What is the significance of offering incense, flowers, water and fruits?

Offering incense, flowers, water and fruits

The fragrance of the incense is symbolic of ethics and morality. These are the virtues of the Bodhisattva spirit of benefiting others and self. If we do not practise ethics and live immorally, then the offering of incense does not serve any purpose. Offering of incense is only meaningful if our conduct befits the correct standard and principle of ethics and morality.

Flowers are symbolic of wisdom. We learn and practise Buddhism to unfold and develop our wisdom. When the wisdom blossoms in each and everyone of us, then as human beings, our conduct is like flowers in bloom. Everyone admires beautiful flowers and they are welcomed everywhere. Thus, when we make an offering of flowers to the Buddha, it is that we want to be like the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas who are so filled with wisdom.

Water serves two purposes. Firstly, it quenches our thirst. A drink of water is so soothing and comfortable when we are thirsty. Secondly, it is for cleansing, for example, washing our clothes or the floor, etc. When we learn and practise Buddhism, the Dharma is like the morning dew, cleansing the impurities of our hearts and minds so that we are soothed and happy.

The offering of fruits is made not because Buddha wants to eat them. When we learn and practise Buddhism, and perform virtuous deeds, these virtuous deeds should bear sweet fruits. Thus, the offering of fruits is symbolic of the results of our virtuous deeds. It is best to offer fruits that are round. This is again symbolic that when we cultivate in accordance to the Buddha’s teachings, we will eventually be perfectly rounded and attain the fruit of Buddhahood. For obvious reasons, we should not offer fruits that are sour, bitter or of unpleasant shapes.

What are merits?

Real merits

Merits are consequences of the non-orignation and non-cessation of the mind. During the Tang Dynasty in ancient China, Emperor Liang Wu-Ti asked the patriarch Bodhidharma, "Venerable One, I have built many monasteries for the well being of the Sangha and I have also performed many virtuous deeds. What merits have I accumulated? Bodhidharma answered, "You have no merits." Why is that so? It is because when Emperor Liang Wu-Ti performed those acts of giving, he was attached to them. Thus, even though he had performed many virtuous deeds, because he had not cultivated the purity of his mind, he did not attain "non-origination and non-cessation". Therefore, his actions can only be considered as cultivation of blessings, not merits. Without liberation there are no merits. On the other hand, when there is liberation, all virtuous deeds will reap merits.

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What is the significance of bowing before the images of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas? Is there any merit in doing so?

Bowing before the Buddha image

It is definitely true that bowing before the Buddha and Bodhisattvas to pay respects has merits. However, merits and blessings are different. Generally, when a person performs an act of giving, it is often knowledged that his "merits are boundless". Over time, the practice becomes a habit, resulting in a confusion between merits and blessings. To one who has enlightened to the truth, his virtuous deeds can be considered meritorious. Prior to that his noble deeds are acts of cultivating blessings.

Many people criticize Buddhism for worshipping idols and images. In reality, many religions in this world worship idols and images. Those who pass such remarks about Buddhism may themselves pray religiously to idols and images. From an ultimate point of view, we will realize that Buddhism is the only religion that does not worship images. It is only because of sentient beings’ attachment to forms and images that the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas manifest themselves in these forms. Generally speaking, people who do not yet have a profound understanding of Buddhism, need to rely on the image of the Buddha as a guide. To those who have been enlightened to the truth, they are capable of realizing that in Buddhism the ultimate reality is formless.

Let me illustrate with an example. Supposing there are some young children in kindergarten whose grandparents have long passed away, and they never knew how they looked like. The teacher may use pictures to illustrate how generally grandpas and grandmas would look like. These children will learn to understand that grandpa looked like an elderly man, and grandma looked like an elderly woman. These children soon progress to primary level education, followed by secondary level and eventually university education. It would be ridiculous for the university professor to use the same pictures that the kindergarten teacher had used in reference to their grandparents. At that level of education, the professor would perhaps use other more appropriate terms of ancestral relationship.

