Offerings are a major part of the ritual of consecration and of many other Tibetan Buddhist rituals, but their nature clearly reveals their Indian origin. Offerings are made to acquire merit, but the recipient can be the poor and needy as well as lamas or deities. If the merit thus acquired is dedicated to the attainment of enlightenment, the offering becomes part of the practice of the perfection of giving.
Though elaborate offerings to deities who never seem to partake of them may seem wasteful to the sceptical, especially in the case of the ritual fire offerings during which everything is burned, such offerings are not merely meaningless ritual. the primary aim of Buddhist practice is to train the mind and this is the context in which the offerings should be understood. Whether physical offerings actually benefit the recipient or not, from the practitioners point of view they are an essential means of reducing the desire and greed which characterize our relationship with the physical world. Desire is to think that we would be satisfied if we were to obtain some object, and greed is to think we will be more satisfied if we can keep what we have obtained or gain more. Both passions tend to reinforce the notion of ourselves as real, independent selves to be satisfied. Making offerings accustoms the mind to giving, letting go of desirable objects, and serves to loosen our sense of clinging to a real and independent self. The merit derived from giving can be a cause in the short term for acquiring wealth, but ultimately for attaining enlightenment.
Offerings directed to certain deities, Buddhas, or Bodhisattvas create connections with them. In Sanskrit the word for offering is "puja" which means 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 giving, by giving something from one hand to the other.
Water is also commonly offered. Water is pure. the Indian master Atisha, who visited Tibet with profound effect in the eleventh century, praised the purity of water in Tibet, saying that simply by appreciating its excellent qualities one could offer it joyfully to the Buddhas. Water can easily and honestly obtained and when offering it one can imagine washing away the miserliness of all sentient beings.
(Portion of "The Consecration Ritual", pp 55 - 56, Cho-Yang, Vol. 1-No.2, 1987. Cho-Yang is an occasional publication of the Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs)