SEARCH     Home     Site Map    Symbolism    Calendar     Karmapa     News    DONATE

Dana the perfection of generosity

Uh-oh It's about money

Most of us have made different kinds of donations or offerings to teachers and institutions that help us in various different capacities.  However, in the West, there is no infrastructure in place to take care of those who are generous with their time and energy by providing dharma teachings. Often extensive travel is involved, which is very expensive.  It is for those reasons that students of Buddhism will often see signs with "suggested donation" followed by an amount of money.

Did you know that you can participate in a retreat by supporting another's practice?


The offerings directed to deities, Buddhas, or Bodhisattvas are of a different nature; these donations are made in order to create connections with them.  The Sanskrit word for offering is puja meaning to please.

Offerings please the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, not because they are pleased to receive gifts, but because they delight in the virtue of the givers, which is determined by the quality of their motivation in making the offering. Offerings need not even be material. Milarepa offered his spiritual practice, his most cherished attribute. The best offerings are of virtuous accomplishments. Thus, the offering of religious practice is what most pleases the deities and creates a bond between them and the practitioner, which provides a basis for his/her further development.

Several factors determine the quality of an offering. Prominent is the giver's motivation, though the status of the recipient and the nature of the offering also contribute. The giver acquires the greatest merit when he/she is motivated by a wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. It is much less if he/she aspires for his/her own enlightenment alone and even less if he/she wishes merely to obtain a good rebirth in his/her next life. The poorest motivation is the wish to gain some benefits in this lifetime, such as wealth and a long life, or to be completely mundane in seeking a reputation  for generosity.

The status of the recipient is an important factor. The merit gained by making an offering with absolutely pure motivation to a Buddha is immeasurable. Since images and other manifestations of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are to be regarded as no different from them in nature, making offerings such as are made to the mandala deities in the consecration rituals is equivalent to making offerings to the Buddhas.

The Buddhas are exalted objects of offering because they are the ultimate source of refuge, not because they will snatch us out of cyclic existence, but because the teachings they demonstrate enable us to do so ourselves. One's own lama or teacher is also an exalted object of offering, because it is due to his personal kindness and guidance that one can make any progress on the path of development for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Nevertheless, since pure motivation is so important, a gift made with a very pure motivation to a needy person is also very meritorious.  One can reflect that this needy person has at sometime been one's own kind mother or consider the fact that one depends on others to attain enlightenment, for without them one would have no opportunity to practice giving, ethics and forbearance, which are essential in the quest for Buddhahood.  Thus it could be said that the merit obtained from making a modest gift to a needy person with an exalted motivation is far greater than one made to a Buddha with a poor motivation.

Whatever is offered should always have been honestly obtained, for a wrongly acquired object severely detracts from the wholesome quality of giving it.  Offerings should always be of the best one has.  Food offered to the Buddhas should not be bad or rotten on the pretext that no one will eat it. It is good to offer one's own food before eating it. Since the main purpose of making offerings is to reduce avarice, one should do so without a trace of regret. The Buddha recommended that avaricious people should initially accustom their minds to sharing by giving something from one hand to the other. 

~ The Consecration Ritual, Cho-Yang, v. 1. no. 2 (55 - 56) 1987.  Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs.   Thanks to Sacred Texts for making this and other interesting texts available online.

Honoring the Deities

Tantric Buddhism uses the skillful means of ritual as a form of training.  The methods include self-purification, the development of virtues ("perfections") such as humility and generosity, and a devotion to forms ie. deity worship and the commitment to regularly attend to unseen beings.  While deities are ultimately understood to emerge from, and to return to Emptiness, they are also viewed as having existence. 

  • The Heart Sutra encapsulates the fundamental principle behind what some might find to be a contradiction in terms.
  • See also, Trikaya.

Not all deities must be worshipped on a regular basis, but a lama can make regular deity practice a requirement for receiving the transmission or empowerment of  certain deities.  When a teaching is announced with the phrase "certain commitments may be imposed" the student might like to inquire beforehand what they might entail.  Commitments range from adopting a respectful attitude, repeating a mantra or engaging in a formal bond or samaya [vow] to undertake a number of prayers, mantras, or daily ritual practices. 


The ten blessings that are traditionally considered to accrue from offering flowers are:   A long life; good health; strength; beauty; wisdom; ease of progress along the Buddhist Path; future rebirth in pleasant environment;  rebirth as an attractive person with a fine complexion and hair; having a sweet-scented body, and pleasant relationships with others.


In 1996, the 12th Tai Situ explained fire offerings:

Three Types

The 3 kinds of offering involving fire are the sang, the sur, and the third which is the jin-seig.   There are also various types of these. 

The major objective of any fire puja [worship ritual] is offering.  You put the food and whatever ingredients into the fire.  As the fire burns, the offering is consumed.  When everything is totally burnt the offering has been accomplished.

In a sang, the smoke is being offered.  In a  sur, it is the scent.  And in the jen-seig, it the actual fire itself -- the flames and the burning.

