Rules for Offering Incense (點香的方式)
By Living Buddha Sheng-yen
This was translated from Grandmaster Lu's page 252 of
"Achievement of a Rainbow Light Body Volume 6".
The incense that we use to make offerings to the Buddha comes from many sources - Japan, India, Tibet and Taiwan just to name a few. Since there are many kinds of incense, we have to pay attention to the quality. Certain low grades of incense may adversely affect one's health. To show one's respect to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, one should use the best grades of incense. Thus, in our daily offering, we should only use those fine grades of incense that will not generate bad effects on one's health.
In Seattle's Chinatown, I came across several shops that use strange, fake incense. They offer three sticks of incense in front of General Kwan (a guardian god). On top of each incense is a small bulb, which emits a red light when the electricity is turned on. From the traditional viewpoint, one should not use fake incense, because it is cheating the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with fake offerings. Likewise, if one recites the name of the Buddha by means of records or tapes, then one does not recite it with one's heart. Such acts will not result in any merit.
When one lights the incense, one should not blow out the flame with one's mouth. This is because one may have impure breath, and blowing out the flame with impure breath will pollute the incense. One should instead use one's hand to put out the flame. Since many people suffer from oral diseases and have bad breath, it is always better to avoid using one's mouth to blow out the flame of all incense and candles.
Also, if the incense sticks extinguish half way through, it is better to remove the incense rather than rekindle it, for this is not a good omen. According to tradition, an incense stick should be burned from the top to the bottom. If it extinguishes in the middle, simply throw it away.
In Taiwan, I saw people take burning incense sticks and place them upside down in the urn to extinguish them, because they had to leave for other commitments. This is a bad habit, because extinguishing an incense stick signifies that one no longer wishes to worship that Bodhisattva. To extinguish an incense means one is discharging the god. One should avoid doing this.
There is much to know about incense. I mentioned "emergency incense" before. That is when you have an urgent matter, and need to immediately entreat the help of the Bodhisattva. Normally, we light one end of the incense stick. During such an exigency, we may light both ends of the incense stick, then place the stick in the urn. The passing Bodhisattva will stop to listen to your urgent request. So there are "emergency" incense, "headless" incense (incense that is half-burned), and "discharging" incense (incense that is put upside down in the urn).
It is virtuous to offer the best quality of incense to the Buddha. Incense that is of poor quality will give off a bad smell, and may affect one's health. Therefore, it is important to know the quality of different kinds of incense.
Om Mani Padme Hum.