Offering the Mandala: Extracting the Essence
12 February, 2016 -Monlam Pavillion, Bodhgaya,
To open the Mandala offering practice, the Karmapa emphasized the essential meaning of the word ‘mandala’. We say ‘mandala’ but it is a Sanskrit word not Tibetan, he explained. The word means ‘centre and edges’ or ‘centre and surroundings’, or ‘the primary and the edges’.
The centre is the essence. The meaning of mandala is that we are extracting the essence. In the secret mantra it’s said the essence is the natural fundamental wisdom. That’s what we need to extract. Beginners need to accomplish it gradually through the path.
Mandala is a method for us to extract the essence, the ultimate unified fundamental wisdom. We repeatedly make offerings to the gurus. We have to keep this aim in mind while we do the practice. By so doing, the obscurations become thinner and thinner and our qualities increase.
What is the essence we need to extract? What is our aim? We need to identify and understand this. We are trying to acquire the state of buddhahood. Eventually we will be able to achieve our aim.
An elevated tier of Buddha statues in varying mudras face each other on either side of the stage overlooking the rows of lamas and rinpoches in perfect formation. The picture conjures an image of an assembly of bodhisattvas listening to the Buddhadharma, while the impression from above shows the bodhisattvas close to the right and left sides of a great buddha throne and a vast assembly of shravakas beneath them filling all of space. Giant thangkas of the mahamudra lineage of Karmapas and heart sons line the main aisle.
”Welcome to all the lamas, monks and nuns, and members of the public who have come from all directions”. the Karmapa says, looking out at the great gathering.
A Teacher must not be seeking anything for this life but be thinking of future lives, and have the motivation of benefiting others. For the listeners, you should not let your journey go to waste, but listen, not with ordinary motivation, but with a better and kinder motivation.
I don’t have the qualities of abandonment and realization or being learned and wise but when I teach the dharma my motivation is to try to teach something that can be put into practice. Teaching something profound doesn’t mean we can put it into practice in our daily lives. My hope is that the listeners will be able to make some changes and put some effort into it.
Behind the Karmapa’s elaborately carved gold and black throne, with 6 steps up to its seat, stands a simple wood carved glass encased cabinet holding texts with a buddha in the central niche. Behind the cabinet is a 4-foot gold mandala set mounted on a pedestal decorated with the 8 auspicious symbols embossed onto an indigo background. The great accumulation mandala has silver auspicious symbols embossed on its massive rings and is dotted with turquoise, coral and precious jewels. The topmost peak of the mandala, known as Mount Meru, rises just below the Karmapa’s throne.
What do we actually offer when we offer the centre and edges? The centre refers to 4 continents and Mount Meru? The edges refer to all the sensory pleasures and everything good, the emanated offerings that we fill the 4 continents and Mount Meru with. This definition makes a distinction between the primary and emanated offerings that we fill the centre with.
The Karmapa reads the Instructions for mandala offerings from the text: The mandala plate can be small if it is made of good material. A mandala of clay or wood should be large. The most important thing is the visualisation. You will need 2 mandala plates. Use the larger one of better material for accomplishment. For the offering, piles of precious substances are best. The least is grains moistened with saffron water.
What the text describes is the materials and size of the plate and the substances we should offer, he says. We need to know what materials mandalas are made of, the shape, the colour, the size of the mandala. We need to know these 4 things about the physical mandala.
He leaves his throne and symbolically places rice on each tier of the accumulation gold mandala set. Resuming his seat, he arranges a maroon apron in his lap and takes a mandala plate in his left hand. Using grains of barley he begins to offer the seven branch mandala offering on behalf of the entire assembly, reciting the 4 line heart of the mandala mantra. Led by the Umdze, everyone joins in the repetitions.
In the continuous chanting for half an hour the essence of mandala becomes palpable.
