Blessings and Offerings

What do all those white scarves and red strings mean? The Lama gives a primer on Tibetan Buddhist blessings.

BY: Lama Surya Das

 

Q

. At a recent talk by the Dalai Lama, I received a red cord tied around my neck. I also learned that in Tibetan Buddhism, one offers a white scarf to a lama, who then places it around your neck. What is the significance of these objects, and how should they be used?



A

. The red string is called a "protection and blessing cord." Traditionally, a lama ties a knot in the cord, then prays over it and blows the power of his mantra into it. Then he places it around one's neck as a blessing. When I first asked my own lama, the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, about this, in 1973, he told me the cord is symbolic of remaining within the protection of his compassionate embrace even after departing from his physical presence. Other lamas have told me they take the protection cords off only to have dental work or surgery, and then put them on again afterward, as the strong protection field might impede the medical procedure.



Objects touched or prayed over by holy beings are believed to be imbued with their spiritual energy and blessings.

Offering a white scarf--called a kata--is an ancient Tibetan tradition. The color symbolizes purity of intention and aspiration. It is an ancient custom to bring an offering when visiting a temple, shrine, guru, or teacher. An ancient Tibetan adage says that giving and receiving go hand in hand, like breathing in and breathing out--it is an a universal karmic principle that the more you give, the more you receive, which should not necessarily be understood in material terms only.

A few weeks ago, a student wrote me about a rather unorthodox experience she had with offering a kata to a lama:

"When Lama Khamtrul Rinpoche was visiting here in Massachusetts, you suggested I accept the invitation to go for a blessing. I've never actually been in that situation before, and I didn't really know anything about the offering-scarf thing. I thought they would be available either for purchase on site or they give you one. Needless to say, I was wrong.

"The hosts asked for people to line up to receive the blessing. And when everyone whipped out their traditional Tibetan-style white offering scarves, I said to myself, "Oh noooo!"

"I decided I needed something long and white, so I ran to the bathroom. When I handed him the neatly folded white toilet paper, well, he just started laughing. He gave me the classic affectionate clasping of the cheeks, patting and pinching until my face was quite red. So I now have this great piece of toilet paper (one-ply) that I'm a bit attached to. I now realize that a scarf wasn't really necessary in order to receive a blessing, but I kind of like this one. So, my dear lama: May you never look at toilet paper in the same light again."

Continued on page 2: »

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