Burma, Buddhism And Incense Sticks
May I tell you a story? It begins with a question. Do you remember the times of the 1960s and early 1970s or have you heard about them? Those were the times of the Cuba Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War and John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The times of ‘The Beatles’ asking for ‘Love, Love, Love’, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley, the ‘Rolling Stones’ and Cat Stevens on his ‘Peace Train’, the times of Hare Krishna, Make Love-Not War, the times of Woodstock, Hippies and Flower Power, the times of Ravi Shankar with his Sitar, Yoga, Yogis and India. Does any of this ring a bell with you? Well, that was also the time when I had my first encounter with Incense sticks. It was absolutely ‘en vogue’ to burn incense sticks especially on parties and to drift away on swath of incense smoke into the realm of dreams of a better world. Yes, in the 1960s we were ready to create a world without injustices and wars, in brief, to make the world a better place, or so we thought, “Peace, brother.”
Back then when I have had my first ‘Incense Party’ experiences I did, among others, not know two things, namely that the dream of a better world would, alas, not become reality and that the soothing fragrance of incense sticks would one day become an everyday reality of my life.
What was back in the 1960s the exotic pinnacle of my life as an adolescent in Germany, who with Ravi Shankar playing in the background burned incense for no reasons other than to enjoy the sensory pleasure and the exotic atmosphere coming along with it, did later become an integral part of my everyday life. Without Ravi Shankar, though. That was 25 years ago when after some years in South Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand – all countries in which incense sticks play an important role in the people’s lives – I did, finally, put down roots in Burma.
In my today’s life I am surrounded by the smoke and aromatic scents of incense sticks at almost every corner. At home on my family’s Buddha altar, on the streets in nat houses that are placed in or at Banyan trees, in my friends’ homes, in the many smaller and larger temples and pagodas that are lining the streets, and even in offices and many local stores; everywhere are incense sticks slowly burning away, mostly emanating their lovely fragrance of sandal wood, which is the most important and mainly used ingredient in Asian incense. However, in case the incense sticks are used as a repellent to keep away the troublesome mosquitoes it is citronella that is used as natural insect repellent.
When looking at it closely my article should actually be titled ‘Burma, Buddhism And Incense’, not ‘Incense Sticks’ for the sticks are only supporting the layer of aromatic elements that is attached to it and burned by way of combustible incense a process that is also called direct burning. Aromatic elements or aromatic biotic materials used for incense are generally all kinds of woods, roots, resins, flowers, seeds, fruits, herbs and leaves that release a pleasant fragrance when burned. Depending on the intended use some of the mostly used materials are sandalwood, agar wood, pine, Cyprus, cedar, star anise, vanilla, cardamom, frankincense, benzoin, myrrh, mastic, Dragon’s blood, galangal, sage, tea, rose, lavender, clove and saffron.
The incense stick is just one of several possible forms of combustible incense. The other forms are cones, coils, ropes and paper. But the sticks are the by individuals worldwide most widely used form of incense. Also, they were the first form of incense I have experienced and it is therefore particularly the incense sticks that remind me on those times in the 1960s and the pleasant feelings the incense sticks have caused then and do still cause nowadays when they are slowly burning away that have triggered my wish to write this article.
Incense sticks are mostly red, occasional yellow or dark gray to black and available in two forms, which are the cored stick and the solid stick. The cored stick that is mainly produced in China and India where they are called Agarbatti (derived from the Sanskrit word Agaravarthi, gara = odour, agar = aroma, varthi = wound) comprises incense material and the supporting core of a stick mostly made of bamboo whereas the solid stick that is mainly produced in Tibet and Japan is made entirely of incense material. However, since the solid stick has no reinforcing core it is breaking easily. One special type of solid incense stick is the ‘Dragon Stick’. These sticks are often very huge and are burned in open space only for they produce such a large amount of smoke that if the incense would take place inside closed space people in the room would be quickly suffocated.
