Is there any real benefit in offering food and drinks (Dana) to the Buddha statue?. Or is it done only out of sheer faith on the part of the person who offer?

This is something that I find very difficult to come to terms with. To this day I continue to offer Dana to the Buddha statue as it is something that I have been taught to do by my parents and others. I also see even monks doing the same thing sometimes in very grand scale. Some monks and devotees allow the food to be consumed or given to animals on ground that it would be a waste otherwise while some simply throw the food away saying that what is offered is offered and cannot and should not be taken back.
I know that the Buddha statue itself a later innovation and we worship the statue out of reverence to the real Buddha for showing us the way to eliminate suffering inherent in this journey through Samsara. Offering of flowers, lights and incense are also done in the same spirit but offering food only to be thrown away or eaten after a couple of hours is a practice I find hard to digest.
Can everyone in general and the Venerable Bhantes in particular offer your honest thoughts on this issue please?.

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according to R. Gombrich’s observations in Sri Lanka the purpose of these ceremonies is primarily induction of wholesome mind states and not acquisition of merit

[details=Summary]> Ask any monk, and the cognitive position is quite clear: no offering, no flowers, no recital of verses has any intrinsic merit; it is the thought that counts. The Buddhist ethic is an ethic of intention; and doctrine is consistent on this point. We may accept this, but question whether the intention in offering flowers or food is not to receive some favour in return. The answer is no. What then is the intention? There are two ways of answering this. The first is to say that there is no further intention: the thought itself, the emotion on the mind of the worshipper, if it is pure (Buddha), makes for what we might translate as spiritual development (hita diyunuva) which is furthered by the earnest aspiration to achieve nirvana which should accompany the offering. This answer is doctrinally orthodox and clear. The other answer might be to say that there is an intention to acquire merit (pin). This perhaps begs some further questions, as it seems to be coming close to granting to an act the intrinsic merit which has just been denied; but the answers of an adept informant will take us back to the same position as that disclosed by the first answer. The relation between these two answers, which cognitively can be harmonized, but affectively seem to differ […] For my present purpose it suffices to note that all answers come down to talk of pure thoughts, and emphatically deny that the Buddha is seen or considered as a god, still alive or powerful.

[…]
But the offering of food to the Buddha need not be explained by a diffusion of Hindu practices in Ceylon Buddhaghosa says that wise men before a meal offer food and drink to an image or casket (cetiya) containing a relic which they place before them. This is exactly the practice we saw to be followed today at a dane when the Budu pilimaya in the temple is too far away for convenience. The offering before the portable relic is the older custom: to make it before the large, stationary image which contains a relic is but a logical extension. This is not to deny that Hindu influence may have been helpful in formulating modern procedure: the Buddha puja at mealtimes is no doubt sociologically overdetermined. This conclusion is reinforced by the tenor of other offerings and ceremonies.
The crucial respect in which modern practice seems to have changed from that commended by Buddhaghosa is the recitation of the verse quoted above, in which the Buddha, being asked to accept the food, is addressed as if he were alive. This looks like a break-through of what I shall show to be the affective attitude to the cognitive level: feelings that the Buddha is a living presence here seem to find expression in words. The case is not clear-cut: the man reciting the Pali formula Adhivasetu no bhante, to which he is also accustomed in other contexts, may not fully understand its meaning, let alone its implications, nor is he likely to understand the exact meaning of the rest of the verse; after all, it is one thing to compose such a verse oneself, quite another to mouth a half-understood conventional phrase in a dead-language. Still, when all is said and done, I think the words do amount to a cognitive inconsistency, which is not removed by saying outside the immediate context of the Buddha puja that of course the Buddha is not there to hear the words or accept the food.[/details]

R. Gombrich ‘Buddhist Precept and Practice’ p. 140 onwards

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Isn’t all acquisition of merit really induction of wholesome mind states?