It is the same with learning Buddhism. To a beginner, it helps to introduce the images of, for example, Amitabha Buddha, Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin) Bodhisattva or Sakyamuni Buddha, in order to inspire their respect for them. When one has attained a certain higher level of understanding, then one will be able to realize the following as stated in the Diamond Sutra: "All forms are but illusions; in seeing that all forms are illusory, then one sees the Tathagata." As to the true meaning of the "Buddha characteristics" of "all forms are illusory", it can only be realized through cultivation and awakening.

What are the differences between deities and Buddha?

The difference between deities and Buddha

There is a big difference between deities and Buddha. The ten Dharma-realms are categorized into four enlightened and six unenlightened realms. The four enlightened realms are the Buddha, Bodhisattva, Pratyeka-Buddha and Arahat realms. The six unenlightened realms are the deva, human, asura, ghost and deity, animal and hell realms. Of these, the deva, human and asura realms are virtuous realms, whereas the ghost and deity, animal and hell are evil realms. The Buddha, Bodhisattva, Pratyeka-Buddha and Arahat are enlightened beings who have already surpassed the Three Planes of existence (World of sensuous desire, form and formless) and liberated from the transmigration in the six realms of existence. On the other hand, ghosts and deities are sentient beings of the three evil realms, and they are worse off than human beings!
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Some people like to worship ghosts and deities to seek wealth and fortune. This is just impossible. Ghosts and deities cannot even save themselves from their own sufferings, therefore how can they protect and bless human beings? In this world there are only two methods of creating wealth; one is to use wisdom and the other hard work. For example, an engineer who designs buildings uses his wisdom to create wealth for himself. Others, like the drivers of heavy vehicles that transport the building materials depend on their hard work to create their own wealth. If one does not use either his wisdom or hard work, and dreams only of the ghosts and deities’ protection and blessing, then he is just wasting his time!

With regard to the Three Vehicles of Buddhism, they are Small Vehicle, Medium Vehicle and Greater Vehicle. The Small Vehicle is also called the Hearers or Sravaka Vehicle. They listen to the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths, the three Dharma of the Buddha’s teaching, its practice and realization, and other supra-mundane methods to cultivate the path of liberation. The highest attainment is the Arahathood. In the Medium Vehicle or the Pratyeka-Buddha Vehicle, there are two types of cultivation. In one type, one realizes the path to enlightenment upon hearing the Buddha speaks on the Twelve Nidanas (Twelve links in the chain of existence). In the other, one is not born during the time of the Buddha, but because in his past lives he had cultivated the supra-mundane Dharma, he possesses virtuous roots of liberation. And, in his present life when he sees the "flying flowers and the falling leaves", the changing of the four seasons and other manifestations of impermanence, he realizes the path to enlightenment. The highest level of attainment in this vehicle is the Pratyeka-Buddhahood. The Greater Vehicle is also called the Bodhisattva Vehicle. Practitioners of this vehicle cultivate to enlighten self and others, save self and others, and practise the Six Paramitas (giving, observing the precepts, endurance under insult, zeal and progress, meditation and wisdom) and the countless virtuous deeds. The Bodhisattva’s cultivation has the ultimate attainment of Buddhahood. "Vehicle" is like a car or a ship and has the connotation of ferrying or conveyance. Practitioners of the Small and Medium Vehicle Buddhism cultivating the supra-mundane Dharma are like riding on a bicycle, ferrying himself, saving himself and liberating himself. Practitioners of the Greater Vehicle Buddhism cultivating mundane and supra-mundane Dharma are like the trains or ships that can ferry many people to the Buddha land at the same time.

Regardless of the Arahats of the Small Vehicle, Pratyeka-Buddhas of the Medium Vehicle, Bodhisattvas of the Greater Vehicle or the wholly complete and ultimate Buddha, they are already liberated from the cycle of birth and death, and surpassed the Three Planes of existence. They are liberated and enlightened beings. These four categories of enlightened beings are the results of cultivation from human beings, and therefore we want to advocate Jen Chen Buddhism. The main reason for advocating the cultivation of Jen Chen Buddhism is to encourage everybody to practise the Bodhisattva Path through the Humanity Vehicle, establish a pure land on earth and to enable everyone to accelerate their attainment of Buddhahood. With regard to the ghosts and deities, they were human beings before, but they were driven by greed, desire, defilement and illusion into the evil realm. The status of human beings is much higher than ghosts and deities, and therefore these cannot be discussed at the same level as Buddha.

