When We Give It All to Buddha

How do we make offerings to Buddha? First we find Buddha everywhere, says Kokyo Henkel — and then we offer everything.

Kokyo Henkel
12 September 2020
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi once told a story about offerings. As a young priest in Japan, he used to visit a British woman named Miss Ransom. He learned English from her and taught her some Japanese while they had tea. Someone had given her a carved wooden buddha statue, which she placed in the tokonoma—an altar-like recess for displaying scrolls, flowers, or ornaments—in the apartment where she was living. Because it was situated near the door, Miss Ransom found the tokonoma to be a convenient shoe rack, and when she came into her apartment, she left her dirty shoes on the platform next to the buddha. The young Suzuki, having been raised in a temple family, felt uncomfortable seeing this. One day, he took his cup of tea and respectfully offered it to the buddha. He began to do this each time he visited, and Miss Ransom took to teasing him about idol worship, insisting it was silly to relate to a wooden statue in this way. Her friends even started to leave burnt matches on the shelf and use the incense bowl as an ashtray.

Eventually, though, Miss Ransom became curious about Suzuki’s devotion and asked him about the meaning of his strange activity. He told her about the three bodies of buddha: dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. The dharmakaya, or reality body of buddha, is the boundless space-like nature of our awareness, this ever-present awareness that we too often miss because our attention is directed toward objects. Huineng, the Sixth Ancestor of Chinese Zen, said, “What is the pure dharmakaya? Everyone’s true nature is originally pure, and the ten thousand things are present within this nature.”

The sambhogakaya, or bliss body of buddha, is the cognitive aspect of our awareness. Awareness is not just empty space; it also has a knowing quality that experiences life. The Sixth Ancestor said, “What is the perfect sambhogakaya? As one lamp can instantly dispel a thousand years of darkness, one moment of wisdom eliminates ten thousand years of ignorance.”

To align the mind with the reality that everything is already buddha’s, we can practice making offerings to buddha.

The nirmanakaya is the transformation body of buddha. The Sixth Ancestor said, “What is the myriad-fold nirmanakaya? If no thought arises your nature is merely empty, but if a thought arises there is transformation.” Nirmanakaya is when boundless awareness, with its knowing cognition, is expressed as beneficial activity in the appearance of a sentient being like you or me, manifest in this world in a particular time and place, out of compassion for beings. The historical buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, is considered a nirmanakaya.

All three bodies are our own true nature, already complete but temporarily obscured by our dualistic thoughts and emotions. If the dharmakaya is like boundless space, the sambhogakaya is like radiant sunlight filling the boundless space, and nirmanakaya is like sunlight reflected on the water, where each wave creates a momentary flash for all to see. If we look at sunlight filling space, it doesn’t look like anything particular—it’s just bright and clear—but when sunlight touches the water, we can see the light sparkle. That impermanent manifestation of a glimmering wave is like each thought, the world that appears to us, where buddhas can benefit beings in conventional ways because they can think and meet others and speak with them. Formless, shapeless, ungraspable awareness takes form in every moment as a specific manifestation, so we can’t actually separate these three bodies of buddha. Emptiness itself is form, and form itself is emptiness.

Suzuki told Miss Ransom, “You think buddha is this wooden image, but it’s actually these three bodies of buddha.” He said Miss Ransom was “rather amazed” at Buddhism’s profundity, and began to take more interest in it. After about a year, said Suzuki, “she had a pretty good understanding of Buddhism, and one day she took me downtown to buy some incense and she started to offer it.” I appreciate this story because Suzuki hadn’t set out to teach Miss Ransom about the buddhadharma; she was inspired to learn through seeing him make offerings to a buddha image.

Devotion means to give oneself completely, and one way to practice devotion is to make offerings to buddha. In Sanskrit, this is called puja; in Japanese, kuyo. When we make offerings to a buddha image, we offer them to the three bodies of buddha. Because the boundless, knowing, compassionate awareness that all beings share—the three bodies of buddha—makes liberation from suffering possible for ourselves and everyone, nothing could be more worthy of our devoted offerings. Even though a carved wooden image may not be a sentient being, we can understand it as a manifestation body of buddha. Buddha can take any form in order to help people, and if a carved wooden image can help people open up, even a little, to wisdom and compassion, then buddha can manifest in this way. How these things happen is mysterious. Does the wood carver know she’s producing a nirmanakaya buddha? Whether or not that is her intention, the reality body can still manifest.

Dogen Zenji wrote a fascicle in the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye called “Making Offerings to All Buddhas” (Kuyo Shobutsu), in which he said, “You become buddha by the merit of making offerings to buddhas. How can a sentient being who has not made offerings to even one buddha, become a buddha?” Dogen went on to say, “Making offerings to buddhas does not mean providing buddhas with what they need. It’s dedicating moment after moment of our life to buddhas without wasting a moment. What use can buddhas make of gold and silver, even if they are offered? What benefit can buddhas receive if incense and flowers are offered? However, buddhas receive the offerings with great compassion to help increase the merit of sentient beings.”

If buddha is boundless awareness that is present here and now for each of us, the totality of everything in the universe, the all-inclusive timeless presence of all beings, we might ask what the point is in making offerings to buddha. If buddha is the totality of everything, then everything is already given to buddha, but we often forget that. We think there are things that don’t already belong to buddha. We think I have a thing that’s “mine,” and you have that thing that’s “yours.” This is our normal deluded human way of thinking. To align the mind with the reality that everything is already buddha’s, we can practice making offerings to buddha.

