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Offering (mChod pa) in Tibetan Ritual Literature

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Offering (mChod pa) in Tibetan Ritual Literature
by John Makransky
From Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, pp. 312-330.
Reproduced with permission from the author under the THL Digital Text License.

Offering as a Religious Practice in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism

The Tibetan word mchod pa means "to offer"; as a substantive it also means "offering." During the early period of translation of Indian Buddhist texts into Tibetan (eighth-ninth century C.E.), mchod pa was made the standard translation for Sanskrit terms whose semantic field encoṃpassed making offerings, honoring, venerating, and pleasing.

Mahāvyutpatti 6107 gives mchod pa as the Tibetan translation of pūjā, a Sanskrit noun whose verbal root pūj means to honor, worship, reverence, venerate (Monier-Williams: 641). Importantly, Mahāvyutpatti 6107-6133 lists the names of common substances for pūjā, those being offering substances: flowers, lamps, incense, perfumes, oils, parasols, banners, etc. The early translators, then, apparently understood pūjā in Indian Buddhist texts to mean honoring or venerating through a presentation of offerings. Mahāvyutpatti 6131 also identifies mchod pa as a translation for the Sanskrit verb mahīyate, meaning "to be glad or happy," "to prosper," or "to be honored" (Monier-Williams: 803; Apte: 1255). mChod pa as a translation of mahīyate would connote being pleased or gladdened, with the implication that the pleasure is brought about through a presentation of offerings (cf. BGTD: 856). The word mchod pa as a Tibetan Buddhist term, then, means to make offerings in a ritually prescribed context to sacred or powerful beings in order to honor, venerate and please them (NGLC, fol. 72b3).

Offering has had a central place in Indian Buddhist practice from earliest times. Laity were enjoined where possible to offer to the religious order, to assist travellers with material needs, and to give to the needy (Lamotte: 72). Monks and nuns were leading donors of sacred objects and monuments (Schopen, 1985: 23-28). Such activity was motivated by the Buddhist doctrine of karmic merit (puṇya), according to which beneficial karmic results accrue from positive acts such as generosity. Offerings to sacred beings were thought to accrue greater merit. Hence offering in all its forms to the Buddha and his religious order was singled out as a special religious act with great karmic results.

Pūjā as an offering rite in Indian Buddhism constituted a special form of giving, which magnified its merit through a ritualized structure and by designating supreme fields of merit (puṇyakṣetra) as the beneficiaries: the Buddha, his religious order (saṃgha), and the reliquaries (stūpa) holding the earthly remains of such beings (Lamotte: 633; Hirakawa, 1990: 273). Images of the Buddha increasingly served as the focus of such offering rituals from the turn of the first millennium C.E. (Lancaster: 289; Kern: 50-52). Incense, flowers, food, lamps, banners, clothing, and music were typically offered to stūpas and Buddha images (Hirakawa, 1963: 92-93).

With the development of Mahāyāna Buddhism, sūtras as expressions of Buddha knowledge were viewed as more significant "remains" of the Buddha than his ashes, hence even more important as objects of offering (Schopen, 1975: 164-165). In Mahāyāna milieus, offering rites were performed in contexts where meditation focusing on enlightened beings was also becoming prominent, sometimes involving visualization of buddhas whose presence and inspiration were felt.[1]

Mahāyāna texts described bodhisattvas who yogically generated infinite offering substances, emanating them as offerings to buddhas in pure realms whose transforming power, envisioned as infinite radiance, then blessed the world.[2] With the development of tantric forms of Mahāyāna practice, pūjā constituted both a material offering ritual and a structured meditative visualization of boundless offerings to Buddhist deities whose presence was invoked and from whom blessings in the form of light and nectar were received. All such elements of Indian Buddhist practice were incorporated into Tibetan Buddhist offering practice and literature.

Some Indologists have noted that the term pūjā in Hindu sūtras and epic literature referred primarily to a ritual for venerating guests through offerings (Falk: 83). The structure of ancient Indian customs for entertaining esteemed guests is retained throughout the history of Buddhist pūjā practice in India and Tibet, where the "guests," as noted above, are sacred beings or their representations. I-tsing, a seventh-century Chinese scholar and pilgrim, described the offering rites he observed in north India.

Noteworthy is his description of royal ablution rituals for Buddha statues in seventh-century Indian monasteries. The Buddha image was bathed in perfumed water, anointed with scented oils, dried with a white cloth, then set up in the temple where offerings of incense and flowers were made to it (I-tsing: 147-152). This bathing ritual, transmuted into a visualization practice with the same order of elements that I-tsing described, became a standard part of Tibetan offering literature (as described in the section below on sngon 'gro, "preliminary practices").

The "outer offerings" in Tibetan rituals (also discussed below) are those that were offered to royal guests in ancient India.

