Preparing the Ground | An Excerpt from Becoming Bodhisattvas
I have often wondered how the first glimmers of bodhichitta come about. How do any of us go from being completely self-absorbed in the “dungeons of samsara” to connecting with even a glimpse of the longing and vast perspective of bodhichitta?
In chapter 2 of The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva introduces the “sevenfold offerings,” seven practices that prepare the mind and heart for awakening. These are traditional methods for gathering merit. Shantideva begins in verse 1 with the practice of making offerings.
To the buddhas, those thus gone,
And to the sacred Law, immaculate, supreme, and rare,
And to the Buddha’s offspring, oceans of good qualities,
That I might gain this precious attitude, I make a perfect
This practice consists of three parts: the special object of offering, the special intention, and the special offerings themselves.
The special object is the Three Jewels: the buddhas; the dharma, or sacred Law; and the sangha, or community of the Buddha’s offspring. The point here is the resonance of wakefulness: the wakefulness that is seemingly “out there” resonating with the wakefulness that is seemingly “in here.” Thus, veneration of any example of wisdom summons our own openness and brings out our best.
The special intention of making offerings is to gain the precious attitude of bodhichitta. We do this practice with the clear intention of awakening the bodhi heart. For example, when we’re feeling inadequate or closed-hearted, we could uplift ourselves with the simple but potent gesture of mentally offering the most pleasing and beautiful things in our lives. Shantideva, as we’ll soon see, is passionate about this practice. He enthusiastically offers all the beauty he perceives in the world; he offers himself; and he offers elaborate visualizations of the best gifts imaginable.
When we make offerings of real value, the act of giving so runs against the grain of our habitual selfishness that the effect is liberating. Giving enables us to let go of those attachments that increase our vulnerability and fear. In this way, the practice ventilates the claustrophobia of self-absorption and moves us closer to the generous mind of bodhichitta.
By making offerings to the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other objects of veneration, we connect not only with our expansiveness but also with the warmth of devotion and love. By making offerings to those who are suffering and in need of help, we gain access to our tenderness and compassion. So this seemingly simple practice of giving—opening up and letting go—can be profoundly transformative.
Whatever moves us beyond self-centeredness sows positive seeds in our mind-stream. With the right causes and conditions, these seeds will blossom into fortunate circumstances. This good fortune is called “merit” and manifests as supportive outer conditions and mental states. The ultimate merit comes from connecting with the unbiased clarity of our mind.
When we side with our sanity instead of the small-mindedness of self-absorption, we gather merit. This is a heartfelt way of making friends with one’s self. Trungpa Rinpoche once said, “The person who collects the most merit has to be humble and willing to give, rather than willing to collect.” In this spirit, with the intention to gather merit and with the longing to experience bodhichitta, Shantideva performs these seven practices.
By making offerings to the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other objects of veneration, we connect not only with our expansiveness but also with the warmth of devotion and love.
I offer every fruit and flower
And every kind of healing medicine;
And all the precious things the world affords,
With all pure waters of refreshment;
Every mountain, rich and filled with jewels;
All sweet and lonely forest groves;
The trees of heaven, garlanded with blossom,
And branches heavy, laden with their fruit;
The perfumed fragrance of the realms of gods
All incense, wishing trees, and trees of gems;
All crops that grow without the tiller’s care
And every sumptuous object worthy to be offered;
Lakes and meres adorned with lotuses,
All plaintive with the sweet-voiced cries of water birds
And lovely to the eyes, and all things wild and free,
Stretching to the boundless limits of the sky;
I hold them all before my mind, and to the supreme
And their heirs will make a perfect gift of them.
O, think of me with love, compassionate lords;
Sacred objects of my prayers, accept these offerings.
For I am empty-handed, destitute of merit,
I have no other wealth. But you, protectors,
You whose thoughts are for the good of others,
In your great power, accept this for my sake.
These first offerings of nature’s bounty—fruits and flowers, water, mountains, trees—can’t be “owned.” They could be made by the poorest of the poor. We could offer the sky, the sound of birdsong, or the pleasure of seeing a sunrise. Like Shantideva, we could joyfully make vast and wondrous offerings of everything we see, hear, taste, and smell, and every sumptuous object we enjoy.
By seizing those moments of delight, we always have a precious gift on hand. Even if we’re living in the streets—empty-handed, destitute of merit, and with no other wealth—we are rich with priceless gifts. Because we appreciate the world and perceive its available abundance, we can offer this to others. Instead of desirable things becoming objects of greed, we turn them into vehicles of liberation by using them to make the best of offerings.
