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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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The Six Preparatory Practices and Advice Concerning Ngondro Preliminary Practices

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, November 2012

Session Three: Obtaining and Arranging Offerings

Unedited Transcript
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The First Practice (continued): Setting Up an Altar

We started our discussion of the six preparatory practices and did part of the first one, which is sweeping or cleaning our room and tossing out the dust and trash. Then the second part of this first one is to set up representations of a Buddha’s body, speech, and mind. Often we hear this translated as “set up an altar.” I always find this word altar a little bit strange. It comes out of either Christianity or in religions where they sacrifice a lamb or a human being on the altar. So it’s a little bit funny to think of it like that. But rather the term that’s used is a shelf for making offerings, so what we want to do is have a nice, clean, respectful place. You’ll find in almost all Tibetan or the various Mongolian homes that there always is some sort of – well, there’s no other word than altar, some sort of special place.

One can ask what is the benefit or the purpose of this. This is representing the objects that we’re showing respect to, indicating the direction – the refuge, the safe direction – that we want to go in, and so it’s a very good reminder. And also because it is an object of respect, then – unless we are very crude in our manners – it naturally makes you behave a little bit more nicely in its presence. You’re not going to smoke cigarettes and get drunk and carry on in all sorts of naughty ways.

Now, of course it’s difficult if you’re living in just one room or in the yurt type of structure. That’s of course more difficult. So at least one portion of the room is an area of respect. I forget the Mongolian name.

Participant: Ger.

Alex: Yeah, ger, because that comes from the Tibetan word gur.

So if we live in a small space, of course it’s quite difficult to have a separate room for meditation and so on. But what is always stressed is that we shouldn’t use making this type of structure into something that is an object of competition – that you try to have a better one, a richer one, more elaborate one than others have. In fact his Holiness the Dalai Lama is quite critical of particularly monasteries and temples that try to outdo each other and everybody has to build the biggest one and the most elaborate one and the most gold and jewel offerings on the statues, and so on. The texts of course say that you build up a tremendous amount of positive force doing so. Nevertheless, living as refugees and living among very poor Indians around you, it’s really very gross, very inconsiderate. So simple and nice is what is recommended rather than ornate and elaborate.

Serkong Rinpoche himself was very much against all these ornate ritual objects and so on. When we traveled around in the West and he gave initiations, instead of having a very ornate vase he would use just a milk bottle or anything that the people had. You’re transforming it anyway in the visualization, so as long as you have some sort of basis, there’s no need to bring something which is super expensive and ornate. It would only attract people to steal it.

The traditional form that this takes is having a representation of a Buddha in the middle. This could be a painting or a statue, whatever we might have – a picture, a photograph. (Nowadays that’s quite simple. You can just print something off of the internet. So there’s no excuse that we can’t get something.) And that would be in the center, and then a text to the Buddha’s right (from the point of view of the Buddha), and a stupa or a vajra and bell to the Buddha’s left. The Buddha himself would be representing the body; the text of Dharma, the speech of a Buddha; and the stupa and vajra and bell, the mind. And remember you’re not just setting up something decorative. Try to bear in mind what it represents.

The Tibetans always put up pictures of the teachers. It shouldn’t be that the Buddhas are in the middle and the gurus are to the side. The spiritual teachers are the source of all the teachings, and so they should be the central figure or higher.

The point of it is we have something that reminds us when we walk into the room, when we see it, of what direction we’re going in life and that we’re trying to develop the qualities of a Buddha’s body, speech, and mind.

If you have only one room and you put this in your bedroom, if that’s the room that you’re sleeping in, it shouldn’t be that this is at the foot of your bed – you know, with your feet facing toward them. That’s considered disrespectful. The point is to show respect. So in whatever way you can show respect to this, this is important.

