Why the Chinese pray with joss sticks

The use of incense dates back to ancient times and may have originated in Sumerian and Babylonian cultures, where the gum – resins of aromatic trees were imported from the Arabian and Somali coasts to be used in religious ceremonies. It was also used by the Pharaohs, not only to counteract unpleasant odours, but also to drive away demons and gratify the presence of the gods.

That’s what Wikipedia says.

Ever since when I was young, I was taught to hold three joss sticks when praying. Whether to the Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin) or Buddha, it was always with joss sticks. Or the better term is incense.

When I demanded the rationale for this, I was simply told that the ‘sweet’ aroma will carry along with your ‘wishes’ into the air, and directly presented to the Gods themselves.

How true is it I don’t know. In my later years, as a Buddhist and learning meditation – I discovered that we don’t need joss sticks or incense to ‘carry’ our wishes. The Chinese practice of using joss sticks to pray is the result of the intermingling of Buddhism with Taoism. And when the devotees pray, you can be sure they’ll be asking for favours from the Gods. Some pray for health. Some for wealth, while some pray for earthly achievements.

Some also go to the extent of making an agreement with the celestial beings. A barter trade of sorts. Like “if you make my wishes come true, I will buy a goat or other offerings for you”.

In Buddhism, we believe in mental energy. It is that state of mind that materialises your aspirations. Simple – if you think you can achieve it, you certainly can. It is a fact that the powers of the universe are there for your taking – provided you know what to do. ‘Wishing’ has a probability of both success and failure. A positive state of mind has a higher rate of success. No one can help you but yourself, and only you yourself can tap into the powers of the universe – not greed or delusion.

What about the burning of effigies or paper money, mobile phone or house for the departed? Does it work? I won’t comment but one thing I can say, action begins from a seed of thought. Mental thoughts are energy and ‘ghosts’ (I rather use the term “unseen beings”) are products of the departed beings’ Karma. Like living beings, they need help too but help is not dished out materialistically. It is through mental energy, through aspirations that the unseen beings can receive help.

Many years ago my meditation master was meditating alone in the jungle. Inside his mind, he saw a couple with their two children prostrating in front of him. He tried to dismiss the image by acknowledging it as a thought but it wouldn’t go away. He then shared his good merits — by good actions of his past – – donating to charity or meditation — to the unseen beings. To his amazement, the beings prostrated three times to him and disappeared.

Buddhism is a journey towards discovering the truth by yourself. The Chinese tradition of praying with joss sticks has been handed down generations after generations. I can’t and won’t comment whether it works or not but I know the power of positive thoughts, actions and as for unseen beings – they do exist and I have taken a picture of them (yes, THEM). You can find that post on this blog.


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