An Incense Offering

Dharma Glimpse – Rob Kanyo Sensei



An incense offering is a very simple thing. It’s a very simple procedure. Approach the incense burner. As you stand a few steps in front of it, bow. Step forward. Take a pinch of granulated incense in your right hand and gently sprinkle it across the smouldering charcoal. Gassho and bow, then step back again to where you started. One final bow and you’re done.

Very simple.

Different temples will have slightly different takes on this process. For example, the attendants of the Jodo Shinshu temple that I currently attend perform incense offerings before the service starts – stepping forward is done with the left foot first; stepping back is done with the right foot first. The Zen temple that I used to attend performed incense offerings at the end of the service, keeping one’s hands in gassho throughout, with an additional final bow toward the priest or disciple who ran the service.

As part of my new temple’s memorial service, however, the incense offering is integrated into the service itself. The monthly memorial service takes the time to invite all those attendants who have lost someone to stand up and offer incense. Some months that line is longer than others. And I am frequently reminded that the purpose of a memorial service is for us, the living, the friends and family members who are still here. There is a line on the temple web site that states, “The memorial service provides an opportunity to express appreciation and gratitude for the many benefits we have received from the person who passed away.”

Smoke rises from the charcoal. The fragrance increases as the incense burns. Inhaling, we can appreciate its sweet smell. But it was just a pinch. Eventually the granules burn out, the fragrance fades, and the smoke dissipates. The charcoal remains lit in the burner, but the incense is now dormant again until the next person in line steps forward.

An offering of incense is an expression of reverence and gratitude. It represents the acceptance of transiency in life. It is not done for any kind of self-cleansing, any kind of personal benefit or any kind of material gain. Offering incense is done for the sake of offering incense, right here and now, in this present moment. An act in which we can express our conviction of the oneness of all things and the transient nature of existence.

The smoke is fleeting. The fragrance expands as the incense burns. Inhaling, we can appreciate its aromatic odor. But again, it was just a pinch. Little by little the granules burn out, the odor fades, and the smoke slowly vanishes. The charcoal continues to glow, but the incense itself is dormant again until the next person in line steps forward.

An offering of incense also represents the acceptance of fulfillment in life. We see potential in the incense, much as we also see the potential in all sentient beings. Before the incense is picked up, as it lays there in the holder, it remains dormant. As the pinch of incense is sprinkled across the charcoal, it lights up, it glows, its potential is finally fulfilled as it releases its fragrance and the smoke carries it upwards towards the heavens. Likewise, our own lives remain dormant until our potentials are fulfilled, until we are lit and glowing, releasing our own potential, our own fragrant smoke.

One more burst of smoke. The fragrance soars upwards as the incense burns. Inhaling, we can appreciate its sweet perfume. Yet again, it was just a pinch. One by one the granules burn out, the fragrance recedes, and the smoke disperses. The charcoal remains smouldering, but the incense itself is dormant once again, patiently waiting for the next person in line to step forward.

The incense cannot release its potential by itself. It requires action. Likewise, unlocking and releasing our own potentials also require action.

At the same time, the incense also helps us recognize that our own lives are all just as fleeting as its sweet fragrant smoke.

Very simple.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Aaron says:

    I’m not sure if my comment made it through or not, so I’ll try again. If it did, feel free to delete this one.

    One thing that has always mesmerized me about smoke, is that due to the laws of quantum physics and the laws of chaos, no two smoke pillars are exactly the same. So while burning incense and watching the smoke rise into the air, what you are witnessing is something no one has ever experienced before, nor will it ever be experienced again. This lends strongly to the concepts of impermanence and interdependence in Buddhism, and I think that’s pretty cool.


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