Quite often it is people of the intellectual type who are drawn to meditation. Their great need is to slow the mind down, to put a stop to its pointless round of speculation and comment so as to enter a slate of stillness from which they can observe how things really are, free of misconceptions and prior judgements. Those who are naturally devotional, on the other hand, risk remaining content simply with that. However, devotional practices alone are not enough. Meditation is needed in order to deepen progress in the Buddha's training. Devotional practices are really teaching devices that point towards the necessity of giving oneself wholly to that training. It is for this reason that devotional practices may be appreciated by the intellectual type too. Understood in this manner, they serve to strengthen motivation, reminding one in the simplest of ways of what should be uppermost in our mind. They are an object lesson to set at the very beginning of our meditation practice.
The commonest offerings are those of light, incense and flowers. Each of these represents one aspect or other of the practice that should be brought to mind at the moment of presentation. Lighting a candle, for instance, one remembers that, though the word Buddha means ‘awake’, its developed meaning is ‘Enlightened One’, and that we follow his teachingin order to attain his qualities. The spiritual ignorance which is the cause of our suffering is a form of darkness. Indeed, the root meaning of avijjā, the technical term for it, carries within itself the idea of not seeing. The point of the practice is to dispel this state of not seeing clearly by bringing light into the darkness.
When offering incense, having lit the stick from the candle, one joins one's hands respectfully in the añjali pose illustrated by Albrecht Durer's well-known drawing of praying hands. Holding the incense between the joined forefingers and the palms at the base of the thumbs, one touches the forehead before placing it in the incense holder. What we reflect on at this moment is the influence of our actions (kamma). No matter how private or insignificant, each has its result personally and within the world generally. The thin thread of smoke looks a weak thing and yet its perfume swells to fill a room and lingers long afterwards. A verse from the Dhammapada, a popular scriptural collection of the Buddha's sayings, expresses this beautifully:
One should not think lightly of doing good, imagining 'A little will not affect me'; just as a water-jar is filled by falling drops of rain, so also the wise man is filled with merit by accumulating it little by little. (V-122)
The 'good deed' in this case is meditation. But our practice will be made purer if the motivation is unselfish. Certaintly we will gain personal benefit from meditation, but that should not be all. Our purified conduct, our calmer demeanour, will also contribute to making the world a better place. Indeed, it is in order to fulfil our duty to make it so that we should practise with diligence. In addition, just as the incense was lit at the candle of wisdom, so for our deeds to be truly effective they need to be guided by the wisdom of insight that arises out of meditation.
The offering of flowers also inspires us to diligence, but from a different point of view. They are a reminder of death. This would be particularly so in India where, no matter how freshly cut they are, the heat withers them in a day. Our life is uncertain and therefore the time to practise with energy is right now. There is a Buddhist saying, ‘Practise as if your hair were on fire’. When that happens to you, what you do not do is leave putting it out until tomorrow. You run as fast as you can for the nearest source of water. Right now we are engulfed by the flames of suffering. As the Buddha taught in his famous Fire Sermon, our senses are on fire. Our eyes, our ears, our tongue, our nose and our bodily feelings are all burning with desire. They do not rest and they will not allow us rest. Our only resource, our only refuge, the only point of stillness, is found in the practice of meditation. That is the symbolic meaning of the flowers.
The Theravadin form of doing this is called the 'three-pointed bow' because three parts of the body come in contact with the floor. You begin by kneeling and joining the hands in the gesture of respect. With these you touch the brow, the lips and the heart as a sign of dedicating yourself to the practice of the teaching in body, speech and mind. Then you bow from the hips, touching the floor with the brow and the hands. Do it smoothly and gently, trying not to lift your bottom in the air as if you were a duck dibbling under the water. Then come upright and repeat the process twice more. Doing things three times is yet another Indian form of manners and indicates sincerity.
Like everything else in the practice, why we do something is always more important than what we do. If we only bow or make offerings out of habit, they become merely empty forms of ritual. Our heart must be in it and we must do it with understanding. After all, one of the ends of meditation is always to be aware, both of what we are doing and of the motivation for our acts. So bowing and making offerings is a way of reminding ourselves of the importance of what we are doing. They are both a preliminary to meditation and an act of meditation in themselves.
Dr.Rewata Dhamma Sayado: from the book Emptying the Rose-Apple Seat