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In Tibetan culture, incense is burned on the altar of temples, in meditation places or at home in the event of Pujas or religious ceremonies. Incense sticks are placed into copper or silver-plated metal bowls filled with sand, broken rice or ashes. The incense stick is dug upright. It will burn itself out when reaching the sand. Some monks use incense sticks to measure time during their meditation: a stick burns for 120 minutes. Should you wish to only burn one part of the incense stick, turn it upside down and stick the burning tip into the sand.
To strengthen its purifying effect, you may use coarse salt instead of sand. Make sure to replace it regularly.
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Tibetan incenses are the fruits of the heritage of Bön, an original religion of Tibet, and of Buddhism which has only been introduced in Tibet in the 8th century after D.C.
There are two types of Tibetan incenses: medicinal incenses and those meant for daily use. We shall only discuss here the daily use that laymen and religious people alike do with this very special incense. The medicinal dimension will be developed in another article.
The Buddha himself advocated the use of incense. One day, a disciple facing an issue wished to invite Buddha Sakyamuni and the Sangha (the spiritual community which follows Buddha) to have diner at her home. She hoped that he would help her solve her predicament. The Buddha answered: “Every time that you want me to be with you, burn these substances (incenses) on the roof of your house. I shall see the smoke and come to you!”
The recipes of the incense that can call upon Buddha are used for the Sang-sol ritual or the incense offering. Monks practice different rituals depending on the problems they need to solve or the goals they wish to achieve. The incense, too, is different depending on the needs. The Sang-sol ritual that religious perform every day enables them to have an effect on several levels. Laymen are more interested in prayers when they burn 3 sticks at the same time. Why three sticks at the same time? We shall go back to this point later on.
At the first level, the Sang-sol has a conciliatory function (to be in the Gods’ good graces!). By offering incense, they are nurturing the relationships they have with all the beings of the immaterial realms. Not unlike someone who would invite their neighbors over for a cup of coffee and cake. He’d invite the upstairs neighbors: gods, protective deities, Buddha or, in our culture, angels and archangels, God… but he would not forget the downstairs neighbors: Nagas, demons… for Tibetans and demons for us (Tibetans show compassion even to demons!). These good-neighborly relations help them avoid many an inconvenience as well as help them make their way towards enlightenment.
In fact, incense is a powerful spiritual tool which helps build a relationship with immaterial worlds. Smoke rises and scatters in the atmosphere, thus reaching worlds beyond the reach of our senses. It carries the will of men and their offerings. These offerings are our thoughts, our compassion and our wishes for the well-being and the happiness of all beings. (Even more in the Mahayana, religious take Bodhisattva vows, to not leave anyone behind on their path towards awakening.)
At the second level, smoke has a purifying action by the fire from which it was born (fire is “pyros” in ancient Greek from which comes the word “purification”). Thanks to the vehicle that is incense and to the purification of places and elements carried out when it burns, beings of superior levels can descend upon us and beings of inferior levels can enjoy the Sang-sol to somewhat elevate themselves. This purification is necessary; without it, obstacles in the path of enlightenment will not budge. Here, it can be called the elevation of the frequency level.
The third purpose of the incense offering is the nurturing and the increase of Lungta (rLung Ta), which can be literally translated by “Wind Horse”. This energy is among those which control our lives. It depends on our karma and can be increased with different practices, including the Sang-sol ritual. The Sang-sog ritual also has several levels, the medicinal level shall be developed further in the article on medicinal incenses. To make a long story short, Lungta represents the energy of well-being and good fortune. This idea appears clearly in expressions such as rlung rta dar ba, the “increase of the wind horse”, when things go well with someone; rlung rta rgud pa, “the decline of wind horse” when the opposite happens. Lamas nurture this energy of well-being and luck which enables them to avoid the many obstacles rising on the path towards enlightenment.
Therefore, the Sang-sol is highly beneficial. It is even performed at the national level. Once a year, people celebrate Dzam Ling Chi Sang, the Universal Prayer Day.
During their daily life, laymen use incense for the same reasons, but their practices are usually limited to prayers, offerings or meditations. Tibetans, like all Asian people, are a very practical people. They generally use incense sticks more often than incense powder which requires coal. They light up three sticks which they hold in their hands. The Tibetan incense vibrate in a sensitive way and this vibration goes through the entire body starting with the hands. The three sticks represent the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Here, the Buddha does not represent the historical Buddha as such but the nature of the Buddha which is the profound nature common to all sentient beings. The Dharma represents the teachings and the practices which enable us to reach enlightenment. The Sangha is the spiritual community (you can see the root “Sang"!).