Dzogchen Beara, 1st September 2010
Recently, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche have asked as many practitioners as possible to offer sur practice to repay the karmic debts that are an important cause of the alarming spread of covid in India, and in other parts of the world. In 2010, Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche explained very simply how to do a sur offering, which is not a complicated practice. He based his teaching on the Chokling text of sur offering, which you can find here. He gave this teaching when he was visiting Dzogchen Beara to help with the building of the new protector shrine. During his visit, he advised to offer sur for all the people who died in the past in the region during the great famine. We have also included the video of Rinpoche demonstrating the mudras that he mentions.
Human beings need two legs to walk and we need to accumulate both merit and wisdom to develop the qualities of an enlightened being. Numerous methods for perfecting the two accumulations can be found in the sutras and tantras. And according to tantra, the samaya of the Ratna family – one of the five buddha families – is the practice of generosity. Sur offering is a tantric method for practising generosity.
There are two kinds of sur, white and red. I will explain these practices very briefly, beginning with the white sur.
I. White Sur
The Four Kinds of Guests: the Recipients of Sur Offerings
I will start by describing who the recipients of sur offerings are. After all, how can you offer someone food if you don’t know who they are?
When we practice sur, we make offerings to four kinds of guest. The first kind, who are called “the guests invited out of respect – the three jewels”, do not dwell in the three realms of samsaric existence because they have attained the peace of nirvana. The sutra teachings describe them as the buddhas and bodhisattvas and the tantric teachings describe them as the three roots – lama, yidam and dakini.
When we talk about ‘buddhas’, a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha usually springs to mind, but that’s not what it means. When we practice sur, we don’t invite just one buddha, but the buddhas from all the billions of universes – more buddhas than there are grains of sand in the river Ganges. (Some say even more! They say the grains of sand in the river Ganges multiplied by one hundred, while others multiply by one thousand, and still others multiply by one hundred thousand!). Basically we invite every single buddha. ‘Bodhisattvas’ means all the bodhisattvas, such as the eight Close Sons and the rest. So we invite all the bodhisattvas from this universe and from all the other universes.
Lamas, yidams and dakinis are another inconceivably vast category – don’t the teachings tell us everything that appears and exists is the manifestation of the lama? The same goes for the yidams: there are peaceful yidam deities, wrathful deities, and some deities are neither peaceful nor wrathful. The amount of dakinis is also inconceivable: it is said that in each pore of a human being’s skin there are hundreds of thousands of dakini cities. We must therefore imagine an incredibly vast number of guests who we invite because we respect them.”
The second kind of guest are “guests invited for their qualities – the protectors”, which includes all the male, female and neuter dharma protectors. The beings who lived at the same time as the Buddha for example, who met him face-to-face, and in his presence, pledged to protect the virtuous and their activities. The first and second kinds of guest are known as the two ‘superior’ recipients of offerings.
The third kind are the “guests of the six classes invited out of compassion”, meaning the sentient beings of the six realms of existence – hell beings, pretas, animals, humans, demi-gods and gods. We feel compassion for the six classes of beings because they are bound by their deluded perception of how things appear and suffer as a result of their negative emotions and karma. These are the guests who we invite because we feel compassion for them. The people we hold most dear in this life – our parents, children, family and friends – are especially important to us, whereas the guests invited out of compassion include all the sentient beings who have wandered throughout the three realms of existence since time immemorial. They have not been wandering for merely a hundred, a thousand or even a million lifetimes, but for billions and billions of lifetimes. At times they have been members of our family, or our bitterest enemy, or entirely indifferent to us, but through this process, we have made a connection with each one of them.
The fourth kind of guest are those with whom we are karmically indebted. These negative influences (dön) and obstructing forces (gek) might be malicious ghosts (shindré), ghosts who appear human (söndré), damsi demons, gyalgongs, phodong, modong and others. These are all different kinds of obstructing forces to whom we owe karmic debts and who are angry with us. Why are they angry with us? Perhaps, for example, a murder was committed in a previous life. The karmic debts and bond of vengeance we have with them is why they are intent on creating harmful situations for us in this life.
These are the four categories of beings who are the recipients of our sur offerings.
As we offer sur, we practice the yoga of the yidam deity. The deity we choose to practice is the very manifestation of compassion, noble Avalokiteshvara, who appears in various forms. When you make sur offerings, you can visualize yourself as four-armed Avalokiteshvara or in the form the Tibetans call Semnyi Ngalso – ‘resting in the nature of mind’.
Clearly visualize your body as the deity. The deity’s body is formed with light and perfect the moment you think of it, yet empty. The most important thing to do as you visualize yourself as the deity is to meditate on compassion by focusing your mind entirely on your compassion for all sentient beings. This is how to meditate on yourself as Avalokiteshvara.