One thing in terms of the Dharma books – or books in general – they’re not a table. You don’t put things on top of them, not even your mala, your rosary of counters, and you don’t just put them on the floor. If you need to put them on the ground, you put a piece of cloth or something underneath them, basically so that they don’t get dirty. Again the point is respect. This is why when we do prostration… I really like this whole tradition of doing it on the resultant, pathway, and basis level:

  • Resultant level. You’re showing respect to those who have reached enlightenment.
  • And the pathway level. They’re our own individual enlightenments that we’re aiming to achieve with bodhichitta.
  • And our own Buddha-nature factors, the purity of the mind, etc., that will enable us to reach this goal.

So having respect not just for those who have achieved something great, but respect for ourselves and respect for what we’re aiming to achieve is a very important positive state of mind. I think that we need to separate here the whole Buddhist context from the context of worship. It’s not worshipping – “Oh, I’m so terrible, and you’re so great. Help me. Save me” – but rather a whole attitude of respect and being realistic and not ostentatious, just getting on with what you need to do.

[Repetition of the sentence for the translator.]

See, that was a good example of what Serkong Rinpoche would try to train me to do, although it’s very difficult. He said, at any time, “Repeat what you just said.” Because if you are translating or teaching, very often you have to repeat, so you have to be ready at any time to repeat. The most wonderful example that I had of that: I was with His Holiness in Holland once. And when His Holiness is speaking in English, the translator is basically a living dictionary, so if His Holiness is at a loss for a word, you can just give him the word. Someone said that they were going to Nepal very soon and were going to meet with the Tibetan community in one of the areas there and could His Holiness give a message for the Tibetans (they had a recorder). And so His Holiness spoke for a short time in Tibetan. So a translator would think “Well, I’m off duty for this one. I don’t have to deal with it.” But then at the end of the press conference, somebody asked His Holiness, “What did he say in Tibetan?” And His Holiness said, “Berzin, after I leave, you tell him what I said.” So it was very, very wonderful that Rinpoche trained me. It’s not easy though as you get older and your short-term memory weakens.

The Second Practice: Obtaining and Arranging Offerings

In any case, the second preparatory practice: taking care about obtaining offerings without hypocrisy and setting them up in a beautiful arrangement.

Different Types of Offering

When Atisha went to Tibet, he recommended that people make water offerings. People were poor, obviously, and in Tibet there was such wonderful clean water, so this would be a wonderful thing to offer. Also it was free, so you couldn’t complain that you didn’t have any money; you’re never too poor to be able to offer just a small cup of water (that you can drink afterwards). The tradition is to offer it in seven bowls, so seven bowls of water. And there’s a whole way in which you offer and arrange the bowls. This is something that someone can show you.

So there’s a traditional way in which one does this. It should be, again, respectful. The seven bowls are for the seven limbs of the Seven-Part Prayer, Seven-Branch Prayer. Usually you do that early in the morning before you… You get up and you go to the bathroom, or whatever you have to do, and then you sweep and clean the room, and you set up the water bowls. You empty them later in the day, usually late afternoon (if you’re home and have the ability to empty them in the late afternoon; if not, in the evening). And dispose of the water in a respectful way, which means don’t just throw it down the toilet. One can water the plants, but if you do that every day, you’ll drown them. So at least in the sink, not in the toilet, although obviously it goes to the same place, but it’s a little bit more respectful.

Usually people offer a little bit of the first tea or coffee that they make. And if you make a food offering or something like that – this is quite common – then don’t just leave it there until it gets rotten. Or if you live in a place where there are mice or cockroaches or other insects that will swarm and eat your offering, then keeping it in a glass jar was what Rinpoche always suggested, particularly for India. It’s a serious problem in India. I don’t know about here. And with the food offering that you make, it’s perfectly fine to eat it afterwards but not just throw it in the garbage. And obviously if you’re going to offer flowers or things like that, fresh flowers, don’t let them go rotten.

Obviously making extensive offerings is very nice if you have that ability to do so, but don’t become dependent on it; don’t think that you can’t meditate unless you have all of this set up. You need to be very flexible with meditation and a daily practice. That means that if you’re traveling, whether you are on a train, an overnight train, or an overnight plane or in a train station or an airport or whatever, you still can do your daily practice. What is important is your state of mind and respect for what you’re doing, and at least imagine around you a clean, respectful place.

