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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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:
The most common understanding is that incense is offered to
Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana Buddha)—as a symbol of the principle of true reality
Kobo Daishi—as a symbol of our Master/Founder
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
Incense may also be offered on behalf a departed loved one
as an expression of homage to
in order to eliminate/purify oneself of the three poisons
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.