Offering Incense: Adorned with the Fragrance of Light

Smells evoke powerful memories and associations in our minds. The smell of wildfire smoke evokes concern for the safety and well-being of our families, our communities, and our planet. The smell of incense smoke brings peace of mind and supports mindfulness. This week, we reflect upon the deep symbolism of incense offering and how this Buddhist practice embodies the grateful heart of the Nembutsu.

This Dharma Talk is Part One in a two part series on the Six Senses in Buddhism.

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Incense Offering

Buddhist SchoolNumber of timesWay of offering
Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha (Nishi Hongwanji)1 timePlace a pinch of incense directly on the charcoal without raising it to the forehead.
Shinshu Otani-ha (Higashi Honganji) 2 timesPlace a pinch of incense directly on the charcoal without raising it to the forehead.
Soto Shu2 timesFirst time: raise a pinch of incense to the forehead before placing it on the charcoal.
Second time: Place a pinch of incense directly on the charcoal without raising it to the forehead.
Jodo Shu1 to 3 times No set guidelines.
Tendai Shu1 or 3 timesNo set guidelines.
Shingon Shu3 timesRaise a pinch of incense to the forehead each time before placing it on the charcoal.
Rinzai Shu1 timeRaise a pinch of incense to the forehead before placing it on the charcoal.
Nichiren Shu1 or 3 timesNo set guidelines.
Nichiren Shoshu3 timesRaise a pinch of incense to the forehead each time before placing it on the charcoals.
Information translated from http://www.sanretsu.jp/shoukou/kaisuu.html

Why only one pinch of incense in Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha?

We offer incense as an expression of gratitude to the great oneness that is Amida Buddha.

Why isn’t incense raised to the forehead in Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha

One common understanding is that incense is raised to the forehead as an expression of gratitude for the purification that is received (Jpn. itadaku 頂く) though the offering.  In the Jodo Shinshu tradition, the way of offering incense expresses the understanding that the fragrance is not something we receive for our own self-purification, but rather is something that we offer as an expression of our gratitude and reverence for the Buddha’s great compassion.  The words of the Buddha found in the Three Pure Land Sutras assure us that the Buddha’s great compassion embraces us just as we as are—with all our impurities of body and mind—so incense does not serve the purpose of purification in the Jodo Shinshu tradition.

Some common explanations for offering incense three times: 

(Thanks to Rev. Koraku Mikami of the Shingon Shu tradition)

The most common understanding is that incense is offered to

  1. Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana Buddha)—as a symbol of the principle of true reality
  2. Kobo Daishi—as a symbol of our Master/Founder
  3. Ancestors—as a symbol of our origin

Another common understanding is that incense is offered to “burn away” or purify the negative karma created by

  1. thought
  2. speech
  3. behavior

Incense may also be offered on behalf a departed loved one

as an expression of homage to

  1. The Buddha
  2. The Dharma
  3. The Sangha

or

in order to eliminate/purify oneself of the three poisons

  1. Anger
  2. Craving
  3. Aversion

before going to the next realm.

A person who offers incense on behalf of a departed loved one shows their respect and honor for the deceased through the intentions described above.  Through the power of the Buddha, Bodhisattva, or other being (ex. Fudo Myoo) to which the incense is offered, impurities are transformed into virtues or merit (Jpn. kudoku 功徳) that can support and aid the deceased when they are about to be born into the next realm.

These understandings are based on the Shingon goma fire ritual, in which spiritual thoughts are burned with the fire of the Buddha to create goodness or remove karmic defilements.  In this way, the fire, smoke and incense express a goma fire ritual conducted by a representative of the deceased.

Dharma Discussion: Incense (August 30, 2020)

Click here to read about incense offering etiquette in the Jodo Shinshu school, as well as other schools of Japanese Buddhism

Discussion Questions

  1. What is a fragrance that brings you peace of mind?
  2. Have you ever encountered someone who you felt was “adorned with the fragrance of light”?
Continue reading “Dharma Discussion: Incense (August 30, 2020)”