Not only in dzongs, temples and monasteries but every Bhutanese house has a room for an altar to hold images or representations of the Buddha’s enlightened body, speech and mind. It serves as reminders of the goal of Buddhist practice to develop these qualities in oneself so as to be able to fully benefit all sentient beings.
No limitation is set on an offering in altar. One can offer any pleasing object that pleases five senses: form, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Water, milk, incense, lamp and flowers are usually offered in the altar.
It is a Bhutanese customary to offer 7 bowls of water, arranged in line. No bowl for sound is offered as sound is non-visual. Therefore, offering of waters in 7 bowls is called the 8 auspicious offering. Each offering has a purpose that corresponds to a significant Buddhist prayer, the Seven Limb Puja which is to purify negative karma and accumulate merits.
1. First Offering Bowl – Water for Drinking
Water has eight qualities, which are crystal clarity, coolness, sweetness, lightness, softness, freedom from impurities, soothing to the stomach and makes the throat clear and free. As such, water is offered to the Buddha for drinking and to cleanse his mouth or face. This offering symbolizes the auspicious results of all virtuous causes and conditions. In the Seven Limb Puja, it represents Homage and Prostration.
2. Second Offering Bowl – Water for Bathing
Pure and clean water is offered to the Buddha for bathing. Usually, the water is scented with sandalwood, and is used to bathe the feet. This offering symbolizes purification of our negative karma and obscuration. In the Seven Limb Puja it represents Offering.
3. Third Offering Bowl – Flowers
All types of flowers can be offered, including medicinal flowers, fruits and grains. The offering of flowers symbolizes the beauty and flowering of Enlightenment and signifies the opening of one’s heart. In the Seven Limb Puja, the flower represents Confession.
4. Fourth Offering Bowl – Incense
Incense emits a beautiful scent. When offered to the Buddha, it symbolizes morality, ethics and discipline which are the basic causes and conditions from which pure enlightened qualities are cultivated. In the Seven Limb Puja, incense represents Rejoicing in all the virtue in the world.
5. Fifth Offering Bowl – Light
This light used for offering comes in different forms, including all natural light, such as the sun, moon and stars, as well as all types of man-made forms of light such as lamps and candles. This offering symbolizes the dispelling of all darkness of the mind and all ignorance. In the Seven Limb Puja, light represents Requesting the Buddha to always offer Dharma teaching.
6. Sixth Offering Bowl – Perfume
All types of beautiful fragrance or perfume that one can smell or put on the body can be used for this offering. Perfume is offered to the Buddha’s mind and symbolizes the perseverance and joyful effort that is the heart of Enlightenment. Without perseverance, all the other enlightened qualities could not arise in the mind. In the Seven Limb Puja, the perfume represents Beseeching the Buddha to remain in the world.
7. Seventh Offering Bowl – Celestial Food
Excellent, delicious food of all kinds and various tastes is offered to the Three Jewels. This offering symbolizes the clear and stable mind of Samadhi, or meditative absorption. In the Seven Limb Puja, food represents Dedication of all merit for the benefit of all sentient beings.
8. Eighth Offering Bowl – Music
Musical instruments such as cymbals, bells, lutes, and string instruments that create beautiful sound is offered to the ears of the Buddha. Sound symbolizes the Buddha’s Wisdom nature and the extraordinary Compassion that arises naturally from the Wisdom mind. In the Seven Limb Puja, it is said that there is no eighth bowl for sound because sound is non-visual.