Of critical importance in understanding the motivation behind Tibetan offering is the concept of karma and merit (puṇya) which Tibet inherited from Indian Buddhism. According to this doctrine, a person's virtuous actions bear fruit in future lives as pleasurable or spiritually beneficial experiences, while his or her non-virtuous actions bear fruit as painful experiences. In a sense, then, from a Tibetan point of view, all pleasurable and painful experiences in life were "given" to oneself through one's own actions in past lives.

And every action now undertaken "gives" a future result determined by the moral content of its motivation. Karma and its fruition, understood broadly as the giving and receiving of experience, are the pivotal operations of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa. Hence giving and receiving also lie at the heart of religious practice. Formal rituals of offering generate tremendous karmic merit (puṇya) by providing the ritual structure through which giving obtains its most powerfully beneficial karmic form. By following the ritual format, a practitioner generates the purest motivation to give the very best substances to the highest object: the supreme field of karmic merit (puṇyakṣetra, tshogs zhing), the buddhas.

Again, with karmic merit in mind, Tibetans understand offering (mchod pa) in its widest sense to include all religious practices, not just formal rituals of offering per se. Prostrations before sacred images, recitations of mantra, and circumambulations of sacred sites, for example, are routinely tallied and the total presented as an offering to the buddhas.

Thus, offering in general and formalized ritual offering in particular powerfully reaffirm all the dimensions of the Indian Buddhist worldview that Tibet inherited. As Beyer notes (1973: 29-36), Tibetan practice ritualizes the moral attitudes and metaphysics of Indian Buddhism, embodying doctrine in a concrete form which is experienced as a powerful psychological reality. The offerings, purified by their dissolution into emptiness and mentally reconstructed in pure form, are real. The buddhas to whom they are offered are present. The blessing received from the buddhas is felt. The aspiration to manifest enlightenment for the sake of others, and the actual capability of doing so by such practices, is confirmed.

While the elements above were inherited from Indian Buddhism, Tibetans have also understood ritual offering in relation to their own cultural norms. As Robert Ekvall notes,

Gift-giving in Tibetan society is not primarily a social amenity or an expression of personal liking .... Basically, it is the key or pivotal act in a succession of moves that establish a web of interlocking claims and obligations between the giver and the recipient. The giver has made a deposit in the bank; in one way or another, the one who has received the gift must honor checks drawn on that deposit....
On the occasion of initial presentation of a gift, an immediate return of items of value may or may not take place. If it does take place, some of the credit to the giver has been expended. The value of the return, however, is always less than the original deposit, and some credit for the intangibles is left. This, in any case, is only the beginning of the exchange. From that point on, the two parties are involved in a never ending trading of gifts and realization of mutual responsibilities by means of patronage, aid, moral support, and loyalty. (156-157).

Although, doctrinally speaking, Tibetan masters often say that buddhas have no need for offerings and that offering is therefore done only for the practitioner's own spiritual development, the structure of offering rituals fits into established Tibetan cultural patterns of giving and obligation. When the giver of offerings is a Tibetan Buddhist, and the recipients are powerful Buddhist deities ritually invoked, the giver receives an "immediate return" of blessing or empowerment (byin rlabs). This does not expend the full "credit" of the giver. A greater return of continued spiritual and mundane help comes from an ongoing relationship with the deities. Such a continuing relationship, like any other in Tibetan culture, is maintained through giving, in this case through ritual offering. The same basic principle applies to Tibetan offering rites from pre-Buddhist times which are made to local spirits of lands, waters, and sky. Common examples of such rites are the offering of burnt juniper twigs to the local gods (bsang gsol), or the addition of a stone to a cairn at the top of a mountain pass as a thanksgiving offering to the god of the pass (Ekvall: 168, 173-174). Giving enjoins an obligation upon human and god for reciprocation. It is the act which establishes and maintains helping relationships in all realms.

It is also quite possible, however, to think of Tibetan Buddhist offering ritual as a particular expression of what may be a cross-cultural religious principle: profound spiritual empowerment requires giving much.

Tibetan offering ritual is a performance learned by oral instruction, by memorizing texts and studying their meanings, by imitating ritual gestures and recitations, and by training in the appropriate crafts and musical instruments. Offering literature in written form is just one of the means used to transmit what is primarily a tradition of practice learned by example.

Virtually all Tibetan ritual texts (of which there are many thousands) include offering as a significant component, many giving it an extended treatment, including ritual texts of preliminary practices (sngon 'gro), guru pūjās (bla ma mchod pa), maṇḍala offerings, litanies of praise (bstod pa), fasting rites (smyung gnas), festival rites, manuals of tantric practice (sgrub thabs), initiation rites (dbang), consecrations (rab gnas), fire offerings (sbyin sreg), and ritual applications of divine power.

