The Relationship Between Buddhism and Incense
What are incense and what are their purpose?
Incense are organic plant materials that release smoke and a pleasing aroma when burned.
The word incense comes from a Latin word that means “to burn.” Incense are often infused with essential oils to create a wide variety of pleasant smells.
Incense are used by people and groups all around the world to aid in therapy, meditation, worship and ceremonies
. Incense are not just used in Buddhism – many religions use incense in their practice.
Furthermore, many people burn incense simply for aesthetic purposes and assign no religious or specific significance to it.
They simply enjoy the aroma in a similar way that people enjoy lighting candles. In Buddhism, burning incense is a good way to show respect, to symbolically purify your space, to soothe your mind and to aid in your meditation practice.
What are the two main types of incense?
Incense are usually either in-direct burning or direct burning. People typically have a preference for one over the other based on their personal taste, cost, tradition or culture.
In-direct burning incense cannot burn on its own and requires a separate and constant heat source.
This type of incense is usually called loose incense and the heat source is typically charcoal or embers from some other combustible material.
On the other hand, direct burning incense can be lit with a flame and immediately blown out. Then a self-sustaining, glowing ember will slowly burn while emitting a smoky fragrance.
This type of incense will continue burning until it is completely burned up or you put out by submerging it into water, sand or dirt.
The majority of people are more familiar with direct burning incense as they tend to be easier to use. Furthermore, the majority of direct burning incense are the of the cored stick variety.
These stick incense are usually made by covering a bamboo stick with a thick coating of incense paste and fragrance. Stick incense are usually placed in sand that is in a ceramic bowl or in a stick incense holder.
Although stick incense are the most popular, there are many other types of common direct-burning incense that come in all shapes and forms.
A few such examples include cone incense, paper incense and coil incense.
A brief history of incense and Buddhism
The act of burning incense is an ancient practice that is almost universally carried out in all schools of Buddhism. If you’re practicing Buddhism with other Buddhists, then you will likely come across the use of incense.
The burning of incense originated in India thousands of years ago even before Buddha was born. Even today, India is the top producer of incense.
Originally, incense were made and used by early Hindu monks for their pleasing aromas and perceived medicinal value.
The use of incense has been an import aspect of Buddhism since Buddha’s discover of the path to enlightenment.
Incense are frequently mentioned in the Pali Canon which is the oldest complete scriptures on the practice of Buddhism.
Eventually, India exported the making and use of incense to other Asian countries such as China, Japan and beyond.
The use of incense in modern Buddhism
Today, the burning of incense at an altar is a global Buddhist ritual. As we mentioned in 7 Common Rituals in Buddhism, incense together with drinks, food, and garments are also often used as offering as a sign of respect.
Incense are also commonly used to purify a place of worship like a meditation hall, a temple, or your room, etc. In most schools Buddhism, incense have a symbolic meaning.
For example, when you see three sticks burning, it usually represents the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Buddha’s teaching, and the Buddhist monk community.
Bear in mind that each school of Buddhism has their own way of using incense in their practice. So if you find yourself in an unfamiliar temple, be observant of what others are doing so that you can be respectful and follow their norms.
Additionally, direct burning incense are also sometimes used as a timer to know how long one has been performing a task such as meditating or praying.
These types of incense are called time-keeper incense clocks and are designed to burn at different rates. Some burn only for a few months while other can burn for months. Most manufacturers even provide a burn estimation time on the box.
Do Buddhists have to use incense?
The use of incense is absolutely not a requirement in Buddhism.
Rituals such as burning incense can be serve as a valuable tool on your path towards inner peace but you can certainly find enlightenment without using incense.
As we often remind readers, Buddhism depends on reason and insight and is about training your mind to see the true nature of existence.
While rituals can be helpful try not to place too much emphasis on them at the expense of your mental training. Burning incense should be used to supplement your mental practice, not replace it.
Safety warnings about burning incense
You should never leave burning incense or candles unattended under any circumstances.
Safety should be a priority when using incense. Leaving incense unattended even briefly creates an unnecessary risk of fire and injury or death to you and others.
Additionally, incense smoke contains harmful gases such as carbon monoxide and other toxic pollutants that are unhealthy if inhaled.
Inhaling incense large amounts of incense smoke over a long period of time can increase your risk of cancer. Therefore, you should use incense in moderation and always use them in a well ventilated area.