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Oct 15
Dharma Teachings
Offering to the Guru
Marpa, Courtesy of the Kagyu Office

Marpa, Courtesy of the Kagyu Office

On one of his trips to India, the Tibetan master Marpa brought gold dust to offer to Naropa, his guru (Sanskirt for “teacher”). Traditionally, tantric teachings are not just given away; the disciple must make an offering in order to receive them. Gold was the gift of choice in medieval India, signifying the value ascribed to spiritual teachings.

Marpa, being a practical man, decided to save just a pinch of gold dust for his return journey to Tibet. At learning this, Naropa scoffed, “What need have I for gold. The whole world is gold for me!” Whereupon, Naropa stamped his foot and the earth turned to gold. This story conveys poignantly the importance in Buddhism of giving wholeheartedly, holding nothing back.

Sadaprarudita and the Merchant’s Daughter

Buddhist lore suggests the lengths to which a disciple can go in order to make an offering. In Prajnaparamita literature, there is a figure named Sadaprarudita, who hears about the prajnaparamita or “perfection of wisdom” and yearns to hear it taught by the bodhisattva Dharmodgata. Being a poor man, Sadaprarudita dares not set out without an offering. As the story goes, he resolves to sell his own body (an extreme fundraising idea if there ever was one).

Illuminated Manuscript of Prajnaparamita in 8,000 Lines, Courtesy of Rangjung Yeshe Wiki

Illuminated Manuscript of Prajnaparamita in 8,000 Lines, Courtesy of Rangjung Yeshe Wiki

One day in the marketplace, a brahmin approaches Sadaprarudita and asks to purchase a portion of his flesh and blood. True to his resolve, Sadaprarudita began to cut open a vein and, as blood spurt from his arm, to extract a chunk of flesh from his thigh.

This story continues with another act of generosity, sufficient to guarantee buddhahood to its patron. From her balcony, a merchant’s daughter sees Sadaprarudita cutting his own body and resolves to rescue him. The merchant’s daughter supplies jewels to serve as an offering and accompanies him to hear the prajnaparamita taught.

Mandala Plate at Dodrupchen Monastery in Golok

Mandala Plate at Dodrupchen Monastery in Golok

Through their acts of generosity, as the tale goes, Sadaprarudita and the merchant’s daughter earned enough merit to sojourn to the pure lands in order to swiftly attain enlightenment.

The Teaching Gift

This tradition is maintained today in the form of the “teaching gift,” usually a bowl or basket left out for people to place offerings when attending a program with a Tibetan teacher. While program costs may cover expenses, the teaching gift is an opportunity to give directly to the teacher as an expression of appreciation, and it allows one to establish a direct connection with a teacher.

Because the teacher is considered to be a “field of merit,” or a virtuous repository for generosity, presenting an offering has traditionally been an important means to make merit. The nineteenth-century ecumenical master Patrul Rinpoche puts it thus:

Of all the paramount sources of refuge or opportunities for accumulating merit there is none greater than the teacher. Especially while he is giving an empowerment or teaching, the compassion and blessings of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the ten directions pour into him and he becomes indivisibly one with all the Buddhas. At such a time, therefore, offering him even a mouthful of food is more powerful than hundreds or thousands of offerings at other times.

– Patrul Rinpoche, The Words of My Perfect Teacher

The practice of the teaching gift has its roots in early Buddhism in India. In the form of dana or “generosity,” offerings were made to the Buddha and to his monastic community, who begged daily for alms. In turn, they would offer teachings to the laity. As a parallel, in the Vajrayana, one traditionally makes an offering prior to receiving a tantric initiation, where one imagines giving over the entire universe to the guru in the form of a mandala.

Butter Lamps as Offerings in Tibet

Butter Lamps as Offerings in Tibet

Milarepa’s Copper Pot

In Tibetan Buddhism, the offering one makes carry significance. But this significance has nothing to do with the monetary amount and everything to do with the completeness of one’s offering. One of Marpa’s chief disciples, Milarepa, was too poor to be able to offer gold. Orphaned at a young age, Milarepa’s patrimony had been pilfered by his aunt and uncle, and he arrived penniless to meet Marpa for the first time. Marpa told him in no uncertain terms that he could not give the teachings for free; Milarepa would have to earn his keep and donate his labor prior to receiving tantric initiation.

On begging rounds, Milarepa gathered enough barley to purchase some provisions and a copper pot for cooking. On greeting Marpa, he offered that empty pot–his only possession. Marpa interpreted the gift as an augur: its four handles signifying the coming of four disciples, its polish indicating the purity of mind, its being empty as the hardships Milarepa would face while meditating in mountain solitudes, and its ring as Milarepa’s future fame. Marpa then filled it with melted butter, signifying the blessings of the lineage.

Special Occasions for Offering

Offerings made to support the guru’s activities are also seen as a potent means to share in his or her merit. By supporting a particular activity, even with a modest gift, it is said that one shares in the entirety of the merit. This pertains to building projects, sponsoring rituals, and subsidizing retreats. Patrul Rinpoche states:

Whenever your sublime teacher accumulates great waves of merit and wisdom through his Bodhisattva activities, your own participation with the least material offering or effort of body or speech, or even just your offering of joy at what he is doing, will bring you as much merit as springs from his own unsurpassable intention.

– Patrul Rinpoche, The Words of My Perfect Teacher

For the Shambhala community, the Sakyong’s year of retreat is a special occasion for making offerings. It is a rare opportunity to share in the merit and blessings of his practice. Learn more about the year of retreat at www.sakyongladrang.org.

Naropa, Courtesy of the Kagyu Office

Naropa, Courtesy of the Kagyu Office

Tilopa’s Advice to Naropa

In the west, people often view the concept of “merit” with suspicion, thinking that merit-making is mainly a practice for the laity in Asia, who have less access to practicing meditation. However, in Tibetan Buddhism, merit-making is seen as crucial to the success of meditation practice, creating a fertile field in which to plant the seeds of wisdom. Indeed, merit and wisdom go hand in hand on the Buddhist path. As Patrul Rinpoche says, in The Words of My Perfect Teacher, “it is impossible to attain buddhahood or to realize fully the truth of emptiness without completing the two accumulations of merit and wisdom.”

The great siddha (or “accomplished one”) Tilopa said to his disciple Naropa:

Naropa, my son, until you realize
That all these appearances which arise interdependently
In reality have never arisen, never part
From the two wheels of your chariot, the two accumulations.

In addition, the Kagyu master Gampopa is reported to have said: “Even when you realize that in the absolute there is nothing to accumulate or purify, still continue to accumulate even the smallest amounts of merit.”

Dirt Turned to Gold

In Buddhism, what one gives (or how much one gives) is less important than the attitude with which one gives it. A mandala offering can be given with a handful of rice, but one imagines that to be all the finery in the universe. Likewise, there is a legend about the previous birth of Ashoka, the great ruler who unified India and patronized Buddhism in the third century BCE. According to the legend, Ashoka in a previous life had a chance encounter with the Buddha in childhood. As the Buddha approached, the boy realized he had nothing to give. So he scooped up a handful of dirt and imagined it as pure gold. Due to the merit of that act, the legend goes, he became the great king Ashoka and model of enlightened rulership.


Patrul Rinpoche, The Words of My Perfect Teacher, translated by the Padmakara Translation Committee (HarperCollins, 1994): 149-50 and 283-4.

The Life of Milarepa
, translated by Lobsang Lhalungpa (Penguin, 1979).

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