The buddhas and their bodhisattva children—
I offer them myself throughout my lives.
Supreme courageous ones, accept me totally.
For with devotion I will be your servant.
For if you will accept me, I will be
A benefit to all, and freed from fear.
I’ll go beyond the evils of my past,
And ever after turn my face from them.
In verses 8 and 9, Shantideva offers himself. His reasoning is practical: anything that lures us out of self-centeredness bodes well. At the everyday level, we can literally offer ourselves. In a meeting, for instance, someone might say, “We need an extra person to work late.” When we feel the familiar tug of resistance, we could offer ourselves, even though it takes a leap. Once we determine to free ourselves from our fear-based habits, opportunities to practice will arise everywhere.
Of course, Shantideva is not addressing coworkers or friends; he’s addressing the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Yet in truth, we’re not doing this for the buddhas. When Shantideva offers himself to those who embody wisdom and compassion, he is the one who will benefit. The buddhas don’t need us to be their servants. On the other hand, who wouldn’t rejoice to see us lightening up and becoming less stingy and possessive?
Making offerings frees us from the pain of self-absorption. Are we willing to offer something as precious as our time, energy, and anything else we’re hanging onto? Are we willing to loosen up habits of selfishness, fear, and small-mindedness? If so, we can benefit greatly from this practice.
A bathing chamber excellently fragrant,
With floors of crystal, radiant and clear,
With graceful pillars shimmering with gems,
All hung about with gleaming canopies of pearls—
There the blissful buddhas and their heirs
I’ll bathe with many a precious vase,
Abrim with water, sweet and pleasant,
All to frequent strains of melody and song.
With cloths of unexampled quality,
With peerless, perfumed towels I will dry them
And offer splendid scented clothes,
Well dyed and of surpassing excellence.
With different garments, light and supple,
And a hundred beautiful adornments,
I will grace sublime Samantabhadra,
Manjughosha, Lokeshvara, and their kin.
Shantideva visualizes magnificent offerings and shows us how enjoyable this practice can be. We can luxuriate in wonderful fantasies and visualize sumptuous offerings, not only for ourselves but also for the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and all sentient beings.
In verses 10 and 11, he describes an exquisite bathing chamber. In verses 12 and 13, he offers excellent cloth—the softest, most luxurious towels; beautiful, scented garments—all those things we covet in the catalogs. We can delight in our daydreams, and then give it all away!
These gifts are offered to three of the eight main bodhisattvas: Samantabhadra, Manjughosha, Lokeshvara. Samantabhadra is associated with boundless generosity. This is a quality we, too, possess: a mind of generosity with infinite potential to grow.
Manjughosha manifests the unconditional wisdom that is available to us all. Lokeshvara embodies compassion. We venerate him knowing that our own compassion can develop and expand.
We can luxuriate in wonderful fantasies and visualize sumptuous offerings, not only for ourselves but also for the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and all sentient beings.
And with a sumptuous fragrance that
Pervades a thousand million worlds,
I will anoint the bodies of the buddhas,
Light and gleaming bright, like pure and burnished
I will place before the Buddha, perfect object of my
Flowers like the lotus and the mandarava,
Utpala, and other scented blossoms,
Worked and twined in lovely scented garlands.
I will offer swelling clouds of incense,
Whose ambient perfume ravishes the mind,
And various foods and every kind of drink,
All delicacies worthy of the gods.
I will offer precious lamps,
All perfectly contrived as golden lotuses,
A bed of flower petals scattering
Upon the level, incense-sprinkled ground.
Shantideva seems to be enjoying himself thoroughly. He offers fragrant oils with which to anoint the bodies of the buddhas and flowers gathered in garlands like Hawaiian leis. When he offers a lamp, it’s not just a little candle; it’s an exquisite lamp in the form of a golden lotus, on a bed of flower petals scattered on incense sprinkled ground.
Starting with verse 15, the offerings take on special significance. Traditionally, each offering is understood to cultivate a specific quality. The offering of flowers, for example, increases our ability to feel love and compassion; the offering of incense, in verse 16, increases the capacity for discipline.
Anything we offer uncovers our inherent good qualities. It’s like removing a lid: as a result, we might feel immersed in richness and find ourselves being less possessive and more generous. In this way, making offerings is said to overcome miserliness. Cultivating this practice is a very straightforward, nonconceptual way to uncover our basic goodness.