Before you can make sur offerings, you must first light a fire. The instructions say that, if possible, we should make a fire with dung, which is thought to be the best fuel – even better than wood. But the blaze should not be as fierce as a fire puja. The nature of fire is Pandaravasini, the female buddha of the lotus family, and its flames burn away the offerings’ impurities, transforming them into amrita, ‘the remedy to the maras’, pure in nature. This is what we offer to the four kinds of guests.
The sur offering substances include various kinds of food and drink and these must all be poured onto the fire. As sur is an offering of smells, it’s not necessary to offer huge amounts, a small offering is enough. Having said that, there are some lamas who say it’s good to make large offerings.
As the offerings are placed into the fire, smoke rises. Imagine om ah hung appear in the smoke and meditate on these three syllables. Om, ah and hung produce smoke containing an inexhaustible amount of sensual stimulants from all five categories – ravishing forms, captivating music, exquisite tastes, fragrant smells and sensual textures. This offering includes absolutely everything that is desirable and we are therefore able to present our guests with everything they like and long for. The fire we light is small, but the smoke it produces makes inexhaustible offerings so vast that they fill the entire universe. During the ritual, the sur offerings will be consumed by the flames in a matter of minutes, but as they have been blessed by our meditation, clouds of offerings, just like Samantabhadra’s offerings, will continue to fill all of space until samsara is empty.
The sur offerings we make please the guests we invited out of respect – the three jewels. As a result, through the power of their compassion and blessings, all the sentient beings of the three realms of samsara can be taken to the state of complete enlightenment.
The offering made to the guests invited because of their qualities – the protectors – fulfils their wishes and mends our samayas. They then accomplish the four enlightened activities: pacifying, enriching, magnetizing and subjugating.
The offering we make to the guests in the six realms of samsara, who we invite out of compassion, repays all our debts. Also, this offering is especially powerful in terms of helping these beings perfect the accumulations and eliminate the obscurations so that eventually, they will reach the buddha field of Great Bliss. It is particularly important to give sur offerings to bardo beings who are between death and their next birth, because it will pacify the endless dream-like visions that cause them pain. Bardo beings suffer principally from hunger, thirst and cold. Initially, sur offerings guide bardo beings towards a birth in the higher realms, and ultimately to enlightenment.
When we make sur offerings to the fourth kind of guest, all the karmic debts we owe them are purified. These guests all fall into the categories of obstructing forces; they are deluded and they are not compassionate. Bodhichitta never even crosses their mind, they think solely about themselves, and this how they become deluded in the first place. We offer them sensual stimulants and everything they want, because the power of their enjoyment of offerings that have been blessed with deity, mantra, samadhi, will inspire bodhicitta in their minds. The power of bodhichitta squashes their desire to cause harm, and crushes their anger, pride and tormented state of mind. Once their minds have given birth to bodhichitta, they will be on course for complete enlightenment.
This is how we make offerings to the four kinds of guest.
As we make offerings we must rely on the power of deity, mantra, mudra and samadhi, and as we are Buddhists, we must first take refuge and meditate on the two kinds of bodhichitta – we cannot practice Mahayana without them. We then train our mind in the four immeasurable thoughts and meditate on the deity, noble Avalokiteshvara, as I have just explained. As we meditate on the deity and recite the mantra of Avalokiteshvara, om mani padme hung, we constantly remember compassion. This is how you meditate on the deity.
As I have already mentioned, the fire we make at the beginning of the sur ritual is Pandaravasini, to which we add as many offering substances, food and drink as we wish.
Mantras and Mudras
If you want to do a sur practice, you will need to recite six mantras as you make your offerings. You can also practice less elaborately as I will tell you later. I don’t have time to go into each mantra in detail, so I will explain them very briefly.
The first mantra is known as the ‘sobhava mantra’ and purifies everything into emptiness:
om sobhawa shuddha sarwa dharma sobhawa shuddho hang.
To form the mudra that accompanies this mantra, you fold your hands as if in prayer, but leave an empty space between your palms so that only your finger tips touch.
The second is the ‘space treasury mantra’:
nama sarwa tathagata byo bisha mugebe sarwa thagam utgate saparana imam gagana kham grihana dam balingde soha
As you recite the mantra, an inexhaustible amount of sensual stimulants arise from emptiness, filling the entire universe and lasting for as long as space endures. The mudra, known as the ‘space treasury mudra’, is formed by holding both your thumbs inside your folded hands and rotating them in front of your forehead. You must have seen this mudra many times.
The third is the ‘amrita kundali’ mantra, which blesses the offering, transforming it into amrita, the remedy to the maras:
om vajra amrita kundali hana hana hung phat
The mudra is formed by holding your two hands, facing outwards with thumbs touching in front of your face.
The fourth mantra is:
namah sarva tathagata avalokite
om sambhara sambhara hung
The ‘mudra of supreme offering’ is formed by raising your left hand, palm facing out and thumb touching the forefinger, while you flick your right wrist so your hand moves from your body outwards, then snap your fingers. The power of this combination of mudra and mantra transforms the offerings into everything each guest needs.