Where a ritual text gives offering central prominence, the text may (or may not) carry the explicit title "offering ritual," mchod pa'i cho ga (e.g., bla ma'i mchod pa'i cho ga, maṇḍal bzhi pa'i mchod pa'i cho ga), but in any case, such a text always includes performative elements in addition to descriptions of offering per se, elements which contextualize, structure and give purpose to the explicit actions of offering. Commonly included, for example, would be descriptions of the assembly of holy beings to whom one offers, recitations expressing the altruistic motivation for the offering practice, its soteriological aims and its metaphysical basis in emptiness, vivid descriptions of empowerment by the holy beings, etc.

"Offering literature," then, might be viewed less as a distinct genre than as a basic literary component of many ritual genres, a component which has sometimes been prominently attended to in its own right and expanded into autonomous texts which themselves contain elements beyond descriptions of offering per se. In any case, whether offering appears as a component of a ritual text or constitutes the primary focus of the text, offering rituals contain a number of distinct performative elements which appear repeatedly in various forms throughout ritual literature. A brief synopsis of such elements can provide a window into the offering sections of a fairly wide range of ritual genres. As an example, we will focus on performative elements of "preliminary practice" texts (sngon 'gro), a ritual genre in which offerings figure prominently.

Ritual Components of Offering in Tibetan Literature: sNgon 'gro as Example

Preliminary practices (sngon 'gro) are rituals and ritualized meditations whose explicit purpose is to generate karmic merit, purify mental and physical obstructions, and receive blessing from guru lineages so as to empower the practitioner for success in higher meditations and tantric practice. Preliminary practice texts are structured around offering. Among such texts are those which prescribe the following six "preparatory practices" (sbyor chos drug):

(1) Clean the meditation area and set up a statue, a sacred text and a reliquary (mchod rten) as representations of the body, speech and mind of the buddhas. Cleaning signifies the removal of mental obstructions, clearing the way for yogic realization. Also, the reality of the buddhas' presence is psychologically reinforced by cleaning the place before formally invoking them, as when inviting guests to one's home (NGLC: 66b1-72a2).

(2) Arrange beautiful offerings properly procured. Offering substances are arranged on the altar, the most fundamental being: water for drinking (arghaṃ), water for washing (pādyaṃ), flowers (puṣpe), incense (dhūpe), butter lamps (āloke), perfume (gandhe), food (naivedye) and music (śabda). Anything pleasant to the senses may be multiplied in imagination and offered in pure form by multiplying imagined emanations of oneself. These are "outer offerings," substances of the physical world suitable as offerings for royal or divine guests. Leading scholars of all Tibetan sects composed elegant verses expressing the imaginative presentation of such offerings:

From expansive well-fashioned vessels, radiant and precious,
Flow gently forth four streams of purifying nectars.
Beautiful flowers and trees in blossom with bouquets and garlands
Exquisitely arranged fill the earth and sky.
The heavens billow with blue summer clouds
Of lazulite smoke from sweet fragrant incense.
Light from suns and moons, glittering jewels,
And scores of flaming lamps frolicking joyfully
Dispel the darkness of a thousand million billion worlds.
...Music from an endless variety of various instruments
Blends into a symphony filling the three realms....
(Paṇ chen Lama I, DTBM: 11-13).

It is said that the eleventh-century Indian master Atiśa sanctioned water offerings (mchod yon) especially for Tibet as a substitute for other offerings that were difficult to obtain there (NGLC: 74b5). Generally, then, bowls of water are offered in lieu of or in addition to the eight basic outer offerings above, seven bowls representing the first seven offerings, with music represented by an instrument or by the sound of the ritual performance itself.

(3) Sitting in correct posture on a comfortable seat, one takes refuge (skyabs 'gro) in Guru, Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha, receives their blessing envisioned as light and nectar, and generates the thought of enlightenment for the sake of all beings (sems bskyed) (NGLC: 76a6-92b3). That thought is the highest possible motivation for action (karma) of any kind. It directs all the ritual activity which follows toward the highest soteriological ends.

(4) One then recollects the field of karmic merit (tshogs zhing gsal gdab pa). A vast array of lineage gurus, tantric deities, buddhas, bodhisattvas, pratyekabuddhas, śravakas, ḍākas, ḍākinīs, and protector deities is visualized and their presence invoked by ritual procedures (NGLC: 92b3-102b2; Dalai Lama XIV: 62-91).

Each element of the visualization has levels of signification based on Tibetan systematizations of Sūtra and Tantra, the whole array being viewed as a manifestation of enlightened mind, the gnosis of bliss and void, the inseparability of bla ma (guru) and yi dam (iṣṭadevatā). Offering one's practices to that "field" is said to generate enormous karmic merit, to purify, and to bless, the three fundamentals of spiritual progress. In fact, from a Tibetan perspective, no meditator is ever actually alone. A practitioner in "solitary" retreat not only visualizes the field of deities, but feels their presence, repeatedly entreating them for inspiration and blessing.

