How do you use incense?
For the Buddhists who wish to make offerings regularly, one essential and sacrosanct item in the act of paying homage is the incense.
Incense sticks, or joss stick, have been instruments for worship since long ago. In the past, the incense was made from many varieties of aromatic wood such as sandalwood, nutmeg, gum benzoin (a resin of one species of aromatic wood), agar wood, tembusu, wood, from the bong tree or from the goabua tree (mixed with water to make the powder of the incense sticky enough to be spun into a stick). They ground the wood into a finely granulated powder to make the raw material for making incense sticks.
People burn sacred incense to bring good luck or to request divine favor, a belief that has been passed down for generations.
In the past, Thai incense made from fragrant woods was quite similar to old fashioned Chinese incense. This was because the culture and production of incense in Thailand had been passed down since times of Thailand’s cultural exchange and trade with China. Since the incense was composed of fragrant woods, its smoke was quite delicate and didn’t irritate the nose or eyes.
Due to economic conditions changing, producing incense with these raw materials has become expensive, and nowadays the fragrant woods which were used to produce incense are now quite costly. Most producers have thus switched to using sawdust from the rubber tree instead since it is cheaper. It is also pale in color similar to sandalwood and because it is finely powdered, easy to mold. And so this sawdust after being mixed with perfumes is called “Fragrant Incense,” and when lit it, gives off an aromatic smoke.
Sacred incense sticks are usually around 13 inches long, with their stems dipped in red coloring and with the incense itself colored a pale white. They burn for 40-45 minutes. Additionally, some incense is colored according to the 7 days of the week with 8 different colors according to Brahmanic custom:
Sunday – Red
Monday – Yellow
Tuesday – Pink
Wednesday (daytime) – Green
Wednesday (evening) – Black
Thursday – Orange
Friday – Blue
Saturday – Purple
The purposes for lighting incense:
1stick: Lit for the spirits of a household or small area of land.
2 sticks: For matters concerning spirits and for lighting incense over food.
3 sticks: For worshipping the Three Jewels: The Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), and the Sangha (the Buddha’s retinue of enlightened followers).
4 sticks: For the four elements or for extra prayers involving the zodiac.
5 sticks: For the Three Jewels (see above), as well as one’s parents and teachers.
6 sticks: Used in prayers to harness the power of the sun and for those born on Sunday.
7 sticks: For worship at an ancestral shrine for relatives and teachers who have passed away.
8 sticks: For additional prayers using the power of Mars and the eight planets.
9 sticks: For one’s benefactors, the guardian spirits of one’s land, the gods, the spirits of the forest and mountains, tree nymphs, and at spirit houses.
10 sticks: For the fire element, to harness the 10 powers of Saturn for use in additional prayers.
11 sticks: To revere the gods in the high levels of the heavens.
12 sticks: For Pra Rahu, a figure in Buddhist cosmology and for special prayers for those born on Wednesday evenings.
13 sticks: Thirteen is considered inauspicious so it is not often used.
14 sticks: For the worship of the image of the Buddha (a ritual performed by monks).
15 sticks: In the worship involving the elements using the power of the moon.
16 sticks: For revering the gods in the highest heavens, the master level gods, or for outdoor ceremonies which invoke the important gods of the 16 levels of heaven.
17 sticks: For additional prayers.
18 sticks: Not often lit.
19 sticks: For reverence to the gods of the 10 compass directions (which includes above and below).
21 sticks: For thanking one’s father and for worshiping the earth.
32 sticks: For a group prayer to the gods of the four directions, to bow to the 16 levels of heaven, the 15 levels of the earth and the world of humankind.
39 sticks: For worshipping the goddess of rice.
56 sticks: For ceremonies for the Buddha.
108 sticks: To worship the highest thing in the whole world and in all the levels of heaven.
When we know how to light an incense stick in homage, we should persevere in performing goodness, discard our bad habits, and purify our hearts, so as to lead ourselves into lives of prosperity and happiness.