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The Symbolism of Offerings and Self-sacrifice

The Symbolism of Offerings and Self-sacrifice

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Published by: sandip on Feb 18, 2012
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Lecture 108: the Symbolism of Offerings and Self-sacrifice
There is much that could be said about the Buddha's teaching, about the Dharma, said from anumber of different points of view, but one, at least of the most significant, one, at least, of themost weighty things that can be said about it, is that the Buddha's teaching is a communication,that is to say the Buddha's teaching is a communication from one individual to another. It's acommunication, essentially, from an enlightened human being, an enlightened individual, aBuddha, to an individual who is not, as yet, enlightened, not, as yet, a Buddha, but who is,nevertheless, potentially enlightened. And what we call the Buddhist scriptures are really, wemay say, just so many records of that communication, that communication from the enlightenedto the unenlightened individual, the enlightened to the unenlightened mind. And looking at some,at least, of these records which we call the scriptures, what is it that we see happening? We seefirst of all the Indian scene. We see the cloudless blue skies, we see, because this was 2500 yearsago, we see the vast tracts of jungle, we see little paths making their way through the jungle. Wesee also at that time the Buddha walking from place to place, walking along the jungle paths,walking from village to village, sometimes even venturing into the towns, staying sometimeseven on the outskirts of the towns. And as he goes from place to place, of course, on foot, theBuddha from time to time meets someone, some fellow traveller. Or else we see not walking, notfor the moment walking but sitting at the foot of a tree, possibly a great banyan tree with vastoverspreading branches. Or again, we see him sometimes sitting at the door of a little palm leaf hut, even sometimes at the mouth of a cave. And as he sits there by himself, perhaps in the coolof the evening, we see someone coming to see him, perhaps someone just happening to pass byand having their attention arrested by the figure of the Buddha just sitting there calmly, peacefully, radiantly. But howsoever it happens there is a meeting. The Buddha meets someone,- and as the ancient Indian custom was, especially among wanderers, - and as it still is, in fact,- what are referred to as friendly greetings are exchanged. One usually asks after the other  person's health. And after the friendly greetings have been exchanged, after the usual enquirieshave been made, after, as it were, to some extent provisionally identities have been established,a discussion ensues. The Buddha and the person he meets start discussing serious things, andeventually the Buddha, as it were, starts teaching. The Buddha starts, we may say,communicating, when he finds the other person attuned and ready. And what is it that the Buddhastarts communicating, what is it in a word in which the essence of the teaching consists. Whatthe Buddha starts communicating is not just any idea, any concept, any philosophy, any view, anydoctrine, not even any teaching strictly speaking. What the Buddha starts communicating isnothing else than his own experience, his own direct experience of enlightenment and the wayleading to that experience. He may, of course, incidentally, in order to create a sort of mediumof communication, he may speak about the Four Noble Truths, about the Noble Eightfold Path.We find him, according to the scriptures, speaking on these topics very frequently. or he mayspeak about mindfulness, about meditation, about the experience of higher states of consciousness, even about the various super-normal faculties which pertain to them, and even,if the listener is particularly receptive, he may start speaking, though not very often, startspeaking about Nirvana itself, about the Ultimate, about the Absolute, about Reality. Andaccording to the occasion, according to the temperaments, the background of the person to whomhe is speaking, the Buddha may speak just a very few words, or, on the other hand, he maydeliver a lengthy discourse lasting for several hours. On most occasions, at least according tothose records that we call the scriptures, on most occasions the Buddha would, of course, speak in prose. But sometimes when the Buddha himself was particularly moved, or when the topicunder discussion was of a particularly solemn nature, or when the listener seems to beextraordinarily receptive, then the Buddha would burst, as it were, into poetry, or at least, intoverse. But whatever he said, and howsoever he said it, the Buddha would be communicating, inone way or another, directly or indirectly, he'd be communicating his own experience of enlightenment, his own experience of reality, communicating what it was that made him whathe was, a Buddha, in short, he would be communicating himself, would, in a sense be givinghimself in the course of that teaching, in the course of that communication. And what would bethe effect of all this on the listener? What would be the effect of the communication? Well, to begin with, the listener might be anyone, the listener might happen to be a nobleman or a priest,might happen to be a wealthy merchant or a humble tiller of the soil, might happen to be onedeeply versed in metaphysical subtleties, able to enter into all sorts of abstruse and abstractdiscussions, or one entirely ignorant of all that, might be a pious hermit, one who spent many,many years in penance, self-mortification, might be a robber. But whosoever the listener was, theeffect of the Buddha's teaching, the Buddha's communication, the Buddha's self-communication