A ritual ablution is often offered. The Indian custom of offering a bath to royal guests is transmuted into a ritual conducted with a mirror, washing flask, basin, and fine cloth (kha btags) using gestures, mantra and visualization, interpreted to signify purification and spiritual empowerment. While reciting the following verse and mantra, the practitioners visualize a luminous bathhouse of crystal and jewels into which offering goddesses are emanated who bathe the deities in heavenly nectar:

Just as the gods offered a bath at the birth [of the Buddha),
So I offer a bath of pure heavenly water for your bodies.
oṃ sarva tathāgata abhiṣekata samaye śrīye āh hūm
["oṃ all tathagātas consecrate in glorious assembly āṃ hūṃ"]

While reciting the mantra, the master holds the mirror so as to reflect the Buddha image on the altar, then pours water in front of the mirror into the basin. This ritualizes the two-truth ontology of Buddhism. The reflection of water pouring over the reflection of the Buddha image effects ablution on a transactional level (saṃvṛti satya). Yet since the rite is performed through mirror reflection, its lack of ultimate reality is affirmed (paramārtha satya). The implications are to be applied to all things.

In visualization, the bath water condenses into five spots on the deities' bodies: forehead, throat, chest, and two shoulders. The practitioners visualize the offering goddesses patting the deities dry there while the master applies the cloth to the mirror in the five corresponding places:

Their bodies are dried with finest cloth, clean and fragrant
oṃ hūṃ traṃ hrīḥ āḥ kāya vishodhanaye svā hā
["oṃ hūṃ traṃ hrīḥ āḥ cleansing body svā hā"]

While one visualizes the offering goddesses applying scented oils to the deities' bodies, the following verse is recited:

With the finest oils scented with fragrances pervading the three thousand universes, I anoint the bodies of the Śākyendras shining luminous, as though polishing purified gold.

As the goddesses offer fresh garments, the following verse makes the soteriological significance of the rite explicit:

To obtain the Vajra Body indestructible, I offer fine smooth ethereal garments with faith indestructible. May I too obtain the Vajra Body.

As the goddesses offer jewelled ornaments to the deities:

Though the Victors, intrinsically adorned with marks and signs [of enlightenment) need no further adornment, still, by my offering exquisite jewelled ornaments, may all beings obtain the Body adorned with marks and signs.

The rite concludes:

I pray that you remain [in the world) for as long as I continue to make offerings, out of your great love for me and all beings and through the power of your supernatural manifestations.

At the termination of the visualization, the goddesses dissolve into the hearts of the practitioners, who visualize the remaining bath water, now consecrated by contact with the deities, pouring into all realms of beings to purify their sufferings. The deities' old clothing dissolves as an empowering golden light into each practitioner's forehead (NGLC: 101b-102b. See also Lessing, 1959: 159-171; Beyer, 1973: 336-338).

(5) The seven-limb offering is to be performed (saptāngā pūjā, yan lag bdun pa'i mchod pa) (see also Cabezón, in this volume) together with the maṇḍala offering. The seven-limb offering is said to distill all merit-making and purifying disciplines into seven basic practices. Its inclusion in a variety of Mahāyāna texts at an early stage indicates its centrality to Indian Mahāyāna cult practice.[3] The ritual remains fundamental to Tibetan practice.

The seven parts of the ritual are:

(1) prostration, (2) offering, (3) confession, (4) rejoicing in the merit of others, (5) asking the buddhas to teach the Dharma, (6) requesting them to continue to manifest in the world without passing away, and (7) dedicating the merit from these practices to the enlightenment of all beings.

Although as pūjā all seven practices are offered to the buddhas, the second practice involves the explicit offering of material and mentally created substances.

Here the offering substances, water bowls, etc. which were set up on the altar earlier are formally offered to the deities with the recitation of verses like those above by the first Paṇ chen Lama, Blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan. Using the offering substances on the altar as a material basis, the practitioner visualizes boundless pure offerings, filling the sky with exquisite flower garlands, incense, perfumes, canopies, butter lamps, incense, heavenly garments, music, etc. Offering goddesses emanated from the practitioner's chest present the offerings to the deities in the field of merit. Such practices appear to be modelled on Mahāyāna sūtra descriptions of bodhisattvas who emanate infinite offerings to the buddha fields.

The offering of accomplishment (sgrub mchod) involves the practitioner's visualization of all virtues and merit that he or she has ever accumulated in the past and will ever accumulate in the future, in the form of vast, pure offering substances that are presented to the field of merit (NGMT: 81a-84a; DTBM: 15).