SA SHI PÖ CHU JUG SHING MÉ TOG TRAM
This foundation of earth, strewn with flowers and purified with scented water,
RI RAB LING SHI NYI DÉ GYEN PA DI
Adorned by Mt. Meru, the four continents, the sun and moon,
SANGYÉ SHING DU MIG TÉ PHUL WA YI
I offer it visualised as a Buddha realm;
DRO KUN NAM DAG SHING LA CHÖD PAR SHOG
May all beings enjoy this perfectly pure realm!
As 10,000 people each recite 250 repetitions, the chant creates a wave of merit, an accumulation that rapidly becomes as deep and vast as the ocean. Hidden by his throne, the Karmapa offers the mandala on behalf of the assembly while waves of mandala repetitions continue to roll.
Why the Best Mandala Offering is to the Spiritual Master
12 February 2016
Appropriate to the subject of today’s teachings, a magnificent mandala, over a meter tall and embossed in silver and gold, rests in front of a throne with a sculpture of the first Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa and above him, Shakyamuni Buddha. Further, appropriate to the lineage of the teachings, the thangkas lining the central aisle have been changed to those of the five Kagyu forefathers and the sixteen Karmapas.
The Gyalwang Karmapa read the section from the Torch of True Meaning on the mandala offering that covered preparing and visualizing the mandala of accomplishment as a palace (placed on one’s altar) and then preparing the offering mandala (held in our hand for accumulations) and visualizing the clearing away of impurities from the stainless nature of the mind, a nature that the mandala represents.
Following this brief description of the mandala, the Karmapa continued to discuss the second point covering the constituent material of the mandala. The best is made from gold and silver, the average from copper or bronze, and the lowest from wood or stone. The Karmapa noted that many manuals for mandala offerings written by Indian masters talk of mandalas made of clay as well. When Je Tsongkhapa was in retreat in central Tibet and making mandala offerings, he used a four-sided mandala of stone. The reason for the three types of materials, the Karmapa explained, is that some people are wealthy but quite stingy and so using a mandala of gold or silver was for their benefit. In general we do not necessarily need a mandala of such precious materials.
The third point treats the shape and color of the mandala. In general, the mandala’s shape is not fixed, the Karmapa noted; for example, it can be four-sided, circular, triangular, or like a half-moon. If it is a peaceful practice, the mandala is round; for enriching, it is four-sided; for magnetizing, like a half-moon; and for fierce activity, triangular. The mandala can be any of the five colors: white, yellow, red, green, or blue.
The fourth point is the size of the mandala. The Indian texts say, the Karmapa related, that the smallest mandala is a cubit (elbow to the end of the middle finger) in diameter and from this size, it can be enlarged as much as we are able. In the practices of the masters in the past, the Karmapa stated, there were three sizes of mandalas, large, medium, and small, to fit with the capabilities of the students or for different purposes. The maximum size was not specified, but the medium should be sixteen of our own finger widths, and the smallest, twelve, and anything smaller than that should not be used. The Torch of True Meaning, the Karmapa remarked, states that if the material of the mandala is good then the mandala can be slightly smaller, and if the material is not that good, the mandala should be a bit larger.
These four points (one from yesterday and three from today) are what we should know before making the mandala offering. To make the offerings properly, the Karmapa said, there are two parts: the preparation and the actual practice. For the preparation or preliminaries, there are again two aspects: preparing the substance to spread on the mandala and preparing the materials that will be offered. The Indian texts, the Karmapa explained, recommend using one of the five substances that come from a cow to wipe the mandala. When the liturgy states, “Om Bedza Amrita,” we can rub amrita Dharma pills over the surface of the mandala as well.
What do we use to make the actual offerings? The Karmapa stated that any of the following are good: gold or silver, different kinds of medicinal herbs or grains, and a variety of precious stones. What is actually used these days is rice, he noted, though before in Tibet it was other grains because rice was hard to find. If we are using grains, they are first husked and then steeped in water to which saffron and amrita has been added.
The Karmapa summarized that first we wipe the mandala with a substance that has come from a cow and then the grains are infused with saffron and amrita. Why is this done? According to the tantras, he said, using one of the five substances that come from a cow purifies stains and protects. Placing the grains in water infused with saffron and amrita, he continued, signifies moistening our mindstreams with love, compassion, and bodhichitta so that we are not separated from them. The five substances in the amrita signify that it has the nature of the five types, or aspects, of wisdom.