The main purposes incense is used for are to worship divine beings and ask for favours of them, to facilitate meditation, to assist healing processes, to cleanse (both spiritual and physical) and disinfect, to repel insects or to just enjoy the sensory pleasure of the fragrance. But whatever the purpose incense is used for, asking for divine favours or facilitate meditation or to assist healing processes or cleansing and disinfecting or repel insects or to just enjoy sensory pleasure it all happens out of the same motive, which is to make the world a better place to be and improve life either on a small or smaller scale for a limited number of individuals or on a large scale for mankind in its entirety.
So far I have written a lot about my personal experience with incense and what incense is creating and used for and not so much about incense itself. But I think that is in so far excusable as incense does not exist for the purpose of incense itself – meaning it is no end in itself- but for its positive effects, which is to contribute significantly to the human beings getting into the state of being healthy, comfortable and happy. And it is these positive things that have caused the coming into being of incense and furthermore not only that it still exists but that it was further developed from its earliest forms into the science of aromatherapy.
The history of incense begins exactly at the moment when the first man-made spark jumped and lit a fire. The name incense itself allows drawing this conclusion because it is derived from the Latin word incendere that means ‘to burn’. However, while it is certain that incense already exists as long as man-made fire it is absolutely uncertain where it has originated from. But I believe that it is safe to assume that it was not one specific place from which it originated but that it was people of many different cultures in many different places who discovered and understood independently the value of incense and realised that incense is affecting the state human beings are in spiritually, emotionally and – believe it or not – also physically. And then people began to put incense to different but mainly religious and healing uses the border between which is, by the way, blurred. Millennia old archaeological findings and historical traditions from around the world do not only support this assumption but are irrefutable evidence that it is a correct assumption.
Where is the incense stick coming from? It was the Chinese who during the reign of the Ming Dynasty that lasted for almost 300 years from 1348 to 1644 invented and introduced the incense stick that is called Joss stick in China. There is a wide range of different incense stick fragrances available for which reason the sticks can be categorized according to their aroma as floral sticks, sandal wood sticks, perfumed sticks, and so on and so forth.
It is no accident that I have put ‘worshiping’ at the top of the a.m. summary of uses because of all the uses incense is put to the use in religious ceremonies is definitely the most important one. By the by, incense making was an art developed and practised by monks and this brings us to the core of the topic Burma, Buddhism and incense.
Incense plays although there are cultural variations a central part in all religions from e.g. Christianity to Islam to Hinduism and Paganism and there is surely much to write about. However, in this article I want to confine it to Buddhism in general and Buddhism in Burma in particular. I have not mentioned Buddhism in one sentence with religions because Buddhism is by common definition not a religion. The definition of religion is very complex and I acknowledge that the answer to the question ‘Buddhism religion or philosophy?’ depends on how religion and philosophy are defined. Depending on what your personal interpretations of religion and philosophy are Buddhism will be a religion, a philosophy or both. What makes things so difficult to determine is the fact that there is no absolute consensus among scholars on what is necessary for something to be considered a religion. However, in my opinion Buddhism is a ‘Way of Life Philosophy’ rather than a religion. I may make this a topic of another article sometime in the future but for now I leave it at that.
For all the differences in the detail most religions are pretty much alike, which goes also for Buddhism. The initial motives are the same, the ultimate goals are the same and it is only the means to reach the ultimate goal that differ. The different main forms of Buddhism are Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Vajrayana Buddhism.
Theravada Buddhism, which is the oldest existing form of Buddhism began its triumphal march into present days Burma – since 1989 also called Myanmar – after having been brought to the first civilisations in this region namely, the Mon and the Pyu kingdoms by missionaries from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) long before the first appearance of the Burmans also called Bamar who were animists.