A maṇḍala must be offered to the field of merit. The basic sense of the Sanskrit word maṇḍala is "circle," but the semantic range of related meanings is wide. Geographically, maṇḍala can refer to a surrounding area, sphere or realm. In tantric practice, it refers to the abode or realm of the tantric deity. Here it refers to the most inclusive of all offerings: the practitioner's entire psycho-physical universe taken as a whole. As the practitioner drops heaps of grain containing precious stones onto metal discs, using rings to build up tiers, he or she visualizes each heap as a component of the Indic universe: the golden ground, Mount Meru, ocean, mountains, continents, sun, moon, seven royal symbols, eight offering goddesses, together with all possessions of gods and men. Holding the disc overflowing with grain in both hands, the practitioner reenvisions it as the whole universe transformed into a pure realm, and offers it to the buddhas with this verse:

The earth anointed with incense and strewn with flowers,
Adorned with Mt. Meru, the four continents, sun and moon,
Visualized as a pure buddha realm: I offer it.
May all beings partake in the pure realm.

This is the "outer maṇḍala," the offering of the external world. The practitioner may also offer the "inner maṇḍala," his or her own body. Visualizing one's skin as the golden ground, one's blood as nectar, one's flesh as the flowers, one's trunk as Mt. Meru, one's four limbs as the continents, one's eyes as the sun and moon, one's internal organs as the wealth of gods and men, one envisions it all as a pure realm, and offers it to the buddhas:

The objects of my desire, anger and ignorance,
Enemies, friends and strangers, my body and wealth
I offer without any sense of loss. Accept them and
Please bless me for spontaneous release from the three poisons.

Such practices cultivate the psychology of gladly giving up all for enlightenment (NGLC: 106a6-109a6. See also NGMT: 80a-80b; NDGM: 93-116; Tharchin: 63-79; Lessing, 1976: 13-24). Literary models for this practice include the Bodhisattva Sadāprarudita of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, who enthusiastically offers his own heart, blood and marrow to venerate his guru Dharmodgata (Conze: 284-285), and the Mahāsiddha Nāropa who, lacking any offering materials, is reported in his hagiography to have cut up his own body as a maṇḍala offering to his guru Tilopa (Guenther: 83).

(6) The last of the preparatory practices involves requesting and receiving blessing or empowerment from the deities in the field of merit. Having offered all to the deities, the practitioner's psyche is now open to receive all. Blessings to accomplish the path to enlightenment are envisioned as colored lights and nectar's pouring from the field of merit into the psycho-physical energy centers (cakra, rtsa 'khor) of the practitioner's body and mind. Finally, the field of merit dissolves into the principal guru-deity, which dissolves into the practitioner. The practitioner meditates on the inseparable oneness of the guru's enlightened mind with his or her own. Manuals of guru yoga (bla ma'i rnal 'byor) focus especially on this rite as preparation for tantric practice.

Offering Paradigms in Tantric Literature

Tantric ritual texts include the practices discussed above, but have other essential features as well. Buddhist tantric practice involves the identification of oneself with buddhahood as the key method to its attainment. Tantric texts often include, then, not only a mental creation of deities in front of the practitioner (mdun skyed) like the field of merit above, but also the mental creation of the practitioner him or herself as enlightened deity (bdag skyed). Offerings are made to a guru-deity generated in front (mdun skyed) for merit and purification as above, but especially to receive the deity's power and blessing, visualized as nectar and light emitted from the mantra at its heart.

Such divine power may be directed to mundane purposes, such as curing disease, bringing wealth, long life, etc., all ideologically subserved in the tantric literature to spiritual objectives. But the main purpose of the divine blessing is to empower the development of the practitioner through the stages of meditative realization. Offerings are also made to oneself as self-generated deity (bdag skyed) in manuals of tantric practice (sādhana, sgrubs thabs) whose purpose is to effect the total transmutation of one's body, speech and mind into those of the enlightened guru-deity. The Buddhist principle of nonduality, internalized and empowered by all preparatory ritual elements, now takes form in the identification of deity as cognitive object with deity as cognitive subject.

In tantric rites, all ritual elements are envisioned as pure appearances of the guru-deity's mind, characterized, in essence, as the gnosis directly cognizing voidness, or in Highest Yoga Tantras (rnal 'byor bla med rgyud), as the gnosis of voidness and bliss inseparable (bde stong dbyer med ye shes). Four general types of offering are basic to tantric practice: outer offering (phyi mchod), inner offering (nang mchod), secret offering (gsang mchod) and thatness offering (de kho na nyid mchod). The outer offerings mentioned above (water, flowers, incense, lamps, etc.) are offered in ways ritually prescribed by tantric theory, involving special modes of mantra recitation, hand gesture and visualization (sngags, phyag rgya, ting nge 'dzin). What follows is a general description of tantric offering formulas commonly found in generation stage (bskyed rim) manuals of Highest Yoga Tantra.