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was almost always the same. According to the scriptures the listener would be deeply impressedand deeply moved, and on occasion completely overwhelmed. And sometimes the scripturesrepresent the listener as saying that he or she felt as though a great light, brighter than thousandsuns had suddenly arisen in the midst of blind darkness, as though something which had beenknocked over had been now set upright and stood erect and strong, as though they had beenwandering astray and the path had now been pointed out. Some people, we find, according to thescriptures, when the Buddha finished speaking, uttered exclamations of wonder and delight.Others would be so deeply moved, so touched that quite spontaneously they burst into tears assoon as the Buddha finished speaking, and others who had something on their minds, maybesome crime committed in the past, some misdemeanour at least, would spontaneously confessit. And others again, sitting there listening to the Buddha, after he had finished speaking wouldexperience a sort of profound spiritual convulsion, would feel themselves stirred right down tothe very depths of their being, as though a sort of earthquake had taken place right at the verycentre of themselves. And a few might even develop on the spot, as they listened to the Buddha,as the Buddha stopped speaking, develop a sort of spiritual, transcendental insight, would get asudden glimpse of reality itself. And most of these people, most of these listeners, as a result of the Buddha's teaching, as a result of the Buddha's communication, as a result of what they hadheard from the lips of the Buddha, would feel that they wanted to commit themselves, wantedto commit themselves to the Buddha, the ideal of enlightenment, to the Dharma, the way leadingto that ideal, and the Sangha, the spiritual community of those following that way. In other words, in traditional language they would feel that they wanted to go for refuge. But we find thatin the case of some of these people, even going for refuge was not enough. Even that did not fullyexpress what they felt. The listener, the disciple, in Pali they are one and the same thing, savaka,the listener, the disciple felt that the Buddha had done so much for him, felt that the Buddha hadopened his eyes, or rather his spiritual eye, his third eye, opened it to a whole new world of spiritual values, of spiritual experience, so felt therefore intensely grateful to the Buddha. Andout of this feeling of gratitude, of love, of respect for the Buddha wanted to give something tothe Buddha, wanted to do something for the Buddha. The person felt, the disciple, the listener felt that the Buddha has given him so much, in a sense had given himself, had given him, perhaps, a glimpse of reality, had given him, in a way, his own enlightened being to the extentthat he was able to receive that. So the listener, the disciple wanted to give something to theBuddha. But what can you give to the Buddha? You can't give very much. What had he, or whathad she to offer? Obviously, nothing spiritual. The listener, the disciple could offer onlysomething material. So it happened that someone gave out of gratitude a piece of cloth, clothing,some, more imaginative, perhaps, gave a garland of flowers, or even a single flower, and others,those who were well-to-do offered even gardens and parks for use as retreats by the Buddha andhis wandering disciples. In one of the lectures we hear that wealthy woman, after hearing a particularly edifying discourse, offered what the translators call her 'perour'. I'm not quite surewhat a perour is, but it's apparently made of jewels and is extremely valuable, anyway, she gavethat. What the Buddha did with it we are not told. But, often it happened that at that particular time, at that particular moment, when he or she wanted to give to the Buddha out of gratitude,the listener had nothing to hand, to give. So what did such a person do? The usual procedure wasthat he or she invited the Buddha home to his house, or her house for a meal the following dayand expressed their gratitude, expressed their joy in a very simple, human way simply be feedingthe Buddha when he came the next day. And this is the origin of the traditional Buddhist practiceof making offerings.And it's with the symbolism of offerings and self-sacrifice that we are concerned this evening. Now, the Buddha lived as Buddha that is to say, as an enlightened individual, for 45 years, andthen came what tradition calls the parinirvana, the final passing away, the dissociation of theenlightened consciousness from the physical body. But after the parinirvana, after the physical passing away of the Buddha people still felt intense gratitude towards the Buddha, felt gratitudefor the teaching, if anything, as the teaching spread, as people found it more and more effectivein practice they felt more grateful than ever. And they still wanted, even after the parinirvana, stillwanted to express that gratitude. But the Buddha, having passed away was no longer present inthe flesh to receive the expressions of their gratitude, to receive their offerings. So we find in thecentury or so after the parinirvana that the practice developed of making offerings, offeringswhich would have been made to the Buddha, had he still been living, making offerings to theStupas, or rather making them to relics of the Buddha, ashes, fragments of bone and so on