For us it’s perhaps a little bit difficult because most of us like for it to be quiet when we are meditating. For any of you who have ever lived in a Tibetan monastery – or in India, for that matter – you know that it is not quiet at all, almost never. The young children novices are screaming at the top of their voice the text that they’re memorizing, and they do that late at night. Then people get up very, very early in the morning and ring the bells and the trumpets and stuff like that. And everybody does their practices out loud at the top of their voice. And if you’ve ever visited the debate grounds in a Tibetan monastery, you could have a hundred debaters – in pairs, two or three together – right next to each other screaming at the top of their voice the debates. This is unbelievable training for concentration. You can’t possibly exist in a Tibetan monastery and go through the debate training unless you have really, really good concentration.

If you’ve ever been at one of these initiations or ceremonies with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it is extraordinary, because while His Holiness is doing the ritual and these sort of things by himself, you’ll have the chant leader on a loudspeaker leading the monks and chanting something completely different, and His Holiness isn’t bothered in the slightest by that. This isn’t a small volume; it’s out of the huge loudspeaker system in an auditorium, particularly in the West. So this is an example of this type of training.

We also need to be able to do our practices and so on even when there is noise around us. This can be very challenging. Let’s say you live in one room, and the television is on because there are other people that you are living with. To be able to do your practice while somebody else has the television on or in the next apartment, this can be very challenging. That’s why you visualize and imagine this is a pure land in which everything is absolutely perfect and conducive for meditation rather than sitting there and grumbling and cursing about the loud television next door in the next apartment.

The Eight Qualities of the Water

Now, the water… It’s very interesting. In the UttaratantraGyu lama (rGyud bla-ma) in Tibetan – by Maitreya, a great Indian text about Buddha-nature and refuge, it speaks about the eight qualities of water, and there are benefits that one derives from each of these qualities of the water. It’s quite an interesting list. I mean, you don’t just look at lists as lists and “Oh, how boring,” but you see what is it that we can learn from them.

1. The water needs to be cool. The benefit of that is that it can ripen into our being able to keep pure ethical discipline.

Now, does that fit? Cool. You cool down from the heat of the disturbing emotions, so you’re able to keep ethical discipline. So it’s suggestive of what benefit it has. The whole idea really is that every feature, every aspect, you see what can it remind us of in our practice so that we keep mindful. Mindful (dran-pa) means “to hold on,” “to remember.” It’s like the mental glue. So remember. How can you remember things? And so everything is representative of something else.

And they’re not symbols. A symbol is something that you look at and anybody in any culture would know what it is. A yellow circle with little yellow lines coming out – everybody will know that that’s a symbol for the sun. Whereas these things are representations, which means that you’d have to be told, you’d have to be taught, what it represents; it’s not obvious. So if you just show somebody a picture of Avalokiteshvara, they would never have any idea or clue that this is a representation of compassion. It’s not a symbol; it represents it. So we have to learn these things.

2. Then the water needs to be delicious. The benefit of that is that we’re able to obtain food of the best taste. If it’s delicious, also we think of being able to offer things that are of best taste, that please others.

3. The water needs to be light. What actually light water means as opposed to heavy water, I’m not quite sure. But in any case, light. The benefit of that is that your mind and body are serviceable – so it just reminds us of this – and that it’s very light, flexible. In other words, I guess it’s not frozen so that it’s heavy.

4. Smooth. This would be like the streams of our understanding will be smooth.

5. Clear. So our state of mind is clear.

6. Not dirty. So it cleanses us of obscurations; our minds aren’t dirty.

7. Not harmful to the stomach. So we won’t fall sick.

8. And this is an interesting one: not harmful to the throat by causing goiter. I think that they were already aware that iodine deficiency in the water can cause goiter. Goiter is this big growth on your neck from thyroid deficiency, iodine deficiency. The benefit of that is that the voice becomes melodious.