All offerings in Highest Yoga Tantra must be consecrated as manifestions of the bliss-void gnosis (bde stong dbyer med ye shes) of the buddhas. Only a buddha (i.e., a tantric deity) has the power to do this. Hence, prior to offering, the practitioner first generates him or herself as deity (bdag skyed) in both mind and body (see Cozort, in this volume). Ordinary appearances are dissolved into the blissful gnosis of voidness. That gnosis projects a manifestation of the practitioner as deity.

As deity, he or she is now ready to consecrate the offerings. First the "inner offering" is consecrated, which, in the practice of fierce deities, involves the transmutation of five meats (sha lnga) and five bodily fluids (bdud rtsi lnga) into an ocean of pure gnosis nectar, symbolizing the transmutation of the psycho-physical components of saṃsāra (the senses, aggregates and elements) into those of enlightenment (tathāgatas, consorts, the five gnoses).

The inner offering, represented by a cup of wine (chang) or tea, is cleared (bsang ba) of harmful influences by recitation of a fierce mantra and the projection of wrathful protectors, purified (sbyang ba) of the appearance of self-existence by meditative dissolution into voidness with recitation of the mantra: 

oṃ svabhāva śuddāḥ sarvadharmāḥ svabhāva śuddho 'ham

("oṃ all phenomena are intrinsically pure, I am intrinsically pure"), and then generated (bskyed pa) into the appearance of samsaric fleshes and fluids. The body, speech and mind of enlightenment, in the form of the syllables

oṃ, āḥ, and hūṃ, bless (byin gyis brlab) 

these substances, transmuting them into a pure ocean of nectar of tremendous potency, which is used for further ritual applications (DNKD: 8b-10a; NGMT: 35a-36b; cf. Beyer, 1973: 158-159).

The outer offerings (flowers, incense, butter lamps, etc.) can now be consecrated. A drop of inner offering substance, envisioned as the potent nectar of bliss-void gnosis, is sprinkled over the outer offering substances with recitation of mantra and visualization as above to clear away harmful influences. The outer offerings are purified of their appearance of self-existence by dissolution into voidness as above. From that bliss-void gnosis is projected the appearance of boundless offering substances (water, flowers, incense, lamps, perfumes, foods, music).

Though appearing as manifold offerings, their essence is gnosis and their effect when enjoyed is to elicit highest yogic bliss. With this in mind, the offerings are blessed as the body, speech and mind of the buddhas by the recitation of "oṃ" (Vajra Body); the name of each offering substance (arghaṃ, pādyaṃ, puṣpe, dhūpe, āloke, gandhe, naivedye, śabda); "āḥ" (Vajra Speech); "hūṃ" (Vajra Mind). Ritual hand gestures (mudrā, phyag rgya) symbolize each offering mimetically as it is blessed (DNKD: 10a-10b; NGMT: 36a-37b).[4]

The outer offerings, having been consecrated as the appearance of bliss-void gnosis, are now ready to be offered to the tantric field of merit, with the appropriate mantra and hand gesture for each. As the practitioner makes the hand gesture for each offering substance and says its mantra, offering goddesses are visualized emanating from the heart to present the offering to the field of merit in elegant dance. With hand gestures that represent the dancing movements of the goddesses, they are then visualized as returning and reabsorbing into the heart: oṃ (name of deity) arghaṃ pādyaṃ puṣpe dhūpe āloke gandhe naivedye śabda pratīccha hūṃ svāhā ("oṃ (name of deity) accept this water for drinking, water for your feet, flowers, incense, light, perfume, food, and music, hūṃ svāha").

Visualizations of the varieties and methods of offering can be highly intricate (NGMT: 68a-73b). All space is filled with exquisite flowers, lights, smells, foods; the universe resonates with wonderful sounds. Sometimes the practitioner, using appropriate mantras and hand gestures, also emanates goddesses of the six senses to offer ritual representations of each sense to the field of merit:

oṃ āḥ vajra ādarśe hūṃ, oṃ āḥ vajra vīṇe hūṃ, oṃ āḥ vajra gandhe hūṃ, oṃ āḥ vajra rāse hūṃ, oṃ āḥ vajra sparśe hūṃ, oṃ ah vajra dharme hūṃ

("oṃ āḥ Vajra Mirror, Lute, Perfume, Taste, Touch, Mental Object, hūṃ").

Next the inner offering is presented. Reciting oṃ āḥ hūṃ, the practitioner sprinkles the liquid toward the field of merit with the fingers while visualizing its presentation to the deities by goddesses (DNKD: 13a-14a; NGMT: 64b-74b, 85a-b; SDKR: 7a-7b). The presentation of outer and inner offerings to the practitioner as self-generated deity is done in much the same manner as above, with offering goddesses projected from his or her own heart presenting the offerings to the practitioner as deity with entourage.

