Scent Offerings in Vajrayana Buddhism

This article discusses the imporance of scent offerings such as the Sangchö (cleansing smoke offering) to Vajrayana Buddhism.



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From our earliest records, we know that followers of the Buddha perfumed their sacred spaces with incense and scented unguents. Tibetan Buddhists set up shrines or make offerings at places of pilgrimage or practice following the ancient Indian texts. We offer incense and perfumed water, or perfumed substances that please the sense of smell. Offering scents brings great benefits: it delights the deities and dispels negative influences and spirits. These practices are consistent with descriptions in Mahayana texts. In The Noble Great Vehicle Sūtra “The Perfection of Generosity”, it is stated, ”By offering excellent smells, one will develop the scent of renown”.

In the Avalokinīsūtra, the Buddha taught the benefits associated with offering to the buddhas’ stūpas. He explained,

“I will now expound the benefits that result
From sprinkling the stūpas of the blessed ones with perfume,
Even as little as a drop the size of a mustard seed;
So listen sincerely and abandon your stains and defilements!

“Such a person will be meritorious and move about in all directions;
He will be healthy, steadfast in mind, and conscientious.
While practicing the conduct, he will subdue misery,
And he will cause many beings to become happy and pleased.

“He will become a king who honors the supreme victors.
He will become a powerful and highly learned universal monarch,
Endowed with a golden complexion and wearing the armor of the marks,
And his fragrance will be pleasing in all the worlds.

“His mind will be free from unhappiness and suffering.
While practicing the conduct, his enjoyments will not decrease.
He will be rich and prosperous, and his fortune will grow.
Free from misery, he will move about in all the worlds.

“Many beings will approach him and request,
‘Please expound the extraordinary Dharma teachings
Of the supreme victors and clear away our doubts!’
Hearing the Dharma, they will be pleased and pass it on.

“Not committing any evil deeds, he will be open-minded.
He will delight in and become learned concerning
The extraordinary, sublime Dharma taught by the victors.
His vision will be purified, and he will clear away the darkness of ignorance.

“He will have only minimal attachment and aversion;
In the human world, his ignorance will not be great.
He will practice the supreme pure conduct, 
And accomplish the benefit of beings in ways that cannot be fathomed.

“Whoever burns incense at the stūpas of the blessed ones
Will be free from all malice.
His enjoyments will never decrease,
And he will be estimable and affluent.

“After his mind has been purified for billions and trillions of eons,
And has become free from evil, peaceful, calm, and gentle,
He will obtain unequalled awakening
Through his superior attitude.

“After establishing billions and trillions, an infinite number of beings,
In the supreme state of happiness and peace free from misery,
And after turning the unequalled wheel in all the worlds,
He will purify the afflictions and pass into nirvāṇa.

Offering practices help the practitioner gather mundane necessities such as food and wealth. More importantly, as explained above, offerings purify evil deeds, perfect the accumulations, and purify discipline. Moreover, incense and perfumed waters serve as an offering to the objects of refuge and bring blessings and purification for oneself. In Vajrayana texts, we also find mention of scented offerings providing liberation-through-smell for other beings.

Traditional Vajrayana texts enumerate offering goddesses who anthropomorphically represent the five senses. These goddesses are the consorts of the eight great bodhisattvas. For the sense of smell, the goddess Gandhā (Tib. Drichabma) personifies perfume. We see her often depicted holding a conch shell filled with perfumed substances. Frequently we fill a conch shell or bowl with saffron-scented water. Texts also mention the delightful aromas of nutmeg, camphor, sandalwood, and musk.

The goddess Dhūpā (Tib. Dukpöma) represents incense and is pictured holding an incense burner. In Tibetan texts, we find references to juniper, agarwood, pine, vetiver, and sandalwood, among others. These woods and resins contain purificatory properties, and for that reason, they are often offered to clear away obstacles and cleanse the environment. In addition, these substances may calm and soothe the mind, and allow for balanced meditation. Akara collection offers a selection of quality incense produced under the specific direction of Phakchok Rinpoche.

Buddhist texts associate incense and perfume with the paramita of discipline. From reading a wide variety of texts, we learn that the Buddha’s personal scent was sweet and entrancing due to his lengthy career of practicing discipline. From his detailed life story, we learn that the Buddha even remained within a perfumed chamber, a gandhakuṭī, in his mother’s womb. As his community of followers began to collect in monasteries, perfumed chambers were established to mark the dwelling place of the Buddha. Several texts refer to the monks’ sweeping the perfumed chamber of the Buddha in the Jetvana grove monastic quarters. Devout followers would regularly present offerings of incense and perfumes to maintain these aromatic surroundings. Monks, nuns, and laypeople also ritually smeared sacred stũpas with sandalwood paste and saffron. This practice is attested in both texts and physical evidence and continues to this day throughout Asia.

The most elaborate scent offering is the practice of Sangchö (cleansing smoke offering). Samye Institute has worked with Phakchok Rinpoche to develop a support program to help practitioners understand and participate in this profound offering practice. Our affiliated ritual supplies organization, Akara, offers genuine sang substances prepared according to the ancient texts. You can also find a wide range of incense produced under the direction of Phakchok Rinpoche for use in daily offerings.

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