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i don’t think so, the practice of making merit is considered a means of securing a happier rebirth, and that’s confirmed by the Buddha’s descriptions of kammic results offerings to the Sangha in particular produce

it may be stated that wholesome mind states should also help in amelioration of kamma, but purpose of merit making practice appears to be achieveing that goal through deeds first and foremost
i don’t remember Buddha referring to mind states and thoughts in his descriptions of such practices

There is of course no such thing mentioned in the suttas (perhaps only as a reference to pre-buddhist practices) but my personal understanding is that we should really be giving to living beings in order to reduce their suffering. So if there was a starving child next to the Buddha statue, I would give the food to him/her.

You could get some benefit from offering to the Buddha statue according to the way you give (giving with right intent, reminding yourself of the qualities of the Buddha while giving, giving to the beings that eventually consume the food etc) but you could also realize some day that all that giving was done to a lump of stone…

I would include that in “induction of wholesome mind states”. Basically I understand puñña to mean happiness so by making merit you make happiness…whether in this life (including immediately), the next one or in some later one.

in fact mind states can be induced without moving a finger, thus if action is purposely undertaken, it’s this action which at that moment serves as the principal agent of merit generation, whereas a mind state only happens to be a byproduct of such action

so you do seem to acknowledge that not all mind states are equal so to speak, those induced by an explicitly wholesome action are more valuable, or that action has intrinsic significance

I tend to not think in terms of mind states but in terms of actions-reactions.

Do a good/wholesome/helping action by mind, speech or body, and there occurs a reaction in the mind towards more happiness. Our “level of conciousness is raised”, the mind brightens, feels more free or however else you would like to describe it.

Do a bad/unwholesome/harming action by mind, speech or body, and there occurs a reaction in the mind towards more suffering. Our “level of conciousness is lowered”, the mind darkens, feels more weighed down or constrained.

These reactions may occur immediately or/and sometime later. They are felt for a while and then fade but they leave some trace in us. Mind states could perhaps be the sum of all those reactions and traces in the mind at any given time. The better we act, the better we feel and vice versa. And then of course the better we feel the better we act and the whole thing gets compounded, engrained into habits etc.

So over a period of time our mind either brightens, darkens or remains pretty much the same. Then at the time of rebirth, that brightness or darkness or sameness is the most important factor in determining the place of rebirth. If we “subconciously” feel we deserve heaven, we go to heaven, if we feel we deserve hell, we go to hell and everything in between.

and do you think that kammic feedback from giving food to a starving child is more wholesome (or gives greater score) than from offering that food to a Buddha statue? or that ‘level of consciousness’ in the first case is raised higher than in the second

I think the good result of a good deed is conditioned by a very complex web of factors, one of which must be whether you believe or come to believe that you did a good deed.

I can’t imagine a scenario in which I find out that feeding starving children is pointless or actually a bad thing to do. But I can imagine a scenario in which I find out that feeding a statue is pointless, which would kind of knock the legs from under the whole practice and cast doubt on whether what I have been doing has been totally in vain.

then one can’t really be sure that feeding a child is kammically advantageous over feeding a statue

and if acquisition of merit is really induction of wholesome mind states then the method one employs for such induction doesn’t matter, the merit is gained regardless of whom the food is offered as long as the mind state is right

Thanks for all the responses from everyone so far. If I may quote from the Canki Sutta MN.95, “There are five things, Bhāradvāja, that may turn out in two different ways here and now. What five? Faith, approval, oral tradition, reasoned cogitation, and reflective acceptance of a view.
Here, the first is faith and the action in question is also done out of faith. Faith as we all know is two fold ie amulika and akarawathie. Something in me tells me that whenever I offer food to the Buddha statue I am doing so out of _amulika shraddha_ie rootless faith. I overcome this mental state by evoking positive thoughts to counter my negative thoughts if I may call them negative thoughts. Aren’t we supposed to heed the Buddha’s advice " He who sees the Dhamma sees me”.
With Metta

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I guess the only thing we can be sure about is that we can’t be sure about anything :stuck_out_tongue:

But seriously, all the evidence from the suttas points to the fact that we should be giving to living beings or communities of living beings, not inanimate objects. My point was that if we build up our giving on an illusion, one day that illusion might crumble. But I guess living beings are also an illusion, so go figure…

After thinking about it, I realised that when the illusion of living beings truly crumbles, there is also no more making of kamma.

