How Many Incense Stick Should We Burn

How Many Incense Stick Should We Burn

Today I took my guests, a lovely couple from Boston, to visit the Temple of Literature in Hanoi before eating on a street food tour. And while we walked by a giant incense-burning pot decorated with two dragons my guests asked me a difficult question: “How much incense do you light at a time?” As they have seen people burning a few incense sticks at a time, or sometimes the whole bunch of, like, 20 sticks.

At the very moment, I could not explain wholly the ideas to them as I was confused by the meaning of how much incense we should burn. So I consulted a friend of mine who studies a lot about Buddhism and spiritual life and here is the answer. Brian and Meghan, I hope you have some spare time to read this as I promised to answer you in writing.

Meghan and Brian in front of the Perfume Pagoda
Meghan and Brian in front of the Perfume Pagoda

According to ritual, one may light one, three, five, or seven incense sticks at a time. This has to always be an odd number of incense sticks that you burn. Each and every one of those numbers has its own meaning and symbolic value.

When you burn one (1) incense stick. It represents unity, the whole, and the fusion of male and female principles. Buddhists who pray to Buddha by lighting up one incense stick want to release the “incense of the heart”, in which there are five meanings: preventing the violation of taboos, upholding constancy and protecting against temptation, lucidity, and intelligence, emancipation, lastly endurance.

Buddhist believers pray in front of Buddha's altar
Buddhist believers pray in front of Buddha’s altar

When one is facing difficulty in life or there is somethings that makes him down, he offers Buddha three incense sticks. Burning three (3) incense sticks shows the mobility of the uneven number that tends to move towards infinity, stability, and equilibrium. During Tet, the Vietnamese New Year Festival, it is customary to light up three incense sticks, the same at funerals. But one should only burn one incense stick at ordinary rituals like praying to ancestors or admiring the work of a dead king/ national hero.

Five (5) sticks of incense are only for when you pray to the Mother Goddess of the Forest, attended by the Five Tiger Lords, to ask for their protection.

Our guests in the Temple of Literature
Our guests in the Temple of Literature

Seven (7) incense sticks are burnt on the occasion of the “Pardon for all Wandering Souls” ( Cúng Cô Hồn in Vietnamese which happens every year on the 15th day of the seventh moon. Those seven incense sticks are then planted on their behalf near banyan trees ( or any big tree available, as Vietnamese believe spirits and ghosts live in big old trees). This is more or less a sign of Buddhist compassion.

And about incense burning, there are some interesting rituals I can list here:

During the praying time and the incense sticks burst into flame, Vietnamese believe that some message is coming from the unfamiliar world, the second life, or their ancestor wanting to tell them something.

Monks during their prayer time
Monks during their prayer time

The third lunar month we have the Pure Brightness Festival Vietnamese families in the Northern part go to the cemetery clean the graves and decorate with flowers and new paint. Incense sticks are burnt there to ask their ancestors to go back home for a visit. It is believed that if the burnt incense sticks are blown out three times in a row, the spirits of the dead refuse to come back for a moment to the world of mortals.

The smoke from the burning incense makes it possible to communicate between the two worlds. That’s why Vietnamese people burn incense at home on death anniversary to communicate with their ancestors, and at pagodas to try to talk to Buddha.

It is not allowed to blow incense sticks with your mouth, but to wave them in the air until there is no flame on them.

One should always plant the lit incense into the incense pot with their two hand, to show respect.

May you love to read: Buddhism in Vietnam, Differences between temples and pagodas, Vietnamese Tet New Year Festival 

 

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