How can we align with our Buddhist practice over the Christmas period? In the extract below from Lama Shenpen’s book ‘The Mayayana Feast Offering‘ we can see how we might approach Christmas as we would a feast practice, with the opportunity to practice Dana (generosity/giving), sharing food, and generating Punya (the power of goodness) which can be dedicated for the benefit of others:
“In a way our whole life is about meals and gaps between meals – so feasting is like a higher level of the same principle. It goes along with the rhythm or pattern of life, and it is an opportunity to enhance and empower that rhythm. It is as though life were actually about feasts and the gaps between feasts. Even if we are meditating in retreat it’s good to hold feasts and invite all the Awakened ones and local non-human beings. We are acknowledging that we are in the world with other beings, that we participate in a shared world.
In many societies feasting marks the cycles of the seasons, and in Buddhism the time of the full moon is used to celebrate and feast. Our Sangha feasts should feel like Christmas coming round again and again. They mark time, but in a sense they also negate time because each occasion of feasting has a timeless continuity with the one before.
Joining in with a feast is significant. It forges mandala connections. If you are invited to a feast you should always try hard to go, whatever you are feeling, just to be present and to be a part of what it represents.
Gathering things together, forming connections, doing things with other people, all produce some kind of reality that can be profoundly beneficial for ourselves and for others, and that is particularly important if we’re on the bodhisattva path. The way we shape the future is by our actions now, and this has far-reaching consequences, even into other bodies, other places, other worlds. That is the teaching of karma.
One thing that we are doing with a feast is creating auspicious connections. As we come together at a certain time and place and do certain things we create a configuration which, because of the nature of reality and particularly through the power of our volition, can manifest again and again. If all the connections are complete and perfect then you get a complete and perfect repeat, if you like.
Dana and punya are very important in the feast practice. Punya, [often misleadingly translated as ‘merit’] the goodness that arises from positive actions, is a difficult concept in the West. In our culture we think we should do what’s right and good because it’s right and good, not because we will get something from it.
Accumulating punya can seem almost a materialistic notion, the opposite of letting go of concepts and seeing the emptiness of everything. Nevertheless there is tremendous emphasis on punya throughout Buddhism, and in the Mahayana it is even more important because you need a limitless supply of punya to benefit all beings and bring them to Awakening. Fortunately Dharma practice that leads to a deep understanding of reality makes powerful punya in itself, so if you are practising diligently that is enough; but it is worth exploring the concept.
The auspiciousness of the occasion, when the conditions are complete and everything is perfect and the very best, produces punya if we do it with faith and openness and a great sense that we are in the presence of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. This perfect connection allows the adhistana [power of blessing] to flow from the world of Awakening into our world.
What we are doing is empowering this flow so that it will become very strong and draw ourselves and all beings to Awakening. Tibetans have much more faith in this than they do in sitting to meditate. They think there’s more chance that it will work! They are confident that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas will be joining them in doing the feast; they’re less confident about whether their meditation is genuine or not. But anything you’re doing with your body, speech and mind that is oriented towards Awakening or connecting with Awakened beings produces a lot of punya.
Dana (translates as generosity/giving) is another important aspect of the feast offering. Tibetans have endless rituals based on the seven branches of prayer, which are different aspects of giving to the Buddha. In our culture, although the idea of charity is well established and we are used to giving to others in need or to good causes, we are not so sure about giving to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. That needs some explanation.
Giving in this context is partly about honouring and celebrating. If we’re going to follow a path to Awakening we need to keep orienting ourselves towards it, and we do that by reflecting again and again on how wonderful the qualities of Awakening are, until the heart’s response gets stronger and stronger.
Giving our body, speech and mind, giving everything we’ve got, giving everything we haven’t got, is a natural way of doing that. Gifts are a material expression of our decision to align ourselves with the path and stay on it. It’s rather like giving tribute to an emperor empowering him to rule. In the same way, you offer the whole world to the Buddhas so that they rule the mandala. You give them everything which means you have to let go of your own clinging and your wishes for this and that. You give more and more whole-heartedly. And what comes back to us is punya, a power to give more, to share and to give to all beings.
There are two aspects of giving: we benefit others by giving to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and we also give to beings because they are potentially Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Through that kind of conviction we also make punya, which we can than rededicate to the benefit of all beings.
This attitude is said to be the source of good fortune. If I’m going to help other beings I have to have good fortune myself, because if I’m unfortunate I won’t be able to; they will be the ones helping me. This connects into a fundamental idea of the nature of the universe which is that good fortune and well-being do not arise from the physical universe, they arise from some other power, from the power of punya.
But we don’t think like that. We think that if you want to benefit beings you have to get rich, whereas from this point of view if you want a lot of wealth to benefit others, then you’d better start giving. Give as much as you can, give anything you can think of.
Take every single opportunity you can to give and to make that gift to the Buddhas so that it will increase in power and you’ll have even more to give. Having given, you dedicate the good of that to the benefit of all beings. It’s not like our materialistic view.
We find it strange to give to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas because they don’t really need our gifts. But this sort of giving is not about helping others; it goes much deeper and further than that. In a way you are seeking to empower the Buddha so that the Buddha is able to give more.
One thing that is difficult about that is how one relates to the Buddha and especially all the impediments that one has to belief. That’s why I like the story of Bhadra the Magician [from the story of the Buddha].
He made offerings to trick the Buddha but then he couldn’t get them back because the Buddha had accepted them. Even with a rotten motivation the Buddha had got them. It doesn’t take much for the Buddha to take advantage! Even if we think this way a little bit the Buddha can get his hook in. In a sense we have to do something from our side. If it didn’t need us to do anything the Buddha would have enlightened us aeons ago! Then as soon as we do the slightest thing the power of the Buddha is right there to pick up on it. The more we engage the more it’s picked up on.
It gets back to mandala principle(1). There’s our personal mandala, then there’s the mandala of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas there all ready and waiting to awaken us on the spot. Every little move we make they grab us. If you can think that way you will become quite encouraged. It’s a big shift from the way we normally think, but Tibetans manage it and they are very cheerful.
So when you make offerings and half of you believes it’s having an effect and half of you is thinking, “What the hell am I doing?” you’re still creating punya and receiving adhistana. That’s the point of the story of Bhadra the Magician. I think of it when I’m making offerings and I’m being overly critical of myself, noticing for instance how I haven’t been paying attention. I think “Oh well, never mind, the Buddha knows my intention. Even if it’s somewhat of a remote intention, it’s good enough. The Buddha will be using this.” Obviously we have a natural inclination to understand better and become more convinced and so we focus on the practice in order for that conviction to grow, and it does. But it will work right from the beginning. Even Bhadra’s dubious motivation didn’t matter – the Buddha still got the offerings!”
Lama Shenpen Hookham
Extract from ‘The Mayayana Feast Offering’ book.
(1) Mandala Principle – All of our experience can be thought of as the manifestation of mandalas, a word that means any structure that has a centre and periphery. Mandala Principle is taught as part of Lama Shenpen’s Living the Awakened Heart Training.
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