Why do we offer incense on the 1st and 15th day of the Lunar Calendar: Mere superstition or something else?

incense, lunar, 1st, 15th

Cover Image via: 慈航山三清聖境

Most of us have witnessed the ritual of offering incense to our ancestors or to the deities either through real-life experience as witnessed in temples or through television shows aired every so often. Some consider the offering of incense as a sacred ritual which needs to be treated with caution and respect, while some others preserve the view that it is merely administrative and carries no real importance other than fulfilling the superstition. Which is right and which is wrong? What does offering incense really mean?


Offering incense on the 1st and 15th day of the Lunar Calendar

Incense can be offered every day if wanted to and not necessarily only on the 1st or 15th day of the Lunar Calendar. However, some people do not have the time nor opportunity to do so, hence the tradition of offering incense every 15days or so (on the 1st and 15th day) is passed on. As long as you remain a heart of devotion, the offering of incense can be done any day and at any time.

Other than that, since the offering of incense is considered a ritual to feed the Buddha and the other beings residing within the Six Path (the Chinese believe that once a human passes away, the soul leaves the human body and it is subjected to divine intervention and later reincarnated into one of the six paths, human being one of the paths. Others include the Asura (demon) and Heaven (angels)) One of these Paths known as the Hell path (which what we commonly call ghosts or wandering souls reside within it) are also fed by these incenses. It is rumored that a day in the human realm is equal to a month in the Hellish realm, hence offering incense on the 1st and the 15th day is equivalent to feeding them lunch and dinner.


Is offering Incense a superstition?

Incense is also known in Chinese as xin xiang (the incense of message), hence offering incense is equivalent to sending a message. This message contains various virtues such as calmness, abstaining from the bad and acquiring knowledge – which is a representation of the 3 main virtues of the Buddhist meditation methodology.

The offering of incense is to, among all, express the following:

  • That we regard the Buddha as benign and to offer our greetings
  • To rid ourselves of the evil that is stuck to our body through daily routines by the smell of the incense (Eg: the smell of alcohol, or the smell of tobacco)
  • As a signification that we’re burning ourselves through the burning of the incense, reminding its followers to not be greedy and sacrifice yourself for the sake of others should the time arise (help the needy)
  • By igniting the incense is to signify that the follower remembers the teachings of the Buddha, akin to a solemn promise that he will meditate regularly, be calm, gain knowledge, and to rid himself of the 3 poisons of Buddhism: To take without giving, to talk without knowing and to be trapped in confusion without enlightenment.


Hence, offering incense is not merely a form of “bribery” to please the Buddha. If you wish to pray to the Buddha, you must sit quietly in front of Him, clear your mind of unnecessary thoughts so he can hear you clearly, offer your incense, and confide in him once you’ve sat down. There is no difference between offering 1 incense and offering 100 incenses – offering more doesn’t mean that He will hear your thoughts better – quite the contrary, the Buddha detests those who offer a bunch of incenses together, making the hall stuffy and causing discomfort to his followers.

Once the incenses offered in the incense burner is filled, the Master in charge of the temple would come and clean up the remainders of the fully-burned incenses, and use a special grinder to grind the incense burner, so that the remainders of the incense is all grinded to the floor of the burner and forms a smooth surface – ready for more incenses to be offered. This process is significantly more laborious if believers all offered big chunks of incense at any one time.


Why do Buddhists choose incenses to be ignited and not any other objects?

Buddhists believe that the incense is closely connected to a person’s spiritual wisdom and moral value.

The smell of the incense would mould itself together with the wisdom and moral of a highly achieved being. This results in a highly-achieved Buddhist to emit an incense-like smell through his own body.


Offering incense is a regarded as “the messenger of Buddha”

Buddhists believe that when Buddha was still alive, his disciples were already in the custom of offering him incense as a sign of respect and devotion. Therefore, incenses are regarded as “the messenger of Buddha” or the “the messenger of Buddhism”, which explains why incenses are ignited when most Buddhist rituals are carried out. From the everyday ritual of reciting scriptures and meditation, to major festivals such as the Buddha’s Birthday, the presence of incenses will be seen as it is considered vital to translate the voices of His believers to Him.


Buddhists use Incenses to aid meditation

Buddhists opine that the smell of incense has a correlation to the state of mind of the human. Not only does it smell nice, it also creates happiness within a human’s heart, which helps achieve solidarity during meditation. Some incenses which are of a slightly better quality would even affect the aura of a human being, emitting the image of benign and wisdom. Hence, the Buddhists regard incenses as an aid in meditation.


Why do we commonly offer 3 incenses at once?

A lot of big temples would bear the sign of “3 incenses at a time” above its incense burner. These 3 incenses each carry a different meaning. The first interpretation is that it means “abstain, calmness and wisdom”. Another interpretation is that it means feeding the “Buddha, the Buddhism and the Monks”. Hence the saying that 3 incenses is the most civilized and proper way of offering incense.

The “Abstaining Incense” asks its followers to abstain himself from his ego, his lust of unjustness, his crave for evil, his heart of jealousness, his desire of wanting and his action of harming other people.

The “Calming Incense” asks their follower to see all good and bad within the realm, but take no participation and follow nobody but Buddha; to stay calm when faced with difficulties and steadfast when faced with temptations.

The “Incense of Wisdom” ask its followers to not be blocked by his own foolishness and ignorance, to view the world through a rational view and to not create evilness and disrupt peace.

There is also a procedure for offering incense:

  • The first incense is to be put down in the middle whilst murmuring to yourself to feed the Buddha, and not to go astray from its path
  • The second incense is to be put down to the right of the first incense, whilst murmuring to yourself to feed Buddhism, and not to incline towards evilness
  • The third incense is to be put down to the left of the first incense, whilst murmuring to yourself to feed the Monks, and to stay as pure to Buddhism as possible


Common Misconceptions when offering Incense

  • Thinking “the more the better”, and offering a lot of incenses at once.
  • Offering Extra-Large or Extra-Thick incenses
  • Shaking your hands up and down in front of your chest. It should be kept at still.
  • Praying to Buddha whilst holding the incenses in your hand; prayers should come after the offering of incense
  • Thinking that there are different varieties of incenses (Eg: the incense of wealth, the incense of health etc)


Do you understand the meaning of offering incense now? Remember to share this to your friends and family and enlighten them of their misconceptions of offering incense!


Translated from: 为什么要在初一、十五上香?烧香是迷信吗?

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