirth. You must have faith. If you have faith and time and constantly maintain your devotional practice before holy images at your altar even a short time a day, you will receive much spiritual food and much help when death comes. Adding to which you will automatically have deep interest and increase your practice every day until you get Buddhahood in this lifetime. This is my sincere hope.