One thing that has, I think, been left out of the discussion so far is the communal aspect. If you are generous in your heart, no one knows. But a Buddha puja is done externally, by a family or a community, so it provides a way of bringing people together and conditioning wholesome behaviors.

We can, if we like, take a wholly rationalist perspective and argue that such things should be done away with. To be honest, I feel like this most of the time!

But then, are we left with a cold, rational doctrine? How are we to introduce our children to Dhamma practice? How to affirm our values in a community? How to participate in Dhamma with joy, harmony, and beauty?

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I whole heartedly agree with you Bhante.
But I have seen how badly this can be back-fired.
There should be a balance.
Many Sri Lankan Buddhist think the Buddha’s teaching is all about rituals and they have very little understanding of the teaching.

By the way can you explain how this (opening question) be applied to sanctification of the gift?
There is only the giver but no recipient. (There is no real person to receive the gift)

http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=25889&hilit=GIFT

Dear Bhante,
I think this is a dilemma. Why don’t we do a Buddha Puja without offering food?. I think we are conditioned to such an extent that we are unable to do away with it. If we can do it we can still affirm our values in a community and participate in Dhamma with joy, harmony and beauty.

I think children nowadays are more forthcoming and do not hesitate to ask bold questions such as "Buddha does not eat the food that we offer so why do we offer them in the first place?.

i don’t know whether you’re a Sri Lankan, but from reading i know that in Sri Lanka other types of offerings are (or until recently have been) practiced as well, such as flowers, incense, lights and even drumming

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Because food is one of the most central elements and essential nutriments in our lives. Without sacrificing something of value, such as food, I think the ritual would lose it’s meaning and less people would show up to take part. When you have to ‘pay for’ or sacrifice for something, that thing gains more value to you.

Food, even if it’s place is less clear to us these days, is perhaps the most fundamental component to our survival (along with clean water). Sacrificing some of the first and best food for the Buddha carries a lot of meaning. Likewise flowers, incense and lights, less pivotal to our survival, but precious nonetheless, provide a material reality to paying homage to the Buddha (Dhamma, Sangha) that is more of an ‘investment’ than simply bowing or chanting.

Of course, the idea behind all this is not perfectly ‘Dhammic’. But for those who don’t want to meditate or read wordy suttas, this kind of ritual would be what many Buddhists identify themselves by.

I’m not saying this is a good thing, but it has, and perhaps always will be a reality. Although we don’t like to admit it, could it not be true that rituals like these are one of the reasons Buddhism has survived for 2,400 years?

I think this is true, and times are changing. Whether in Sri Lanka or the west, in my generation (and younger), ‘ritual’ along with ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ are dirty words.

Perhaps we could integrate the two, and make part of the ritual using the donations/offerings to support those less fortunate in the community? I know some monasteries already do things like this, such as give excess donated food to charity, which I think is great, and there is something for everyone to identify with.

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This is very true.

This makes a lot of sense.

I am going to make my own conclusions on this matter. In fact a reputed Sri Lankan monk said " there are two branches of Buddhism. One is Buddha-Agama which is Buddhism as a religion and the other Buddha-Dhamma which is the Buddha teaching."

As you have correctly put it, it is Buddha-Agama that has survived and I wish wholeheartedly that it will continue for the indefinite future. That way at least the religion will be there for those who want to understand the teaching by going beyond the superficial practices.
Also I think this type of questions will never have straightforward answers since we are still bound by our own prejudices.
Thank you all for your input.
With Metta

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