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Why do we use incense in Buddhism? Understanding the Symbolism in Our Practice

- This is part of a series introducing the book "In One Lifetime, Pure Land Buddhism" by Venerable Wuling through selected excerpts. Read the first chapter on Amitabha Blog titled "What is Pure Land Buddhism?" here.



The image of the Buddha symbolizes our true nature, the same nature as that of all Buddhas. The images of the bodhisattvas symbolize understanding and practice. Mahasthamaprapta, also known as Great Power Arrived Bodhisattva, symbolizes wisdom and Avalokitesvara, also known as Great Compassion Bodhisattva, symbolizes compassion. Wisdom and compassion are complementary and need to be used together.


If using a statue you can place it on a stand or box to elevate it above the other objects. The statue and bodhisattva images are placed at the back of the gongzhou to form the focal point.


Water represents purity and stillness. Our minds need to be as pure as water, void of greed, anger, and ignorance, and as calm. This will enable us to interact with others and situations with a serene and nondiscriminatory mind, which viewing everything equally, reflects everything clearly but non-judgmentally, like a mirror.


When setting up your gongzhou, use a new cup or glass for the water. Try to use a clear glass container, as seeing the water will remind you of what it symbolizes. Place the container in the center of the gongzhou and change the water regularly. The traditional time to change the water is in the morning. If this does not fit into your morning routine, you can instead change the water when you do your daily chanting.


Incense symbolizes self-discipline and training which will awaken our wisdom and compassion. When lit, the incense is transformed from something hard and unyielding into the fragrance of the Dharma, the truth that teaches us how to end suffering and thus find lasting happiness. Place the incense holder in front of the water.


Flowers represent causality. Our every thought, word, and deed are causes that will bear results. If we wish to have good results we must first plant the seed to create the cause. Also, flowers can serve to remind us of impermanence for as beautiful as flowers are, their beauty is short-lived. Nothing lasts forever. Everything is impermanent.


Flowers may be placed at the foot of the Buddha image or to the side. A potted plant or silk flowers can be used instead of cut flowers. Change them when they are no longer suitable for the gongzhou.


Candles symbolize wisdom and brightness illuminating the darkness of ignorance, just as a single lit candle can illuminate a room that has been dark for thousands of years. The candle also represents the act of giving as it gives of itself so that others may see.


A pair of candles may be placed on both sides of the gongzhou arrangement. For safety, you may use lamps instead of candles. Also, there are small battery-operated candles that serve as a safe, yet fitting, alternative to candles.

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