Incense is an important part of Buddhist culture. It is used to create a peaceful environment and helps enhance meditation and prayer.
However, it is not a requirement for Buddhists to use incense. The main purposes are to purify, focus the mind, and as an offering. Let’s dive deeper into this topic!
Traditionally, burning incense at temples has been a popular practice, and it’s an important part of most Buddhist rituals. However, there’s been increasing concern that inhaling incense smoke for extended periods can increase the risk of respiratory issues and cancer.  Therefore, electronic solutions are being developed that allow people to have similar religious experiences while reducing the negative health impact of traditional incense burning.
Incense is often used in rituals to purify the space and create a tranquil mood. Many people also use it during meditation, to help them relax and focus their attention. It is also a common practice to offer incense to Buddhas, enlightened beings or spirits, as well as to one’s own ancestors.
Incense can be used to cleanse a room or space before meditation, and it can also be burned during ceremonies. This is a practice that many religions engage in, and it’s often seen as a way to purify the mind before meditating or participating in any spiritual activity.
Incensing is an important ritual for all Buddhist traditions, and it serves as a symbolic representation of different aspects of the faith. For example, Riwo Sangcho is a Tibetan herbal incense that is offered as an offering to the Buddhas, and it represents ethical values like morality and selflessness.
Burning incense can also be a way to show respect for those who have passed away, as well as for family members and friends. It’s common for families to offer incense at the altar when a new member joins the family, or to use it to honor deceased loved ones during special occasions like funerals and weddings. In fact, the burning of incense is a universal ritual for all Buddhists worldwide.
The use of incense is a common practice among many Buddhist traditions. It is used to make offerings, symbolizing prayers of devotion to Buddhas and enlightened ones. The smell is calming and soothing for both the practitioner and observers of the ritual. The precise protocol varies between temples and services but in Jodo Shinshu (the mainline branch of Buddhism that we follow here at the Higashi Honganji), it is customary to offer incense before and during services, placed into censers or thuribles.
Incense is also an important part of other East Asian Buddhist rites and ceremonies such as those at Chinese Taoist shrines and Japanese Shinto shrines dedicated to the god Inari Okami or the Seven Lucky Gods, where it is a method for purifying the surroundings and bringing forth an assembly of buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods, demons and spirits. Incense is made of a variety of ingredients including sandalwood, agar wood or pine; saffron, amber, myrrh and frankincense; snow lotus herb, red orpine and clove; and Chinese Caterpillar Fungus.
Often when individuals visit Buddhist statues they will wave burning sticks of incense up and down as a way to offer a prayerful offering. This ritual is known as Koden. Koden has its origins in ancient Asian cultures and is used to show condolences as well as to pay homage to the spirits of the deceased.
In addition to purification, incense can also help with focusing the mind and creating a tranquil mood during meditation. Depending on the school of Buddhism, the incense burned might have a specific symbolic meaning. For example, three sticks of incense might represent the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
Although meditating with the use of incense can be helpful, it is not a requirement in Buddhism. It is more about the practice of meditation itself that is important in moving forward on the path towards enlightenment. For those who choose to meditate without incense, that is fine as well. Just remember to focus on your breathing and stay mindful of your surroundings.