What do the bowls of water on a shrine represent?

Buddhist water offering bowls meaning

Generosity is the principle of energy exchange between the centre and the body of the mandala and back to the centre, between the mandala as a whole and the environment, and among the different elements within the mandala. [Read more about Mandala Principle HERE]

A gift given from the heart establishes a bond of love. Although we may give, it is not a gift until someone opens up and receives it. The Buddhas are giving their adhistana all the time, but if we do not open our hearts and minds to it, it cannot awaken and empower us. One way we can remind ourselves of the generosity of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is to pause and bow even if only inwardly.

There are many other ways that we can show our appreciation and respect in the shrine room as well as in practice situations by gestures of honouring and appreciation as we encounter the sacred. One way to do this is to place gifts on your shrine.


At the Hermitage and Awakened Heart Sangha events we use the Tibetan tradition that comes from India of offering seven or eight bowls of water. They can be made of any kind of material, but they should be as beautiful as possible.

Glass or crystal bowls are easier to keep clean than the more customary metal ones. It is good to keep the bowls very clean, and normally the water is poured fresh every day and poured away at the end of the day. It should then be offered to plants in the house or garden, not just thrown down the drain.

Traditionally the bowls are arranged in a row, evenly spaced and about a quarter of an inch apart (or the size of a vertical grain of rice apart). Attention to detail like this is an expression of shila or discipline and helps to focus and calm the mind as you prepare to make the gifts.

In the same way it is appropriate to take care not to spill the water as you pour it into the bowls (filling from the left, emptying from the right). It is good if they are placed face down in a row (or stacked leaning one upon another in a row) until you are ready to pour the water into them.

In the East generally it is considered inauspicious to offer somebody an empty vessel. Perhaps this reflects a cultural awareness of the energy exchange principle. Fill the bowls to about a quarter of an inch beneath the rim. The idea is that they should be as full as possible without spilling over and each bowl should be filled to the same level.

When emptying the bowls at the end of the day it’s good to wipe them dry with a cloth kept especially for this purpose. You should dry them and turn them upside down individually, not leave them empty while you wait to dry them.

Although it is water that is being poured, in your mind you may think it represents the traditional gifts made to guests of honour in a hot country like India.

The first bowl is drinking water, cool and refreshing after a long and dusty journey.

The second is water to bathe their feet as an act of humility and service.

The third is honouring them with garlands and bouquets of flowers, representing beauty that is pleasing to their eyes.

The fourth is aromatic incense to enhance the atmosphere, to welcome them and to please their sense of smell.

The fifth is lighted lamps expressing glory and splendour. You can offer an actual lamp or candle instead of a bowl of water here, in which case there could be only seven offering bowls on the shrine.

The sixth bowl is perfumed bathing water and you could think that you invite your guests to bathe and delight in jewelled bathing halls such as an ancient Indian King would enjoy.

The seventh is food, wonderful dishes of every type and flavour.

The eighth is sweet music to delight the ears of the assembled company.

Although there are eight kinds of offering, the bowls are usually placed in sets of seven. Trungpa Rinpoche told Rigdzin Shikpo [Lama Shenpen’s teachers] that when there are only seven bowls you should place something to represent music in the place of the eighth bowl. This could be a conch shell, small symbols or a little bell, although usually, as mentioned above, a candle or lamp is used in place of the lamp offering to make up the eight.

You could make an offering of just one bowl of water thinking it incorporates all eight gifts. Another traditional possibility is to add a little saffron to the water in the bowls to make it fragrant and pleasing to the senses.

Whether you make a water offering or not, it is universally the Buddhist custom to make gifts of flowers, incense and lights on the shrine. The flowers represent the bliss and beauty of samadhi (concentration or meditative absorption), the incense is the sweet fragrance of shila (discipline) and the lights represent prajna (wisdom).

Rigdzin Shikpo thinks it is a good custom to use the light to ignite the incense, just as wisdom should ignite your shila. In other words your discipline should always be fired by the insight coming from prajna. Tibetans sometimes insist you should not light the incense from the light, because you should not use something that has already been offered and so does not belong to you.

It is up to the individual to adopt such thoughts as she or he finds inspiring. These are all good ways of thinking.

Lama Shenpen Hookham


This is an excerpt from Lama Shenpen Hookham’s book Mandala of Sacred Space: Setting up your Practice at Home’’Available here or direct from the Sangha for members of the AHS.

Find out more here about how to become of student of Lama Shenpen and join the training in Formless Meditation, reflection and insight, with the Living the Awakened Heart Training.

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