In any case, when we offer pure, clear water – so if your tap water is filled with all sorts of chemicals and stuff like that, offer mineral water, purer water – it’s a little bit more respectful, isn’t it? Or if you have a water purifier, then that’s less expensive. In other words, whatever you offer, you want it to be the cleanest and the nicest and the purest that you have available. And it builds up causes for ourselves, our minds and everything, to be clear and pure. And also as an offering, it’s a showing of respect.

Obtaining Offerings without Hypocrisy

If we are obtaining offerings, the texts say to do that without hypocrisy. Now, this becomes very, very interesting. They differentiate between laypersons (householders) and monastics (monks and nuns). For householders the important thing is to earn your living in an honest way. So if you obtain offerings from making a living, you obtain them without cheating, without overcharging, without this type of dishonesty. Although in other teachings we might hear that there are certain professions that we would want to avoid, like making and selling weapons, and these sorts of things – making and selling and serving alcohol, a bartender (that’s not cool as an occupation because it’s just encouraging and helping others to get drunk) – but the main emphasis here, and usually what is more important, is honesty.

I mean, you have an awful lot of herdsmen in Tibet and Mongolia, and they do sell some of these animals for meat, not just for the dairy products. Once I was in Australia with Kensur Ogyen Tseten, who was a great lama – he was a retired abbot of one of the tantric colleges and a teacher of Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey – and people asked him: “I live in a remote area in Australia. The only industry that’s there, the only profession that’s there, is raising sheep, which is obviously going to be sent for slaughter. What should we do?” And he said, “If there’s no alternative way to make a living, the main thing is to be kind to the sheep, raise them with as much kindness and compassion as you can, and be honest in your dealings.” But I think that’s a little bit different from being somebody that sells weapons.

But for monks and nuns, this is where the teachings of what’s usually called the five wrong livelihoods come in, so we have to understand that in that context. Then it becomes really very interesting actually, because it really gets into the whole topic of fundraising for the Dharma center. It’s the same thing as fund raising for the monastery. How do you get offerings or donations from patrons? This is what you need to avoid:

1. Flattery. “You’re so wonderful,” and so on. So you flatter the person so that then they’ll make a donation.

These are quite funny.

2. Dropping hints that we need something. “Oh, the Dharma center really needs this or that.” You don’t ask them directly but you sort of drop hints – trying to fool them, in a sense. Or “How helpful your last donation was. You’re so kind. You’re so helpful.” So they’re hints: “Give more!”

3. This is delightful, the next one. Blackmail. “If you don’t give, harm will come to you and you’ll become poor.” So this is protection money: “Give us the donation and we’ll do some puja for you and no harm will come.” So this is like the mafia, isn’t it, protection money. And people do that; that’s the problem.

4. Then bribery. You give them something small in the hope of a big return. You give them a little mala, or you give them some cheap little thing, a little picture of Chenrezig or something like that, in the hope that they’ll give something big in return. You know, like in a mailing out. You mail out for donations, and you put a little gift in it. This type of thing. “And if you offer ten thousand rubles, then we will send you as a special gift this T-shirt with Chenrezig. And if you offer a hundred thousand, then we will send you, oh, a toaster oven,” or something like that.

5. And then the last one is a contrived manner. You pretend to be holy when the patrons come – and you sit perfectly, and everything is really nice – in order to try to impress them that how holy we are.

This gives us really quite a lot to think about, especially if we’re involved with fundraising for the Dharma center.

Now, of course the traditional method that monks employ is that they go around with a begging bowl when they go on alms round, and they don’t ask for anything. But this is in a society in which the householders have that custom of giving to the monks and nuns. This is much more difficult in our societies where the general public don’t have that. So as I say, it’s difficult because the whole advertising business and so on is in many ways designed to trick people to buy something. And so when you’re trying to do fundraising, you have to really consider very well the strategy that you’re going to use and try not to use these inappropriate ways or be like an advertising company, not try to trick people into giving through gimmicks and stuff.

Okay. Let’s take our tea break, and then we’ll continue.