Significance of Water in Buddhism

Something written for an inter-religious exhibition:

The offering of water at Buddhist shrines symbolises the aspiration to cultivate the virtues of calmness, clarity and purity with our body, speech and mind. It reminds us to diligently cleanse ourselves of our spiritual defilements of attachment, aversion and delusion through the generating of generosity, compassion and wisdom. Upon perfection of these qualities, enlightenment (synonymous with True Happiness) will be realised.

When Buddhists participate in the bathing of images of Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha-to-be) with ladles of water on Vesak Day, it reminds us to purify ourselves, to reveal our innate Buddha-nature, which is not unlike that of the Buddha. Water also represents the sweet ‘nectar’ of the Buddha’s teachings, which quenches our spiritual thirst and nourishes us spiritually. Water is also sprinkled in consecration ceremonies during chanting services in temples and homes for blessing purposes.

While the Buddhas and Bodhisttvas, being enlightened and thus liberated do not require our offerings, we nevertheless make offerings regularly in the presence of their images for the accumulation of merits, and to constantly remind us to be steadfast in walking the spiritual path towards the same enlightenment they attained.

In the Vajrayana tradition, instead of offering only a single cup of water, there is the custom of offering seven bowls of water, which represent the seven limbs of prayer. These seven components include the (1) Paying of homage, (2) Giving of offerings, (3) Repentance of misgivings, (4) Rejoicing in goodness, (5) Requesting the Buddhas to remain, ( 6) Inviting them to teach, and (7) Dedicating of merits. The Seven Limb Prayer, which in essence summarises all Buddhist prayers is as follows:

Reverently I prostrate with my body, speech and mind,
And present clouds of every type of offering, actual and imagined.
I repent all my negative actions accumulated since beginningless time,
And rejoice in the virtues of all holy and ordinary beings.
Please remain until cyclic existence ends,
And turn the wheel of Dharma (spread the Buddha’s teachings) for sentient beings.
I dedicate all the merits of myself and others to the great enlightenment (Buddhahood).

As the Buddha taught, the existence and welfare of sentient beings (humans, animals and others) is interdependent upon and intertwined with the quality of flora and the various elements, including water. As such, Buddhists strive to practise mindful respect and care of the environment in all its aspects – the land, the air and the sea. The current climate crisis is seen as a natural reflection of our collective negative karma created via abuse and neglect of the environment. As we are altogether responsible for the state of the planet, we too should collectively work together to protect and save the environment.