In a time when we are encouraged to self-isolate and keep to ourselves, it may seem strange to bring up the topic of offering. But no matter what our outer circumstances, there are always opportunities to make offerings, large or small. Though we may not be able to gather in person and share a meal or a conversation as we used to, there are many ways we can offer our love and generosity to friends and strangers alike.
One important way we can do so is by offering the Dharma. Dharma means many things to different people and yet the definition I want to use here is “the path of truth.” Of course, there is no one definitive path of truth—depending on who one is, there are multiple meanings. As Buddhists, when we take refuge and arouse bodhicitta, the mind of awakening, to help others, we are already making a sublime offering for all beings.
The Vajrayana Buddhist path teaches about dal jyor (Tib. the freedoms and endowments [opportunities] to practice). It is not a given that everyone has the leisure or the opportunity to take the time to sit and meditate, or to walk, or to engage in sacred dance, or to offer myriad kinds of spiritual practice. We first meditate on the extreme good fortune that we have to practice at all. And we include others, all others, in our meditation to attain enlightenment and freedom from suffering. This is the most essential and foundational of Buddhist practices, upon which can be layered many others.
It is also said in the Buddhist doctrine that it takes courage, diligence, and forbearance to commit to and continue on the path of the Dharma. Once we have made this commitment and deepened our practice over time, one of the most joyful practices of all is the offering of material goods. Whether these offerings are real or imagined is less important than the motivation and intention underlying the offering. When we set up our shrine or altar, we offer pure water, incense, good foods, music, flowers, and many other substances real or imagined, that all beings may be satisfied and nourished by these sensory enjoyments. This includes beings who have already left their bodies or who have never had bodies—what we refer to as both form and formless beings, including gods, demigods, hungry ghosts, deceased ancestors, animals, and all sentient beings who may be wanting in some way.
As modern Buddhists, there are many ways in which we can make offerings particular to our time. Offering space and tolerance for all beings to experience rest, ease, and freedom from persecution and violence is a particularly poignant offering we can make right now. With what seems like cyclical and persistent suffering of all kinds—not only disease, but racial violence, hunger, fear of losing one’s job or home, family strife, and internal suffering such as anxiety and depression—it is always the perfect time to offer ease for others, most especially the humans and animals. Working from both ends of the spectrum, we intensively pray for and visualize peace and safety for all beings, while also taking everyday actions to stand against violence and persecution, though civil action, signing petitions, making calls, or standing by those who we see in danger and intervening.
As human beings, many of us not only suffer from a basic lack of food, shelter, supportive company, or a sense of purpose, we also tend to suffer from overthinking, worry, and paying too much attention to what others are doing, saying, or thinking. I have found silver linings that have come with this global pandemic, such as more time and freedom due to working from home to find time to practice and meditate. I rarely drive now, reducing stress on Mother Earth and myself. To turn my mind toward the Dharma is to remember my essential nature and my fundamental commitment to work for the liberation of all sentient beings. Even though I too have at times suffered from access to food, worry about ongoing shelter, injuries, and an existential sense of wondering whether I’m doing enough, I know full well that others suffer much more terrible outer and inner experiences than I ever will.
No matter what our path or lineage, it is vital that each of us look inward to discover where we can pause and make offerings for the freedom and welfare of all beings. Healthcare workers are our modern heroes the world over, offering their skills and dedication to serving the sick. Many people are making offerings by sewing masks or delivering food for those affected by the pandemic. Others are taking social justice action to highlight and make changes for those afflicted by social and racial injustices. Monks and nuns who live in seclusion consistently make offerings of prostrations or caring for altars, cooking, cleaning, and finding ways to propagate and share the Dharma to benefit beings. Whether a kind word, a smile, a meal, funds, or a radical act in support of others’ wellbeing, no heartfelt gift is too small, and the time to offer is now.
Sarah C. Beasley (Sera Kunzang Lhamo), award-winning author of Kindness for All Creatures: Buddhist Advice for Compassionate Animal Care (Shambhala 2019), has been a Nyingma practitioner since 2000, a certified educator, and an experienced writer and artist. She has a BA in Studio Art and is an MA Candidate in Educational Leadership. Sarah spent close to seven years in traditional retreat under the guidance of Lama Tharchin Rinpoche and Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. With a lifelong passion for wilderness, she has summited Mt. Kenya and Mt. Baker, among other peaks. Her book and other works can be seen at sarahcbeasley.com.