The next topic is the object or recipient of the offerings, and there are two: the Jewels in general (usually understood as the Three Jewels), and in particular, the realized lamas. During the preliminary practices, the Karmapa explained, the offering is to the Jewels in general because we clearly visualize and then make offerings to the Five Jewels. If we offer to the Buddha, it is not the same as making offerings to all the buddhas, because we are ordinary people who have not realized suchness or dharmata. But if we offer to our lama it has the same benefit, or merit, as making offerings to all the buddhas. If we have realized the single flavor of the expanse of all Dharma, however, and know that the buddhas are the same in essence, then it’s probably true that in offering to one buddha we are offering to all.
The Karmapa explained that there are many things one can offer to the lama, and among them all, the very best is a mandala offering, so it is a very important practice. Why is offering to the lama so beneficial? Our usual way of thinking, the Karmapa said, is to divide one person from another, or to make separate groups. Then we extend this to the way we think of the deities: we think that the Buddha is a person with golden skin and an ushnisha, that Chakrasamvara is blue and Vajra Varahi is red. When we say it is more beneficial to make offering to the lama than to the Buddha, then we might think, “Well Buddha is golden in color, and I won’t make offerings to him. Chakrasamvara is blue, and I’ll not give offerings to him either. And Vajra Varahi is red, and she’s not important.” Above our head, we imagine our lama, whether fat or thin, attractive or not, with a reddish or white complexion, and make offerings. But this, of course, is not the right way.
We should see the lama as the union of all the buddhas and all the yidams, the union of all the jewels and not think of the guru as a single person who resembles a friend. Instead we should consider the lama as all the buddhas combined into a single form, having all their compassion and qualities. Thinking in this way, we make offerings to the lama, seen as all the buddhas, yidams, and dharmapalas, all the three roots combined into one. Only when we make the offering in this special way is it possible that making an offering to a single lama is making an offering to all the buddhas. We need to train ourselves in seeing like this, developing faith and pure perception. Following the Karmapa’s advice, his talk was followed by the practice of offering a mandala.
Offering our body, speech and mind to the gurus
13 February 2016
This morning the Gyalwang Karmapa completed his teachings on the mandala offering practice, describing both the visualization and actual practice of offering a mandala in detail. The afternoon teaching and practice was canceled so that everyone could participate in welcoming His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang, head of the Drikung Kagyu lineage. In response to this change, the Karmapa spent the whole morning completing the instructions for mandala offering, rather than continuing the accumulation practice.
The Karmapa began the teachings by giving the reading transmission for the sections on the visualization and actual practice of mandala offering as described in The Torch of True Meaning by Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye (pages 57-61). The reading transmission was then translated aloud in English and Chinese. This was followed by a break for tea.
After the tea break, the Karmapa clarified and described in detail the instructions from the section of the text he had just read. First, he explained that there are four types of mandala offering: outer, inner, secret, and especially secret. These are associated respectively with the vase, secret empowerment, prajna wisdom and word empowerments. The Karmapa explained that in this case he would be discussing the mandala offering associated with the outer vase empowerment.
Next, the Karmapa discussed the thirty seven feature and seven feature mandalas and their practice in the mahamudra preliminaries. He said the thirty seven feature mandala is the most well known mandala offering in Tibetan Buddhism, and is used in all four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The seven feature mandala is a simpler version of the mandala offering, and the one that is mostly accumulated during the preliminary practices. The thirty seven feature mandala is offered at the beginning of the practice, and also after every 108 repetitions of the seven feature mandala.
There are two parts to mandala practice: the visualization and the actual practice. Rather than explain in detail all the parts of the thirty seven feature mandala visualization, the Karmapa said people should refer to The Torch of True Meaning. After generating the visualization, the Karmapa said that in the preliminary practices he composed there is an offering of the seven branch prayer (described in the book Ngöndro for Our Current Day: A Short Ngöndro Practice and Instructions by Ogyen Trinley Dorje, KTD Publications 2010). However, in the traditional mahamudra preliminaries, this is not part of the practice.