Is there really cause and effect?

Undeniable cause and effect of the Three Periods

The sufferings that you experience in this life are caused by what you have done in your previous lives and to know your future lives, simply take a look at what you are doing in this present life. The law of cause and effect transcends the Three Periods. However, some are still not clear about the Three Periods. You think the period before you were born is your ‘previous life’. Now that you are living here, this is your ‘present life’. And after you passed away, that’s your ‘future life’. This is explanation is not wrong, but the Three Periods also refer to the three relative stages of time: past, present and future. It can be yesterday, today and tomorrow, or it can be an hour ago, this very minute and an hour from now. The time just before you came is the past period as compared with the present and later when you leave, that’s the future period.

Once we understand the law of cause and effect through the Three Periods, we will know that whatever we do or hear now is subject to this law. We know this law which transcends the Three Periods to be absolutely correct. No one, be he a scientist, a politician, or a jurist, can deny this fact.

How to be convinced of the cause and effect of the Three Periods?

Cause and effect transmit through the Three Periods

The Three Periods refer to the past, present and future. This is the characteristic of time in this universe. Since the innumerable kalpas, the past, present and future progress continuously. It is analogous to screening a movie which comprises numerous frames of images. Even the lifting of the hand produces many frames of images of the hand. All these frames are in a continuous sequence of the past, present and future, and this results in a movie. In fact, our human life is just like a movie which progresses in a non-stop sequence of past, present and future. How do we know about this? It is very simple. For example, if at present you are a university student, then what were you in the past? You were a high school student, and before that you were a secondary school student, a primary school student and a kindergarten student. What about the future? At present you are a first year student, next year you will be in the second year, then the third and fourth year. After graduation you may proceed to do research as a Master degree candidate, followed by the Doctor of Philosophy degree. All these are instances of past, present and future.

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Time progresses through yesterday, today and tomorrow. In retrospect, there is last year, the year before, two years before; hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of years before; the past life and even the aeons of countless lives before. In anticipation, there is tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, two days later, next year, the year after next; the next life and even the aeons of many lives to come. The past life, the past *kalpa; the present life, the present kalpa, the future life and the future kalpa, they are all the Three Periods. The effects created by the causes of the Three Periods are called cause and effect of the Three Periods.

How do we know that there is cause and effect of the Three Periods? ‘To know the causes created in the past, look at what one has to bear with in the present life. To know the retributions of the next life, look at all the deeds created in the present life.’ Cause and effect transmit through the Three Periods. It is a simple matter to know the Three Periods. Now you are sitting here and it is the present. Before you sat down and as you walked in, that is the past. Later when you walk out from here, it is the future. Isn’t this very realistic! Buddhism always emphasise reality.

* Kalpa: A long period of time; an age. 1 small kalpa = 16.8 million years; 1 medium kalpa = 336 million years; 1 great kalpa = 1.344 billion years.

After learning Buddhism, some people become pessimistic because they feel that all things have already been decided by the causes and effects of previous lives, and since they are empty anyway, therefore there is no need to do anything at all in this life. Can Master enlighten us on this?

Understanding cause and effect

As Buddhists, of course we believe in the cause and effect of the Three Periods. This refers to the past, present and future. After we know about the cause and effect of the Three Periods, we need to understand the principle of the Causes and Conditions of the Three Periods: The causes of the past will become the effects of the future; the causes of the past influence conditions of the present and give rise to the effects of the future.

