Incense is a feature of many different religious, as well as secular, rituals.
For instance, in a New Testament legend of Jesus' birth, we read how 3 travelers arrived from the east each bearing a different gift. The first was a gift of gold, but both the second and the third -- frankincense and myrrh -- are rare perfuming substances that can be burned as incense.
Incense, often arranged in a symbolic fashion, features as one of the 8 offerings on the shrine of Buddhist practitioners as an offering of perfume to delight the sense of smell. The actual burning of incense though, is an additional element -- it is used to purify negativities and thus is another kind of offering.
The aroma of incense may have the added benefit of enhancing concentration, since it can serve to mask other distinctly unpleasant or distracting odors. Also the length of time it takes for one stick to be consumed can be used to time a meditation session.
When incense sticks were first introduced to the West, they were called joss sticks. The word "joss" seems to have originated from the Portuguese word for god, deus. Chinese sometimes still use that expression, although it has taken on the meaning of luck or auspiciousness.
During a tsok (Skt. gunachakra) or tantric feast, the portion set aside for unseen beings may be "delivered" by means of the insertion of a burning stick of incense. That is one of the reasons why some people do not use food such as rice grains as a support for standing incense sticks. In that case, a good, safe (not flammable) substitute is sand made from crushed shell as is used as a digestive aid for pet birds.
In the Japanese kodo or incense ceremony, rice ash is used as a base, but Tibetan Buddhists would not normally use use it.
To 'purify' the room prior to a tantric ritual, an assisting monk may swing a censer or thurible as he passes. This is a container usually made of metal that hangs form three chains. Inside it, powdered incense that has been put on a smoldering bit of charcoal burns slowly, and the smoke escapes through pierced openings in the closed lid.
Incense does enhance the atmosphere, but also a stick of incense can be used to time one's period of meditation. Various compositions of herbs, essential oils and other elements are believed to appeal to the different deities. There is also a tradition that certain perfumes are best suited for particular objectives. Nevertheless:
Dhoop [Hindi: plain incense] contributes the distinctive woody odor to Indian evenings, as it probably has done for at least three thousand years. Its purpose is to keep troublesome insects away, and that is how it was introduced into the Buddhist religion.
In the Buddhist context, one tradition says incense first appeared as a mosquito repellent. It seems that during one of the Buddha's sermons a monk heedlessly swatted a mosquito. Horrified, the monk certainly realized how strong is that murderous reaction -- almost a reflex.
slap is said to have drawn the attention of the Tathagatha himself. He
ordered that, in the future, incense ought to be lit in order to keep the
flies away, so that people could more easily concentrate on Dharma teachings,
but also to prevent the needless taking of lives.
As a result, the lighting of incense became customary at teachings and
Another type of scented smoke offering is called, in Tibetan, sang-sol. According to Me-Long: The Newsletter of the Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs of H.H. the Dalai Lama (no.6, April 1990):
When the first Western woman, Gelongma Palmo (sponsored by the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa and the offices of Chinese Ch'an preceptor, Ven. Ming Chi of Hong Kong) was acknowledged to have completed the requirements as a renunciate monk, she
". . . had first taken the bodhisattva vow, the promise to help all beings attain enlightenment:
Then "A lighted stick of incense was implanted in the crown of your head. The incense stick burnt down into the scalp. You felt no pain. You recalled the Buddha Amitabha, and entered into a deep samadhi. You sent a photograph of yourself participating in this ceremony. You are dressed in a black robe for the occasion. Your face, as always, is translucent. The eyes are far seeing. The impression is of a bride, a woman wedded to an idea of truth far beyond the reach of others."
Some Arab, Persian and Indian women perfume their hair and clothes by standing over smoking aromatic substances. The rarest is aloeswood or oud, also called agar. It is also an important component of Tibetan incense, along with juniper, sandalwood and clove.
Aboriginal Americans also do smudging or smoke purification rituals, and offer sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) -- usually available in braided bunches -- and tobacco, cedar, sage and a variety of other plants, by burning them.
Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche in a discussion on the shrine offerings says incense symbolizes morality -- the perfection of virtue [Skt.: shila]:
Fortune-telling, or Prognostication by Incense
According to a Chinese tradition, the burning sticks, when set upright as in a burner like that at the top, or stuck into a bowl of sand [never use rice for this purpose] can be used as a fortune-telling device. You concentrate on your question as you light the 3 sticks, or just examine the remains of the incense that you have left to burn on the shrine. The outcome depends on the pattern made by the long, medium and short sticks that remain when the stick has gone out by itself.
The incense [pattern] of Good: I I I tieh liarn hua hsiang
This is also Good I I I hsien jui hsiang
The incense of increasing Luck: I I I tseng fu hsiang
Auspiciousness I I I kou sher hsiang
Incense of Bad outcome I I I eh-shih hsiang
Incense of safety I I I peng on on hsiang
Incense of Longevity I I I tseng shou hsiang
Incense of Illness I I I jir bihng hsiang
Incense of Theft I I I tao tsei hsiang
Incense of Prosperity I I I tseng tsai hsiang
Incense of Death I I I hsiao fu hsiang
~ thanks to a conscientious informant relying upon her grandmother's tradition
Frankincense and myrrh: resins from the shrubs Boswellia sacra (frankincense) and Commiphora myrhha. Today, the main sources are Arabian Gulf states of Africa and Asia, from which the products are shipped to Bombay, India.