Burning incense is an important ritual in all major Buddhist traditions, but the purpose and symbolism of incense are slightly different for each tradition. In Buddhism, incense acts as an offering to Buddhas, or enlightened ones, as well as a symbol for various aspects of Buddhist belief and an aid to positive thoughts and actions.
In Mahayana Buddhism, incense is an offering of respect and welcome to the Buddhas, much like putting flowers on the table when you are expecting guests to dinner. It symbolizes the practitioner's commitment to helping all beings and hurting none. In essence, when Mahayana Buddhists light incense, they are affirming to those who are already enlightened that their purpose is to help others reach enlightenment, too. Mahayana Buddhists help others through ethical discipline, and the fragrance of incense is said to be the fragrance of pure ethical discipline, which emanates from people who possess it.
In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, incense is placed as an offering in front of a statue of the Buddha. Practitioners burn three sticks of incense at once, one for the Buddha; another for the Buddha's teachings, known as the Dharma; and a third for the community of Buddhists, the Sangha. These three principles are collectively called the Triple Gem or Three Jewels in Theravada Buddhism, and many devout Buddhists make a formal commitment to live by them.
Zen Buddhist incense is a symbol of the unity of oneself, the Buddha and all beings, as well as a visual reminder of impermanence. Unlit incense represents the potential in unawakened beings, and once it is lit, the ephemeral smoke mirrors the transitory nature of life. Offering incense is a very solemn act made with the utmost respect, with pure unselfishness as its goal.
Pure Land Buddhism
Pure Land Buddhists believe that with devotion to the Amida Buddha and proper actions, they will be reborn into the Pure Land, a realm where working toward enlightenment is much easier than it is in this life. With this in mind, Pure Land Buddhists offer incense for three purposes. The smell of incense is thought to echo the smell of the Pure Land, and practitioners believe that this offering pays respect to the Amida Buddha. Incense is also thought to purify the body to a degree that no washing can. Pure Land Buddhists also believe that smelling incense calms and centers the mind so it can better grasp the Buddha's teachings, or Dharma.
Nichiren Buddhists burn three sticks of incense that represent the Three Treasures (similar to the Three Jewels or Triple Gem in Mahayana and Theravada traditions): the treasure of the Buddha, the treasure of the law and the treasure of the priesthood, or Sangha. In Nichiren Shoshu, one school of Nichiren Buddhism, the third treasure represents only the priesthood, not the entire Sangha. Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists always lay incense on its side when burning it, so that the ashes do not fall and scatter, as they believe that scattered ashes represent a scattered mind.
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