Yönchap (ཡོན་ཆབ་) is the practice of making offering (ཡོན་) of water (ཆབ་) to sacred recipients and is widely practiced throughout Bhutan. It’s believed that one must give gifts and make offerings of valuable things. As water is a valuable and essential part of existence, yet also very easily available, it is an excellent offering for the Buddhas, bodhisattvas and other holy recipients.
While offering water has been part of Himalayan Buddhist religious practice since as early as the 8th century, the actual culture of yönchap is said to have become more widespread during the 11th century when the Indian master Atiśa visited Tibet. Atiśa noticed the purity and cleanliness of Tibet’s natural springs and rivers and advised that in the Himalayas, water alone would do as materials for offering. Thereafter, the practice of offering water every morning became common.
The materials for yönchap
The water used for yönchap offering should be the freshest, cleanest and purest water available. Thus, Bhutanese generally collect water for yönchap from mountain springs rather than offering water from a river or a stream, which is often soiled by animals and people. Water is generally collected early in the morning when the water is fresh and clean but can also be collected in the evening. If the water is muddy or it is the rainy season, the water will be left to sit so that precipitates can settle out. The ideal water for yönchap offering is the water with the eight qualities (ཆོ་བོ་ཡན་ལག་བརྒྱད་ལྡན་) of being cool, delicious, light, soft, clear, odourless, soothing to the throat, and gentle on the stomach. Special offering bowls are made from silver, bronze, steel, or glass and acquired by Bhutanese families as an important part of the shrine room. A water kettle or jug is specifically maintained for storing water and clean piece of cloth is kept nearby to wipe the bowls.
The seven offering bowls
While there is no strict rule regarding a specific number of bowls for water offerings, it is common to find a set of seven bowls, or multiples of seven. The seven bowls used for yönchap represents the offering of the two waters and five items of basic utility (ཉེར་སྤྱོད་ལྔ་), which is most likely based on ancient Indian culture of hospitality. As a guest is said to have been received and offered water to drink, water to wash the feet, flower garlands, incense, lamps, perfume and food, it is common to find similar offerings of the seven items in Buddhist rituals of deity worship. These items are represented in art, indicated through hand gestures, and chanted in the form of mantras. They include water for drinking and washing, and the five items of basic utility: flowers (མེ་ཏོག་), incense (བདུག་སྤོས་), butter lamps (མར་མེ་), perfume (དྲི་ཆབ་) and food (ཞལ་ཟས་). The seven bowls thus symbolize these offering items, which cannot be provided every day.
How to offer yönchap
The seven clean bowls should be laid out across the shrine evenly spaced and starting from the right side (the viewer’s left). Tibetan masters comment that bowls should stand in a pile and the water poured first into the top bowl, from which water should then be poured into the next bowl, and the first bowl placed on the altar with a small amount of water. Similarly, the second bowl and subsequent bowls should also be placed with at least some water in them. This is done to avoid offering completely empty bowls, which does not set the right auspices for the person making the offering.
Once the bowls are laid in a straight and uniform line with a gap the size of barley grain between them, water should be poured, first slowly, then vigorously and then again slowly. This not only avoids splashing and spilling water but indicates politeness and control. While pouring, the devotee may wear a mask to cover the mouth so that the offering is not inadvertently contaminated by one’s breath or saliva. One must pour with the right hand supported at the elbow by the left hand to show respect. The bowls should not be filled to be the brim but again a space the size of a barley or proportionate to the bowl may be left in order to avoid spilling over. The bowl should filled adequately so that it does not look incomplete. Overfilling indicates excessiveness and underfilling inadequacy. On the whole, the process should be proper and aesthetically beautiful.
Once the water has been poured, one uses a clean twig or the top part of a vase to bless the offering. One chants the syllables Oṃ Aḥ Huṃ to bless the water offering. These three syllables, which symbolize the body, speech, and mind of the Buddhas, are used to cleanse, transform, and multiply the water into myriad types of wonderful offerings. In the evening, water is poured out of the bowls and discarded. The bowls are then wiped with a clean cloth and stacked on the shrine.
It is considered important to execute the process of water offering with much care and mindfulness. The whole process of water offering is intended to be a meditative spiritual practice, where one can visualise and think simple thoughts such as ‘when I offer the water, may all sentient beings be free from thirst, may everyone be quenched and let no one suffer from thirst’. One can even go further by imagining the bowl as the whole world, the water as nectar and offer it to all beings. The yönchap offering helps one practise the art of giving without any flaws of stinginess or reluctance. One can give wholeheartedly and as one gives more, the more one will be willing to give, which will lead one to the perfection of giving. In the final step, one must dedicate the merit one has accumulated during the practice to free all sentient beings from thirst and all other forms of suffering.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel as part of a series called “Why We Do What We Do.”