Some of the earliest uses of incense are in religious worship. Burning incense has been used in Buddhism for centuries. Regarded as a divine odour, the scent is meant to evoke the presence of Buddhist divinities. This is done to sanctify spaces, build awareness and connection with the heavens, and is used frequently with mindfulness and meditation.
Here is an exploration of the purpose of incense in Buddhism and some of how it is used.
Purpose #1: Incense Is Tradition
Burning stick incense is an ancient Buddhist practice. It’s been taught in all schools of Buddhism and is a connection to the original texts and all the believers that came before you. There is a strong historical and cultural connection there between incense and Buddhism.
When making an offering to the Buddha – i.e. the giving of food, flowers, or items – incense is burned in some cultures as a means of communication and to signal that there is an offering here.
Purpose #2: Incense Has a Symbolic Meaning
Incense is thought to attract positivity, good luck, and blessings to those who use it. This isn’t purely a Buddhist thought but something applied in other religions and cultures with an affinity for burning incense.
There is a real symbolic meaning in what incense is chosen and how it is burned. For example, burning three sticks of incense typically represents what’s known as the ‘Three Jewels of Buddhism’: the Buddha, the Buddha’s teaching, and the Buddhist monk community.
Incense burning is a sign of respect. It is used frequently in Buddhism as a tribute to the heavens and those that have come before us and to honour the Buddha and enlightened beings, from arhats to bodhisattvas.
Purpose #3: Incense Purifies the Mind
Just like you can purify surroundings with incense, it is also a way to clear the mind and ensure someone’s unburdened by the worries, anxiety, depression, or negative thoughts that can sometimes overtake us.
Just like incense clears the mind, it can also be used as a tool for focus and concentration, i.e. with meditation. Chronic incense use can support the routine and ritual of prayer and meditation.
Some types of incense are believed to have a medicinal effect and, within a Buddhist context, are believed to help alleviate physical and emotional pain in some.
Purpose #4: Incense Has a Pleasing Aroma
When the early Hindu monks first used incense, it’s believed they were attracted to it because of its pleasing aroma and what they perceived as medicinal value. Characteristics like these and others are true to this day and certainly a factor in how incense is applied in modern Buddhism.
Incense is widely used in temples and monasteries because most people find it adds a peaceful, sacred tone to the setting. It is a way to help calm stress and produce more kind interactions across meetings with visitors, practitioners, and other parties.
Purpose #5: Incense Used in Buddhist Rituals
Incense is a part of various Buddhist rituals. You will find very few Buddhist ceremonies that do not in some way burn incense or offer incense at the altar. It’s a universal custom in the Buddhist religion.
There is a long history of demons and exorcisms in Buddhism. This practice reads verses and scriptures; danger and misfortune are warded off. Incense is used in this context to heal, protect, and confront negative energies to rid a person or set of what’s there.
Purpose #6: Incense Smoke Is Symbolic
Incense smoke is also symbolic. It is considered a representation of the Buddhist concept of impermanence by some and is interpreted by others as a means of carrying one’s intent of enlightenment up to the heavens.
Similarly, blowing out the incense flame after you light it is considered bad. If you have a flaming incense stick, it is best practice to wave it to put out the flame or to fan it with one’s hands.
Purpose #7: Incense as a Timer
Direct burning incense is often used as a timer. One can go by it when performing a religious task or ceremony. Incense can be used to time meditation or prayer more calmly than a clock or other form of time measurement.
Purpose #8 Incense Purifies the Surroundings
Frequently, incense will purify the environment, ridding it of negative influence and evil. This allows a gathering to conduct a religious ceremony without interference or distraction, connected with Buddhist tradition. This form of incense use is the standard in meditation halls, temples, and similar religious rooms.