Four Categories of Intended Recipient

These offerings are made to 4 different categories of recipient.  The first one consists of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and the deities.  The second comprises protectors, and very high spiritual gods [Brahma, Indra, etc.]  The third category consists of all sentient beings.  And the fourth consists of ghosts, and hungry ghosts, and also all those to whom one owes karmic debts.  The first two offerings are referred to as just that: offerings, gifts. However, the last two are called "generous gifts" -- they are especial expressions of generosity.

Sang, or Smoke Offering

Sang focuses on mountain deities, sky gods, river gods, and all such gods of location.  It is especially intended for these.  Although we invite the gods of the entire universe, we are especially honouring the local deities.  This is normally performed on the house-top, or the peak of a mountain, and the smoke is usually quite big.

It is very important that the products used for the sang be clean, and 100% vegetarian.  No meat or animal products [such as butter or musk] can be used. 

Sang-sol, is a ceremony performed by Tibetans on the occasion of all kinds of significant events. The housewife, or any other individual, or a lama in the interests of a group, will go up on the roof of a building or to another high spot to burn juniper branches or other fragrant substances.  The aromatic smoke is offered to local deities and the beings of all the realms.   This is actually the simplest form of incense offering.

The wood should be clean and free of insects, and the offering is usually made in the morning.  There are a variety of offering prayers.  ~ Khandro.Net

Sur or Smell Offering

Although a sur is for all 4 categories, it is mainly directed towards ghosts and spirits, and beings to whom one has karmic debts.   We can give anything to them, all types of foods.  In fact, some surs need to be non-vegetarian.  That is, we also burn meat. 

Vegetarian and non-vegetarian surs are two distinct types, and they are kept separate.  Even the prayers are kept separate , and a different fire has to be built for each type.

Jin-seig, the Fire Offering

Jin-seig concentrates on a deity.  Therefore, each jin-seig has different components depending on the type of deity.  It is only done by a priest, not by the general public.  [It is a true fire sacrifice deriving from the Vedic tradition.]  In fact, an ordinary person is not supposed to handle the substances intended for these offerings. 

[It uses special utensils.] A special order must be followed, and there are particular times and places for this type of offering.   Every substance must be handled and offered according to the ritual. 

Four kinds of jin-seig relate to the types of deity.  That is, peaceful, wrathful, powerful, and magnetizing.  Sometimes there is a combination of all four aspect. 

Honour to the Protectors

At large institutions, there are separate gonkang or chapels specifically dedicated to the dharmapalas.  Where there is only one shrine, the protector deities have a special place in relation to the other figures and items.  

A practitioner advises,

"If you've had an "entrustment" to a particular protector, you *must* do them daily. 

We've only received transmissions, which technically means if we miss a day, we don't have to go to extraordinary lengths to repair our samaya vows.

We do our protector prayers every night. It was explained to us that one cannot expect a favor of a friend if one never invites them over to dinner. I have a friend who has received entrustment, and in a fit of busy-ness forgot to do her protector prayer that day. She approached her lama, who had to go to great lengths and expense in order to repair the situation.

If one hasn't already got a protector practice, doing them on the 9th, 19th, and 29th days of the lunar month is appropriate, and probably sufficient, unless your lama advises you to do them more often, or less ... .

Protector practices help to clear obstacles on the path, so it stands to reason that a healthy protector practice might afford one more advantage in attaining realization." ~ Tom: The Kagyu Mailing List

Other Symbolic Offerings

Another kind of offering consists of tormas.  These are the special cakes originally made of roasted barley flour, but now they are often very elaborate and made of a non-perishable substance such as clay or Plasticene. 

In tangkas and other kinds of symbolic representations there sometimes appear at the foot of the main image, ie. in the foreground, some sets of offerings.   On an 18th century painted scroll or, tangka, no deity is portrayed.  However, we can recognize that it is intended as a tribute to the guardian deity, Mahakala, for we can see his various "attributes" or implements along with various sets of offerings traditionally believed to please him  

Offerings made to a wrathful deity include special protector cakes (T. dragpoi torma) " ...  made of different types of flour and water or milk to which alcohol, blood, pieces of meat, or some medicine may be added. These cakes, which have a stepping, pyramidal appearance, are specific to wrathful deities with their wavy outer lines representing smoke and flames. "

Another special torma or offering cake is present on the shrine which stands for the five senses.  "It consists of the disembodied organs of the senses sitting in a skull cup. To the right of this is an incense burner which would probably contain burning poisonous datura leaves and/or a black incense known as gu gul."

Sets of Offerings

Two sets of offerings depicted in the Mahakala banner mentioned above appear frequently in other aids to visualization:

Seven Jewels of Royal Power (T. rgyal-srid rin-chen sna-bdun, Skt. saptaratna) are the accessories of a universal monarch (T. khor-los bsgyur-bai rgyal-po, Skt. chakravartin). They represent the accoutrements that a king must possess in order to stay in power.  