So, we offer incense, flowers, light, water, food, chanting, and prostrations to buddha with this understanding. But our offerings need not be material things; we can offer any experience we enjoy to buddha. We might doubt the validity of offering such “things,” but buddha’s teaching is that there is also no incense or flowers really; everything we experience is just a manifestation of awareness. Because we have physically manifested bodies, though, it can be helpful to physically manifest practices and to offer physically manifest flowers and incense, as a means to align body and mind. If we are unable to offer physical flowers, though, such as during zazen, we might imagine offering anything, and if we’re using our imaginations, we might as well imagine offering innumerable beautiful flowers.

If we’re holding onto a tense body, we can give that to buddha.

In addition to making physical outer offerings, we can also make inner offerings. We can understand inner offerings more easily if we offer our five physical senses and five aggregates of body and mind. We can make this kind of offering to buddha during zazen—or at any time, such as while walking down the street. We can start with the eyes, our own eyes, offering them to all buddhas throughout space and time. Sincerely offer them, feeling, I give them to you, buddha, do what you will with them. We might think that buddha would say, “No, I don’t want your eyes,” but buddha is too compassionate to do that; buddha always wants to receive our offerings. For buddha to receive our eyes, buddha must come in and inhabit our eyes. And then it is buddha looking through our eyes. If buddha is boundless awareness, the totality of everything, if we give our eyes to that, then the totality of everything starts seeing through our eyes. Then I am no longer in control of what I see. Buddha gets to decide. In a way, it’s like giving our personal power over to buddha. So, we can walk down the street and see beautiful trees and flowers, and we can offer those beautiful trees and flowers as outer offerings, and also the eyes that are enjoying the trees. We can give it all to buddha.

And we can give our ears to buddha, letting buddha inhabit them so buddha can hear through these ears. We can give this nose, tongue, and body sensations to buddha. Because we want to offer the best to buddha, to make the most wholehearted gift, we might relax first, feel the ease of a relaxed body, and then offer that. One nice thing about buddhas, though, is that they don’t discriminate between a tense body and a relaxed body. They compassionately receive and inhabit them equally. And because we especially want to offer anything we’re holding onto, if we’re holding onto a tense body, we can give that to buddha. If we are holding onto a relaxed body, we can give that to buddha, too.

This is how to offer the five physical senses. Then there are the five aggregates that make up what we call a person. Form refers to the five physical senses we’ve already covered. The next aggregate is feelings. We can offer feelings to buddha, especially pleasurable ones. It may be quite hard to do this, to remember in the midst of pleasure to offer this good feeling to buddha instead of just enjoying it for oneself. We can also offer unpleasant feelings in this body and mind to buddha, and buddha, the totality of everything, can inhabit every feeling. The third aggregate is perceptions or conceptions. We can offer the way we label things, name things, and think things—all our thoughts, both good and bad—to buddha. (Because I appreciate buddha so much, though, if I’m practicing offering my arising thought to buddha, I might try to transform the thought a little bit to offer a “better” one.) The fourth aggregate is karmic formations, all of our karmic tendencies, all of our habitual patterns. Even if an experience of craving or aversion is arising, we can offer this to buddha, and let buddha take care of it. And the fifth aggregate is dualistic consciousness. This refers to the way it seems as though there’s a mind over here, which perceives objects over there. Even though this is just our ordinary way of being in the world, consciousness is unsatisfactory because it always seems to be divided, split in two. Buddha is not split in two—buddha is undivided, all-inclusive awareness. We can offer this dualistic consciousness to nondual awareness, giving ourselves away completely.

Suzuki Roshi once said, “To make the big ring around the moon an offering to Buddha is kuyo, or puja. To hear the sound of the river should be an offering, according to Dogen Zenji. To have deeper understanding instead of shallow substantial understanding is to make a perfect offering.” In this spirit, Dogen once quoted his teacher Rujing, who said, “During the time of sitting zazen, patched-robe monks are making offerings to all the buddhas and Zen ancestors in the whole universe. Everyone without exception pays homage and makes boundless offerings of flowers, lamps, precious jewels, and fine robes. Do you know this is happening? If you know it, you cannot say you’re wasting time. If you don’t yet know it, do not avoid what is directly in front of you.” Dogen said in response to this, “During the time of sitting zazen, do not say that patched-robe monks polishing a tile to make a mirror, or striking the cart instead of the ox to make the cart move, is making offerings of flowers, lamps, jewels, and robes to buddhas and Zen ancestors in the whole universe.”

These are Zen metaphors for trying to do something conditioned to realize the unconditioned. Trying to make a future buddha by sitting in a certain posture is like trying to make a mirror by polishing a rough roof tile. Trying to get an oxcart to move by striking the cart is like trying to make progress by arranging the body perfectly instead of directly recognizing what is already the case. In other words, to think that we’re doing some activity as an offering in order to become a buddha in the future is not the practice Dogen recommended. True zazen is none other than buddha offering everything to buddha.

Kokyo Henkel

Kokyo Henkel

Kokyo Henkel was ordained as a Zen priest in 1994 by Tenshin Reb Anderson Roshi and received dharma transmission from him in 2010. For the past three decades, he has lived and practiced in Zen residences and monasteries, including San Francisco Zen Center and Bukkokuji Monastery in Japan. In addition to his Zen training, he has studied Dzogchen with Tsoknyi Rinpoche since 2003 and plans to spend the next few years in Kathmandu, Nepal, along with his wife, Rev. Shoho Kuebast.