Those who know the cause and effect of Three Periods would not commit evil and are pessimistic towards them. For example, when invited to gamble with money, you could say that you are busy. Then, you are being pessimistic about gambling. Similarly, when you turn down invitations to the night-club or drinking sessions, then you are pessimistic about activities of such nature. If, in the past you had the habit of abusing others and now you stop doing that, then you are pessimistic about abusing others. Thus, when you discontinue with the bad things which you used to do in the past, that is "Avoiding all evils" and being pessimistic about them.

But, "Doing all that are good" is being optimistic. As long as they are good, we need to do them. The Buddhist sutras speak of "Zeal and progress". The Four All-embracing Bodhisattva *Virtues and the Six **Paramitas speak of "zeal and progress in ferrying one across the sea of suffering to the shore of enlightenment". Thus, zealousness can overcome laxity. If we are lax about learning Buddhism, then our attitude is wrong There are innumerable things in this world and we need to consider them collectively. For example, a student, a housewife and the breadwinner of a family, they all need to work with zeal and progress. In whatever we do, we must not forget these two words: Zeal and Progress. In performing virtuous deeds and promoting Buddhism, we need to do them with zeal and progress too. Since Buddhism speaks of zeal and progress, then how can it be pessimistic?

voice-und4.jpg (9273 bytes) In learning Buddhism, we need to be thorough. We cannot afford to be vague. It is wrong to learn and practise Buddhism blindly! Thus, the phrase, "Avoid all evils; do all that are good; purify one’s mind. These are the teachings of all Buddhas" is spoken by all the seven Buddhas of the past. "Avoid all evils" is to be pessimistic about all evils and therefore avoid committing evil. "Do all that are good" is to perform all virtuous deeds with zeal and progress. Avoiding all evils and not to think of them is what one should do. However, it is wrong to perform virtuous deeds and then continue to be attached to them.

In performing virtuous deeds, we need to maintain the emptiness of the three-wheels. For example, when we give, we should not feel attached with thoughts such as: I am rich, he is poor, and I give him a present to assist him. When you have emptied all thoughts of good or evil, then at this moment, it is called "Purify one’s mind." When you are attached to the good deeds, your thoughts are still not pure. Although you have performed a good deed, you are still not liberated. The main difference between Buddhism and the other religions is that Buddhism teaches us to purify our minds. The others are religions that transmigrate within the six realms of existence. Buddhism is the only religion that is beyond transmigration within the six realms of existence - realm of celestial being, human being, asura, animal, ghost and hell, and beyond the Three Planes of existence - world of sensuous desires, world of forms and world of formless.

   *Four All-embracing Bodhisattva Virtues

  • Giving what others like in order to lead them to love and receive the Truth
  • Affectionate speech, with the same purpose as above
  • Conduct which is profitable to others, with the same purpose as above
  • Co-operation with and adaptation of oneself to others, to lead them into the Truth

   **Six Paramitas

  • Charity or giving, including the bestowing of the Truth on others
  • Observing the precepts
  • Patience under insult
  • Zeal and progress
  • Meditation or contemplation
  • Wisdom, the power to discern reality or Truth

Where does ignorance stem from?

Not Knowing Is Ignorance

Not knowing where it stems from is called "ignorance". Knowing is called awareness.

Once there was a king who had great respect for his imperial preceptor. He often offered him the best food and lodging. This upset the chief minister. One day, he called on the imperial preceptor at his holy abode and asked, "What is ignorance?" The imperial preceptor replied, "You are not qualified to ask such a question.", and immediately elicited the response he expected from the chief minister. The latter was engulfed by anger and embarassment at the same time. His face turned red and then, black with fury. It was beyond endurance and he was on the verge of exploding. Just then, the imperial preceptor calmly handed him a mirror and asked him to look at himself. "This is ignorance.", he said calmly.

Ignorance is a "dark, bottomless pit". One falls into such an abyess when one is in distress and finds great difficulty in deliverance. Ignorance is also the "cause of darkness". It causes distress and is known to cause people to take their own lives or commit evil deeds such as homicide, banditry, vice and delusion. Such phenomena are products of ignorance. As to where ignorance stems from, one can only answer with uncertainty. If it is known, then it is not ignorance.

Copyright 2001. Jen Chen Buddhism Centre