From the Mon Kingdom ‘Suvannabhumi’ the ‘Golden Land’ Theravada Buddhism also spread to neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
In 1056/57 A.D. Theravada Buddhism was introduced into the chiefly animistic Pagan (Bagan), the 1st Burmese Kingdom, by king Anawratha after his return from the victorious military campaign against king Manuha’s Mon Kingdom Thaton. King Anawratha who ruled Pagan from 1044 to 1077 A.D. was converted to Theravada Buddhism by Shin Arahan, a Theravada Buddhist monk from Thaton.
After the collapse of the kingdom of Pagan in 1287 A.D. the tradition of Theravada Buddhism that was practised throughout the country and had become dominant was continued. Burma is nowadays with 86 % of its population being born Buddhists the 2nd on the list of Theravada Buddhism majority countries after Thailand with 90 % of its population being Theravadins. Burma is also one of the most active Buddhist countries and has the largest number of monks and nuns relative to the total population. At this point I feel the need to give further explanation concerning the form of Theravada Buddhism that is practised in Burma because it is not the pure Theravada as it was practised by the Mon.
Burma’s Theravada Buddhism is a mixture of Theravada, Nat Cult and Naga Cult, in other words, a mixture of Theravada Buddhist doctrine, Hinduism and deep-rooted elements of the original spirit worshipping. In the following I will give a very brief explanation as to why this is so.
Even the powerful king Anawrahta was unable to eradicate the animistic beliefs of his people after being converted to Theravada Buddhism and determined to make it the dominant belief in his kingdom. Most probably he was also unwilling to do that as it would have certainly been met with the strong resistance of his subjects. Therefore he compromised. On the one hand he condemned animistic customs and beliefs and on the other hand he integrated parts of it into Theravada by officially accepting a group of ‘Nats’ (celestial beings or guardian spirits) reduced to 36 ‘handpicked’ primary nats to which he added as the 37th nat ‘Thagyamin’. Thagyamin is actually a Hindu deity based on Indra, who is as the ‘King of Nats’ reigning over ‘Tavatimsa’ (abode of celestial beings also called heaven or seven-highest abode of heaven). Both ‘Naga Cult’ and ‘Nat Cult’ have assimilated with Theravada Buddhist doctrines in Burma and have become an integral part of Burmese people’s beliefs especially in rural areas. Even Buddhist pagodas have nats and nagas as guardian spirits. As to e.g. Yangon’s great, golden ‘Shwedagon Pagoda’, (the world’s largest and most famous pagoda) this is the nat (guardian spirit) ‘Bo Bo Gyi’. Bo Bo Gyi is in harmonious coexistence with Thagyamin and images of Gautama Buddha on the pagoda terrace protecting the Shwedagon from ill fate.
Irrespective of the particular Buddhist tradition burning incense sticks is an important ritual. It is customary for Theravada Buddhists to include incense sticks into their offerings comprising apart from the incense sticks fruits, flowers, water and a candle. However, the number of incense sticks offered as a gift to Buddha is not chosen arbitrary. It is always three to equal the ‘Three Jewels’ in Theravada Buddhism; the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) and the Sangha (Buddhist monk community) what makes it a total of three incense sticks. These three incense sticks are lit together and In the Theravada Buddhist tradition placed as an offering in front of a Buddha statue either at pagodas or on home altars where the room is quickly filled with the sweet fragrance of Sandal wood, a wood that is since millennia of the utmost importance to Buddhists.
Some words of warning and advice are at this point in time appropriate because in closed environments incense smoke does also have negative effects on the humans’ health. The keyword is ‘indoor pollution’.
According to scientists incense smoke contains a harmful mixture comprising carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and other volatile chemicals. These chemicals can as the scientists say be directly linked to physical disorders such as headache, lung disorder, liver disorder and even cancer. Therefore, rooms in which materials used for incense are burned should be well ventilated so that a continuous and sufficient influx of fresh and clean air is guaranteed in order to reduce possible damage to health to a minimum what is, ideally, zero.
We have now reached the end of my article and I hope you like it. In case you have not yet made any personal experience with incense sticks I suggest that you give it a serious try.