Torch of True Meaning: Session Two｜Why the Best Mandala Offering is to the Spiritual Master
12 January, 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.