The Karmapa continued by describing the actual practice of the mandala offering. Taking rice in both hands, you hold the mandala plate with your left hand and wipe the mandala plate with the inside of your right wrist. The inside of the right wrist is associated with the “channel of bodhichitta.” The Karmapa explained that not everyone has a channel of bodhichitta, but that we wipe the plate like this in either case in order to increase bodhichitta, or compassion for all beings.
There are different traditions for wiping the plate in clockwise and counterclockwise directions, on the outside and inside of the plate, and the Karmapa explained the meaning behind these different ways. What the different ways share in common is that wiping clockwise is associated with purifying obscurations and faults in all beings and the environment. And wiping counterclockwise on the inside of the plate is associated with the aspiration that oneself and all beings will manifest the Dharmakaya and Sambogakaya bodies of the Buddha. The Karmapa explained that normally in this tradition we wipe twice in a clockwise direction on the outside of the plate, and once in a counter-clockwise direction on the inside of the plate. This is different than what is described in The Torch of True Meaning. While you are wiping the plate you recite the 100-syllable mantra, which the Karmapa said in general is the best mantra for purifying misdeeds and obscurations.
At this point the Karmapa emphasized the importance of always having grains of rice in both our hands when offering the mandala. “Because of interdependence, if we have empty hands this will create the connection that it will be difficult for us to develop qualities, or that later we will become poor or impoverished,” the Karmapa said. In a similar way, immediately after wiping the mandala plate, it is important to sprinkle the mandala plate with amrita or cover it with flowers. The Karmapa said that leaving it empty creates the connection that there will be a longer age of darkness where there is no Buddha appears.
At this point in the instructions, the Karmapa described the recipients of the mandala offering, who are the five jewels. The five jewels are the gurus, yidams, buddhas, dharma, and noble sangha. The Karmapa explained that the primary recipient of the mandala is your guru, in the form of Vajradhara.
Next, the Karmapa described how to place the offering piles on the plate and do the visualization for the thirty seven and seven feature mandala. In both cases, the primary features of the visualization are Mount Meru in the center, surrounded by the four continents, the sun and the moon. Since there wasn’t time to explain each of the aspects of the mandala in detail, the Karmapa said there are many drawing and diagrams that we can use for reference. One of the things the Karmapa did explain about this part of the practice is that because we are offering the mandala to the recipients in front of us, we should offer the mandala in relation to them. What this means in practice is that the eastern side of the mandala plate is the side closest to your body, and the first place you pile offerings.
The Karmapa also explained how to understand the mandala we are creating and offering. “We imagine this as a pure realm that arises from the aspirations and compassion of the Buddha,” the Karmapa said. “By making this offering, we imagine that this makes the connection that we and all sentient beings may be freed of all defilements, achieve the pure realms and also achieve the four kayas [bodies] of the Buddha.”
Finally, the Karmapa explained how use our minds to make the mandala offering as vast and beneficial as possible. He explained that if we visualize the mandala as gathering all the offerings that exist—our bodies and all sentient beings bodies, everything owned and unowned—then the mandala is the supreme of all offerings. “In its vastest expression it is like offering the entire universe,” the Karmapa said. “We’re offering not just one single Mount Meru but the entire universe, infinite beyond limits and countless. We are also offering our own body, possession, and all of our things.”
The Karmapa also explained that when we make these offerings, it is important to have complete trust in the dharma and in the jewel of the guru. He said making this kind of offering takes great courage, and we have to have faith that our guru will not give up on us.
To conclude, the Karmapa explained why we make these offerings to the five jewels. “The reason for doing this is that at this point our own body, speech, and mind are not able to bring that much benefit to other sentient beings,” the Karmapa said. “If we offer them to the gurus and to the jewels they will be able to use them. This means that eventually our own body, speech and mind will become able to bring vast benefit to all sentient beings and become meaningful. That is what is most important.”