The secret offering (gsang mchod) involves the visualized presentation of divine consorts to the principal deity. Their union generates a gnosis of highest yogic bliss, constituting the offering. The blissful gnosis induced by the secret offering, in its capacity of nondually cognizing voidness (bde stong dbyer med ye shes), constitutes the offering of thatness (de kho na nyid mchod pa) (DNKD: 14a; NGMT: 89b-90a, 93a).

Some early scholars, profoundly misunderstanding the sexual imagery found in Tibetan tantric art and literature, described it as the "debasement" of Buddhism (e.g., Waddell: 15). The Tibetan holocaust and subsequent diaspora, which has been a tragedy of profound dimensions for Tibetans, has helped us to clarify questions of this kind, for it has provided us with far greater access to Tibetans' own perspectives on their practices than had earlier been the case.

It is now generally known that Tibetan tantric symbolism represents not, as was once thought, the triumph of animal instinct over spirituality, but precisely the opposite: a remarkable system for subordinating sexual imagery and instinct to the requirements of spiritual practice. Traditional Tibetan culture has never shared the West's obsessive concerns about sexuality. What Tibetan tāntrikas are very much concerned about, on the other hand, is Buddhist enlightenment, and it is here that the imagery of psycho-sexual yoga is so highly valued: as the quintessential symbol of the nonduality of compassionate means and wisdom, and as a yogic method capable of generating the subtlest realization of voidness at the deepest stratum of human consciousness.

Often at the beginning of a tantric ritual, a ritual cake known as a gtor ma is offered to malevolent spirits in order to appease them, or to Dharma protectors (chos skyong) for protection from harms and interferences. At the conclusion of the ritual, gtor ma are again usually offered to some or all of the following: the principal tantric deities (yi dam) who embody all gurus, buddhas, etc., ḍākinīs (mkha 'gro ma) who are powerful guides on the tantric path, Dharma protectors, local spirits of all kinds, and sentient beings of the six realms. The gtor mas, made of barley flour dough decorated with colored butter, are consecrated by the same four-step procedure as for the outer and inner offerings above. The purpose of the offering is made clear upon its completion, when the practitioner recites verses of praise and makes supplications for protection, health, long life, success in all things mundane and supramundane, and for the enlightenment of all beings (DNKD: 40a-41a; Beyer, 1973: 219-222).

Another important tantric offering is a celebratory feast called a tshogs mchod (assembly offering). Delicious foods, beautifully arranged on the offering table, are consecrated by the four steps outlined above, offered to the merit field of deities, local spirits, and sentient beings, and then consumed as sacramental food by the assembled practitioners. This is a party, a thanksgiving celebration to which all mundane and supramundane beings are invited. At its conclusion, celebratory songs of tantric mahāsiddhas are joyfully sung (DTBM: 25-39). This ritual is of special importance to tantric practitioners who must perform it twice a month or more to maintain their precepts, to maintain a good relationship with the ḍākinīs, to receive powerful blessings from the deities, and to quickly realize the higher reaches of the tantric path (NGMT: 87a).

There are far too many Tibetan offering rituals, most of considerable complexity and multiple layers of meaning, to do them justice in this short space. Above are brief summaries of a few common offering formulas found in Tibetan Buddhist ritual literature. The reader interested in further study may want to consult Stephan Beyer's book, The Cult of Tārā, the most comprehensive account of Tibetan offering rituals presently available in English, though it too is far from exhaustive.


