Before we receive a teaching, it’s important to request it with a mandala offering. And when we do so, it’s important to understand the significance of the verse we recite with this offering (See also: What is Mandala?).
By offering this base, anointed with fragrant waters, strewn with flowers, and decked with Mount Meru, four islands, a sun, and a moon, imagining it as a Buddha-field, may all those who wander be led to pure lands. Om idam guru ratna mandala-kam nir-yatayami. I send forth this mandala to you precious gurus.
This verse, in which we’re thinking in terms of a Buddha-field, a pure land, and praying that everybody to be able to share in it is a little bit difficult to understand, isn’t it? First, we need to understand what a Buddha-field or pure land is. It is a place where everything is conducive for being able to study and practice the Dharma twenty-four hours a day. You don’t have to work; you don’t have to eat; you don’t have to sleep; you don’t have to pay rent; you don’t have to go to the toilet – you don’t have to do anything except study and practice all the time. It’s not a place that you go, hang around the swimming pool, and play cards all day long.
Buddha-fields are filled with arya bodhisattvas, those bodhisattvas who have had non-conceptual cognition of voidness, and there they are taught by Sambhogakaya forms of Buddhas, physical forms that Buddhas manifest in that make full use of the Mahayana teachings. That’s what happens in pure land Buddha-fields. On the deepest level, however, a pure land Buddha-field refers to the clear-light level of mind, which is mind’s subtlest level, when actualized by an arya bodhisattva. And really, how wonderful that would be if we didn’t have to do anything else except learn more and practice, and we had the state of mind and situation that were the most conducive for that.
So when we make the mandala offering, what we want to imagine is that this is the type of situation we are in, and that our minds are in the most conducive state, and may everybody be able to share that type of condition to be able to study. It is in this context that we request a teaching, while imagining that everything is perfect, everything is conducive. In fact, we are saying with this verse, “I am totally prepared and open to receive the teaching, and may everyone be like that.” That’s the essence of the mandala offering of request.
If it’s too hot or we’re hungry and so on, we try to ignore it with a strong wish to be rid of that, so that we really can listen properly and not be distracted by such things. In the mandala offering verse, we offer Mount Meru, the four island worlds, etc, and these represent our present ordinary world and ordinary situation, like it being too hot or too cold. In offering this, we are not only indicating our willingness to give everything in the world in order to receive the teaching, but more deeply, we are offering up to the Buddhas the entire ordinary world and asking for it to be transformed into a pure land. So, in fact, offering a mandala is actually a cleansing of attitudes type of practice – transforming negative circumstances into positive ones. Whatever difficult situation we might have in our Dharma center or in the teaching room or in our lives in general, we transform this in our minds. We imagine that now we are in Buddha-field, a pure land, and we are about to receive the teachings. A pure land Buddha-field, then, in this context, is actually a state of mind. We don’t think of it in terms of some paradise off somewhere in another galaxy.
So the mandala offering of request for a teaching is a very deep practice, not one to be trivialized. Although it can be made with a formal mandala plate, with rings, etc, as mentioned in the verse, we can also make it with either the appropriate hand gesture mudra, or even without any representation of Mount Meru and the four island worlds.
But whichever way we make the offering, it is important to take a few moments beforehand to try to clear everything in our minds and try to imagine being in a pure land Buddha-field. Then, within that state, make the mandala offering. And remember, it’s not that we are wishing to be the only one there in the Buddha-field or clear light state of mind, or that we’re getting private teachings because we’re so important and special, but make the offering with the strong wish that everybody be there and receive this teaching.