The other day a friend of ours, a young mother from Japan, stopped by the temple with her daughter to drop something off for my wife. The moment she stepped into the Social Hall from the parking lot she took a deep breath and exclaimed “Ah, the wonderful fragrance of a temple!” Standing there in the Social Hall, I wondered if she could smell the delicious aroma of shiitake mushrooms that the Buddhist Women’s Association had been simmering in soy sauce over the weekend, so I inquired, “What does our temple smell like?” To which she replied, “The wonderful fragrance of incense.”
I begin a typical day at the temple by lighting incense in the Hondo before I chant Shinran’s Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (Shoshinge). The fragrance of the incense permeates the entire temple and lingers throughout the day, such that at times I am not aware of it myself. Hearing the Dharma is similar to that experience, in that if you read or listen to the teachings of the Buddha and say the Nembutsu even for just a few minutes each day, the wisdom of the Buddha comes to be reflected in your daily life, even if you are not conscious of it yourself. Shinran writes:
“When sentient beings think on Amida Just as a child thinks of its mother, They indeed see the Tathagata – who is never distant – Both in the present and in the future.”
“Such beings are like people who, imbued with incense, Bear its fragrance on their bodies; They may be called Those adorned with the fragrance of light.”
[Shinran’s note:] Fragrance of light: refers to the nembutsu, which is wisdom.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 357)
The offering of incense at Buddhist temples is a tradition that has been transmitted from Buddhism’s Indian cultural roots. Because the pleasant fragrance of incense lingers in the air and permeates our clothing, hair and skin, one of the original purposes of burning incense was to purify a sacred space and the bodies and minds of the participants in a religious service.
In some Buddhist traditions this understanding of incense as a source of purification is expressed by the practice of holding granular incense up to one’s forehead before placing it on the charcoals. Holding it up to the forehead indicates that it is being received by the person who is burning it, so that they will be purified in body and mind. According to one interpretation that was shared with me by a Dharma friend from the Shingon tradition, three pinches of incense are commonly offered with the intention of “burning away” or purifying the negative karma created by (1) thought, (2) speech and (3) behavior. Another common interpretation for offering three pinches of incense is to purify oneself of the three poisons: (1) greed, (2) anger and (3) ignorance.
In the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji tradition, it is customary to place a single pinch of granular incense directly on the charcoal without the ritual of holding it up to the forehead. This way of offering incense expresses our gratitude to the great oneness that is Amida Buddha. The Jodo Shinshu way of offering incense reflects our understanding that the fragrance is not something we receive for our own purification, but rather is something that we offer as an expression of our gratitude and reverence for the Buddha’s teachings. The words of the Buddha found in the Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life assure us that the Buddha’s great compassion embraces us just as we are—with all our impurities of body and mind—so incense does not serve the purpose of purification in the Jodo Shinshu tradition.
We have many ways of showing our appreciation for the great heart of the Buddha that accepts us just as we are. We say Namo Amida Butsu to express our joy with sound, we gassho and bow to express our gratitude with bodily movement, and we offer incense to allow our joy and gratitude to flow into the air as a sweet and comforting fragrance.
Namo Amida Butsu