The fifth mantra is known as the ‘om jnana avalokita’ mantra:
om jñana avalokite
namah samanta spharana rasmi sambhava samaya
maha mani duru duru hridaya jvalani hung
The mudra is formed by holding your right hand in front of you as you wave the left hand slightly, palm facing up. The power of this mantra and mudra ensures that each guest receives what they need without mistake in distribution, and that the offering they receive is inexhaustible.
The sixth mantra is the mantra known as ‘attaining complete power’:
namah samanta buddhanan graheshvari prabhajñati maha samaya soha
The accompanying mudra is known as the ‘mudra of power’. Interlace the fingers of your right hand with those of the left and raise your hands to the level of your forehead, turning them in a small circle. The power of this mudra and mantra prevents the guests from worrying about whether other guests have received better or larger offerings than they did. Instead, they simply receive their offerings without making any comparisons.
You must do these six mantras and mudras if you have decided to practice elaborately.
If you don’t want to practice quite so elaborately, just use the following three sets of mantra and mudra. First recite the sobhava mantra to purify the offerings into the state of emptiness, then the space or sky treasury mantra and mudra to multiply the offerings – you need a lot because if you don’t have enough, you won’t be able to make offerings to all the guests, right? And finally, you recite the mantra of supreme giving, accompanied by the mudra, to make the actual offerings. This amount of elaboration is fine.
To practice simply, you need only say om ah hung, as you circle the thumb and forefinger of both hands, to bless the offerings, and then recite the sumbhara mantra accompanied by its mudra:
nama sarwa tahagata avalokita om sambhara sambhara hung
To practice simply, you just have to recite these two mantras as you make the offerings.
The power of the deity, the mudra and the mantra enables to make the offerings that we have just described. How is this possible? The buddhas have accumulated inconceivable stores of merit. The blessing of the infinite merit of the buddhas make it possible, through the power of deity, mudra and mantra, to offer the limitless and inexhaustible offerings we spoke about. It is also thanks to the power of the bodhisattvas’ aspirations, which is immense. So, as all phenomena are interdependent, the offerings arise thanks to the blessings of the Buddha’s merit and the power of the bodhisattvas’ aspirations. That completes the explanation of mantras and mudras.
I explained samadhi when I talked about deity meditation, mudras and mantras.
Invoking the Four Tathagatas
There is an infinite number of buddhas. According to our teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha, the blessings, aspirations and compassion of four buddhas in particular, are connected with the practice of offering. We therefore say the names of these four buddhas. Saying their names is the same as praying to them, the result of which is that they grant us their blessings. The four buddhas are the tathagatas Jina Ratna-bahulya, Jina Sarūpottama, Jina Rūpa-paryānta, Jina Sarkāya-vimuktasena.
Closing the Practice
After completing the sur offerings, don’t grasp at yourself (the one who made the offerings), the recipients – the four kinds of guest, such as negative influences, obstructing forces, elemental spirits and so on – the offerings and articles, but rest in the state free of reference point. When gross thoughts arise and you remember the guests you have invited, in particular the guests to whom you owe karmic debts, you may think that you cannot just rest in the state free of reference point and that you must send them back to where they came from. At that moment, think that the Three Jewels invited out of respect depart as wisdom deities, that the protectors invited for their qualities go back to their places, and that the guests of the six classes return home. To send the guests to whom you owed karmic debts home, say the mantra om sarva bighanen gatsa and snap your fingers, thinking that they all go home now, without making any trouble.
The Ultimate Sur Offering
So far we have made offerings on the relative level, but some sur practices include the ultimate offering. To practice the ultimate offering we recite in English,
Commit not a single unwholesome action,
Cultivate a wealth of virtue,
To tame this mind of ours,
This is the teaching of the Buddha.
Or we can say it in Sanskrit:
om yé dharma hetu prabhava hetun teshan tatagato hyavadat teshan tsa yo nirodha evam vadi maha shramana soha
Now dedicate the merit of your practice and make good aspirations – you can say the usual prayers.
Patrul Rinpoche wrote about the benefit of doingWe will post a translation soon in the practices and text section. the sur practice in detail and the Buddha taught extensively about it.
II. Red Sur
I have just explained the white sur practice, but there is also a red sur offering. For a red sur we light a fire and burn meat, blood, grains and medicine. This red offering is only made to the guests to whom we owe karmic debts – the deity, mantras and mudras are the same as used in the white sur.
Mipham Rinpoche wrote a practice called A Sur Offering to Harmful Influences, Obstacle-Makers and Elemental Spirits in which you burn everything – food, drink, clothing, and all your other offerings – and offer it all to karmic debtors, harmful forces, obstacle makers and elemental spirits.
In a nutshell, whichever practice you do, if you do not forget bodhicitta, your practice will be beneficial. Without bodhicitta, no matter how much practice you do, all your efforts will be futile. But to light a fire and offer food by placing it in the fire as you meditate on compassion your efforts will be beneficial.
Translated by Gyurmé Avertin