  • Apte, Vaman Shivaram
1957 The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Revised and enlarged edition. Poona: Prasad Prakashan.
  • Bendall, Cecil and W. H. D. Rouse
1971 Śikṣā-Samuccaya: A Compendium of Buddhist Doctrine. Second edition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
  • Beyer, Stephan
1973 The Cult of Tārā: Magic and Ritual in Tibet. Berkeley: University of California Press.
1974 The Buddhist Experience: Sources and Interpretations. Encino: Dickenson.
BGTD Beijing: Zang-Han daicidian, 1985.
1973 The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and Its Verse Summary. Bolinas: Four Seasons Foundation.
1988 The Union of Bliss and Emptiness: A Commentary on the Lama Choepa Guru Yoga Practice. Ithaca: Snow Lion.
rGyud sde spyi'i rnam par gzhag pa. Ed. and trans. by F. D. Lessing and A. Wayman as Mkhas grub rje's Fundamentals of the Buddhist Tantras. Motilal Banarsidass: Delhi, 1978.[page 328]
DNKD rJe btsun rdo rje rnal 'byor ma'i bskyed rdzogs kyi zin bris mkha' spyod bgrod pa'i gsang lam snying gi thig le. In his gSung 'bum (Collected Works), reprint of a sDe dge edition, vol. ca, ff. 1-59.
  • Ekvall, Robert B.
1964 Religious Observances in Tibet: Patterns and Function. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Falk, Nancy E. Auer
1987 Hindu Pūjā. In Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. by Mircea Eliade. New York: Macmillan.
bLa ma mchod pa'i cho ga yon tan kun 'byung. Blockprint. Chemre: Hemis rGod tshang Hermitage.
  • Guenther, Herbert V.
1963 The Life and Teaching of Nāropa. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Harrison, Paul
1978 Buddhānusmṛti in the Pratyutpanna-Buddha-Saṃmukhāva-sthita-Samādhi-Sūtra. Journal of Indian Philosophy 6: 35-57.
  • Hirakawa, Akira
1963 The Rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism and its Relationship to the Worship of Stūpas. Memoirs of the Research Department of the Tōyō Bunko (Tokyo) 22: 57-106.
1990 A History of Indian Buddhism. Trans. and ed. by Paul Groner. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
1896 A Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practised in India and the Malay Archipelago, AD 671-695. Trans. by J. Takakusu. London: Clarendon Press.
NDGM Nges don sgron me. Trans. by Judith Hanson as The Torch of Certainty. Boulder: Shambhala, 1977.
  • Kern, H.
1884 Saddharma-Puṇḍarīka or The Lotus of the True Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
1988 History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Śaka Era. Trans. by Sara Webb-Boin. Louvain: Institut Orientaliste Louvain-la-Neuve.[page 329]
1974 An Early Mahāyāna Sermon about the Body of the Buddha and the Making of Images. Artibus Asiae 36: 287-291.
  • Lessing, Ferdinand D.
1942 Yung-Ho-Kung: An Iconography of the Lamaist Cathedral in Peking. Stockholm: Reports from the Scientific Expedition to the Northwestern Provinces of China under the Leadership of Dr. Sven Hedin, XVIII.
1959 Structure and Meaning of the Rite Called the Bath of the Buddha According to Tibetan and Chinese Sources. Studia Serica Bernhard Karlgren Dedicata. Copenhagen: Ejnar Munksgaard.
1976 Ritual and Symbol: Collected Essays on Lamaism and Chinese Symbolism. Taipei: Orient Cultural Service.
1899 A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Mullin, Glenn H.
1983 Meditation on the Lower Tantras. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
DTBM Zab lam bla ma mchod pa'i cho ga bde stong dbyer med. Translated as The Guru Pūjā by Alexander Berzin et al. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
NGLC rNam grol lag bcangs su gtod pa'i man ngag zab mo tshang la ma nor ba mtshungs med chos kyi rgyal po'i thugs bcud byang chub lam gyi rim pa'i nyams khrid kyi zin bris gsung rab kun gyi bcud bsdus gdams ngag bdud rtsi'i snying po. Blockprint. Dharamsala: Bod gzhung shes rig dpar kang.
1975 The Phrase 'sa pṛthivīpradeśaś caityabhūto bhavet' in the Vajracchedika: Notes on the Cult of the Book in Mahāyāna. Indo-Iranian Journal 17: 147-181.
1985 Two Problems in the History of Indian Buddhism: The Layman/Monk Distinction and the Doctrines of the Transference of Merit. Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik 10: 9-47.
1987 A Commentary on Guru Yoga and Offering of the Maṇḍala. Ithaca: Snow Lion.
SDKR gSang 'dus bskyed rim gyi zin bris. In his gSung 'bum (Collected Works). Reprint of bKra śis lhun po ed., vol. ca, ff. 1a-40a. New Delhi: Ngawang Gelek Demo.[page 330]
  • Tulku, Sharpa and Michael Perrott
1987 A Manual of Ritual Fire Offerings. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
1895 The Buddhism of Tibet, or Lamaism. London: W. H. Allen.
  • Williams, Paul
1989 Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. New York: Routledge.
NGMT Bla ma mchod pa'i krid yig gsang ba'i gnad rnam par phye ba snyan rgyud man ngag gi gter mdzod. Blockprint. Dharamsala: Bod gzhung shes rig dpar kang.


  1. For a few examples, see Harrison: 37-52; Williams: 26-33, 217-224; Beyer, 1974: 121-124.
  2. E.g., Bendall and Rouse: 276-280, 291-292, 299-306; Kern: chs. 2, 6, 7, 16, 20, 22.
  3. E.g., Bhadracaripraṇidhānagāthā, Triskhandhaka Sūtra, Ratnāvalī of Nāgārjuna, Praṇidhānāsaptatināmagāthā ascribed to Āryaśūra.
  4. See Beyer, 1973: 147 for drawings of the hand gestures.


John Makransky, “Offering (mChod pa) in Tibetan Ritual Literature” (accessed July 21, 2014).