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enshrined in the stupas. Or even making them to the stupas in memory of the Buddha. And youmay recollect that we dealt with the Tantric symbolism of the stupa in the course of the secondlecture. Now, this practice of making offerings to stupas is usually known in English books on the subjectas 'stupa worship'. But it isn't really that. If anyone is being worshipped through the stupa, it's theBuddha, worshipped, if we can use that expression at all out of a feeling of gratitude, gratitudefor the teaching. So we find that for several hundred years after the parinirvana stupa worship,as we may call it, was a prominent feature of all forms of Buddhism, a prominent feature, thatis to say, of popular Buddhism. It occupied a very important place in the religious life, the practical religious life of the laity. As far as we know the monks were still not so much concernedwith stupa worship. They devoted themselves rather to meditation. Now, we find, we know fromliterary records, archaeological evidence, we know that the stupas during this period were notonly worshipped, the Buddha not only worshipped through the stupa, but we find that the stupaswere also elaborately decorated. We find that they were festooned with garlands of flowers, theywere hung with flags and banners, and bells, and, in fact, we find that they became centreseventually of great religious festivals. People would spend years upon years building amagnificent stupa and then spend months decorating it, then there'd be festivals going on for weeks and weeks, and during these festivals people would spend the whole daycircumambulating the stupa, chanting and making offerings of various kinds, lighting lampsespecially. So this sort of practice, this sort of cult, if you like, centring upon the stupa, was avery prominent feature of popular Buddhism in India for some hundreds of years after the parinirvana. But the, we find, a change took place. And what was that change? The change wasthat the Buddha image appeared. Now, there is no general agreement among scholars andhistorians as to exactly where the first image of the Buddha, the first representation of theBuddha in stone appeared. Some say it was in Gandhara, others in Matura, others even say thatit was in Ceylon. But wheresover it first appeared it very quickly became popular all over Indiaand all over the Buddhist East. It was taken up by all forms of Buddhism. And the Buddha imagehad remained, as we know, popular right to the present, so much so that we can hardly think,nowadays, of Buddhism without the Buddha image. And for some people, perhaps not very wellinformed the Buddha image is Buddhism. Now, the introduction of the Buddha image had important consequences for the whole of popular Buddhism. As a result of the introduction of the Buddha image stupa worship declined in popularity. Popular devotion was largely transferred to the Buddha image. It's not that the stupawas entirely neglected, in fact, it continued to be venerated right to modern times, but, for all practical purposes, the Buddha image became THE object, THE centre of popular worship, popular devotion. And the offerings which formerly were made to the stupas now came to bemade to the images. Indeed we may say that after the introduction of the Buddha image offerings became more and more elaborate, not only that, but assumed a deeper and deeper significance.So, it's to the significance, to the symbolism of these offerings that we now direct our attention.And we are going to consider the symbolism of offerings and of self-sacrifice first in theHinayana, then in the Mahayana, and finally in the Vajrayana or the Tantra. And we'll consider the symbolism of the offerings and self-sacrifice in greater detail when we come to the Vajrayanaor Tantra. So, first of all, symbolism of offerings in the Hinayana. The Hinayana consisted,originally, of quite a number of different schools. Traditionally there were 18 Hinayana schools, but only one of these survives as an independent entity, and that is the school known as theTheravada school or tradition of the Elders, - elders here means the elder monks, senior monks.And Theravada, as probably everybody knows, is that form of Buddhism which now prevails inCeylon, in Burma, in Thailand and so on. And if we turn to these countries, if we visit thesecountries, or even read about them or look at picture books devoted to them, we find that in allthese countries, in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand and so on, there are very many temples, beautifultemples. And in the temples there are enshrined an enormous number of beautiful Buddhaimages. And to these images offerings are made every day. And usually, in Theravada countries,only three things are offered. First of all lighted lamps or candles, then flowers and then lightedincense sticks. And the offerings are made by each person individually, usually there is no suchthing as congregational worship. You go along in your way, at your time, at your ownconvenience, with your little tray of offerings and you offer them yourself directly, at the feet,

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