"The precious queen (T. btsun-mo, Skt. raniratna)- who completes the poles where the chakravartin is the masculine aspect, and she the feminine. Those working to abandon negative mental states regard her as mother or sister. Her beauty and love for her husband are representative of the radiating, piercing joy of the Buddha's enlightenment. 

The precious general (T. dmag-dpon rinpoche, Skt. senapatiratna) symbolizes the wrathful power to overcome enemies. 

The precious horse (T. rta-mchog rinpoche, Skt. asvaratna) serves as the chakravartin's personal mount and shares similarities with the lung ta referred to earlier, both in appearance and in the ability to travel among the clouds.  Its qualities mirror the Buddha's abandonment of, or "rising above", the cares of worldly existence. 

The precious jewel (T. nor-bu rinpoche, Skt. maniratna), which is depicted on the back of the precious horse and separately in the upper left corner, deals with the themes of wealth and unfolding (power and possibility).  The jewel is said to aid the chakravartin in his ability to see all things.  In the same way, a Buddha can perceive all things; recognizing the manifold connections between all events, the relentless chain of cause and effect, and the nature of compounded existence. 

The precious minister or householder (T. blon-po rinpoche, Skt. parinayakaratna) represent two different aspects of the rule of the chakravartin which are closely related.  The minister aids the chakravartin in carrying out his commands expeditiously, while the householder provides the very basic support, given with devotion, without which the chakravartin would be unable to rule.  The knowledge of the Buddha, like the minister, is always present to him who has realized it, allowing him to cut through the bonds of ignorance. While the householder represents the support of the lay community, without which the monastic community could not continue. Each community playing its part, the lay providing physical sustenance, and the monastic, the sustenance of the Dharma. 

The precious elephant (T. glang-po rinpoche, Skt. hastiratna)  The elephant is a symbol of both strength and the untamed mind in Buddhism. The precious elephant represents the strength of one's mind tamed, through Buddhist practice.  Exhibiting noble gentleness, the precious elephant serves as a symbol of the calm majesty possessed by one who is on the path.  Specifically, he embodies the boundless powers of the Buddha which are miraculous aspiration, effort, intention,
and analysis. 

The precious wheel (T. khor-lo rinpoche, Skt. chakraratna), which is depicted both on the back of the precious elephant and separately in the upper left corner below the precious jewel, is a symbol of motion and power, representing the ability to "roll over" all obstacles. In Buddhism it symbolizes the truth and power of the noble path as realized and taught by the Buddha to deliver all from suffering.  For just as the chakravartin has conquered the world, so the Buddha has overcome the defilements with the aid of the Dharma." 

~ Chad Sawyer for Mirror of the Heart-Mind at Kaladarhsan Arts of Ohio State U.

Eight Auspicious Attractors (T. bKra-sis rdzas-brgyad, Skt. ashtamangala-dravya):

Mirror (T. me-long, Skt. adarsha) which, when clear of dust or  pollution, represents the wisdom that is mirror-like since it can reflect all phenomena without distinction. 

Curd/Yogurt (T. zho, Skt. dadhi) a rich food that is the result of a long process yet dependent upon a "starter" from the previous batch; a reminder of karma that is purified as defilements or obscurations are dissolved. 

Durva Grass (T. rtsva dur-ba, Skt. durva) resilient and strong, symbolic of long life.  Longevity is beneficial affording opportunities to practice and attain  enlightenment. 

Bilva Fruit (T. shing-tog bil-ba, Skt. bilva) is like a gourd; it serves to remind the practitioner of Emptiness, dependent origination, and the conditioned nature of all phenomena. 

Right-whorled Conch (T. dung gyas khyil, Skt. dakshinavarta-shankha) is very rare; its sound is born of Emptiness and it is also the bugle that announces the regal presence of the Buddhist teachings.

Vermilion (T. li-khri, Skt. sindura) red powder used for auspicious life-affirming marks.  As a Buddhist symbol, this red which normally stands for blood and for fertility, represents power transmuted to serve the higher goal of enlightenment.  

White Mustard Seed (T. yungs-kar, Skt. sarsapa) is a reminder of mortality which is a powerful motivation;  mustard is also used for the ritual expulsion of spirits and therefore, a wrathful means of overcoming obstacles.  

Ghiwang Medicine was a substance once obtained form the intestinal tract of an elephant (T. ghi-wang, Skt. gorochana) The Tibetan means "cow essence".  It was used in the preparation of a tonic that was believed to cure all ills.  Therefore it stands for the Dharma which is the teaching to end all suffering.

  • See also "Numbers," for the Seven Luxuries or Jewels. 
  • About Tormas, the special offering cakes originally made of dough.  Sometimes very elaborate, nowadays they can be made of non-perishable substances such as clay or synthetic materials, but should at least include a few grains of rice or barley. 

Back ] Home ] Up ] Next ]

Vajrayana ]

Copyright 1998-2018 Khandro.Net All rights reserved. This Web site is designed with Firefox as browser but should be accessible to others. However,  if you eliminate underlining in your Preferences you could miss some of our links.