Incense -To incense or not to incense plus by stariya


									       “To incense or not to incense?” - consolidated replies
Miriam Hall, Director of the Madison WI Shambhala Center, sent out an Email; to
sanghaannounce “To incense or not to incense?” She very kindly consolidated the
responses to that for us. This covers the full scope of the emails she received. One or two
of these responses I wouldn’t necessarily call BEST Practices, but they probably reflect
the array of ideas and opinions on this, thus in that context I think it makes sense to put it
all in here.
It is good to keep in mind we are not just dealing with the, for some controversial,
“chemical sensitivities". As she mentioned to me, many people have allergies, asthma
and other respiratory issues and can’t tolerate incense or smoke. She pointed out that our
goal is to get people into our centers and get them sitting. So I too would encourage
making our centers as safe and workable as possible for all who go there, or who may
want to go there.

Hamish Maclaren

On Behalf Of Miriam
Sent: Monday, December 08, 2008 9:40 AM
To: Sangha Announce
Subject: Incense - consolidated replies

Dear wider sangha,

So many heart-felt thanks for your multiple and many-faceted replies! The general sense
I get (with a few strong exceptions) is that the idea of offering, the intention and desire, is
stronger and more significant than actual lighting, when it comes to incense. No center
mentioned stopping juniper, though a couple mentioned that they use smokeless juniper
or burn it in a separate part of the center.

A few centers have folks with sensitivities in a separate room - this wouldn't work for us,
as we are a very small center and smoke in one room carries to another. A number of
centers have gotten air purifiers - ranging from 1,000-10,000 dollars. This seems to have
helped with all sorts of environmental sensitivities. We don't have the money to do this,
though of course our center would perfectly qualify: we have no windows to open and
only two doors at opposite ends, which are useless during the winter.

As for our policy, the couple of folks who questioned our default policy of not burning
said that lighting and putting out (which is actually what most of us had been doing) was
ok. This also seems to mostly be the norm with other centers, though most places rely on
asking first. We also decided that asking folks who have sensitivities let US know when
they will be coming would be too much to ask, as a new person coming in wouldn't know
about this. This is especially important as a default policy because of nyinthun on
Sunday, when folks could arrive an hour after burning, not have been there to say they
can't breathe in the same room with it, and have to leave.

So our new policy is this: light and put out at all times for incense. For juniper, post a
wipe-off board letting folks know when it has been burned and when it will be burned
next. We will not be dropping juniper from ceremonies, as it is what the dralas travel
down on to support us.

This discussion was VERY USEFUL for us on a lot of levels. People were considered
about a loss of Windhorse, and also adapting to folks who might (though not all folks
with sensitivities are, by all means!) be acting from a place of neurosis. In the end, we
decided as a group that accessibility is more crucial, and more our role, than deciding that
on a case-by-case basis. And as for Windhorse, there are plenty of other ways to raise it
in the center, not involving allergies or respiratory systems. For instance, we got
permission to paint, and we'll likely do that as of spring.

One major resource I want to point out is mentioned below - there are MANY GREAT
RESOURCES for this in the accessibility section of the Shambhala International
Website! Thank you Therese and Hamish!

Here are some of the emails I got - names removed and places removed. I didn't put
together all of them, just ones which represented particular views. It should be said that
two (out of the 30 or so replies I got) folks were pretty strong about keeping tradition and
not stopping burning for a couple of folks. For what it is worth, though a couple of our
members do feel this way, our center as a whole doesn't feel this is a view that fits our
needs as a sangha.

I chose the emails that represented the widest range of views, included practical advice
and/or really got at the heart of what offering is and means...

The first one is from someone who has worked long and hard on this and includes
MANY very good resources on, especially very clear language about
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and Accessibility.

Miriam Hall
Madison Shambhala Center Director

-----------------THE EMAIL WITH HELPFUL LINKS IN IT------------

This is quite a big issue and as you say has no doubt come up in many
centers. I have been in many programs, even dathuns, where very little or no incense was
used, otherwise some people would have been forced to leave. I personally try to make a
point of asking the people there before lighting incense in classes and programs.

There is some information that might help you on the Shambhala "Diversity
and Accessibility" Best Practices web page at
Under Share Best Practices there is an email called "Accommodating
Practitioners with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities" from Theresa Milligan of the St.
Margaret's Bay Shambhala Center. She worked quite a bit with this one and has a number
of solutions that worked for that center.

That letter and a lot more information about "Multiple Chemical
Sensitivities" is also in the "Additional Resources for Phases III & IV of Accessibility
Guidelines" document, also on that web page. These are in the section of that document
called "Multiple Chemical Sensitivities", pages

Included in the "Additional Resources..." document is some information from Unitarian
Universalist Association web site at
x.shtml That site does not actually deal with the subject of incense per se, if I remember
rightly, but it has a lot of useful information about working with Multiple Chemical and
Electrical Sensitivities and further links to related topics on the left site of that page,
under "Chemical Sensitivities".

There are also links to all of these at the Shambhala "Accessibility and
Disability" web page is at

I would be great to hear what other responses you get to your email, maybe there will
also be more information we can add to the Best Practices page, if the senders are OK
with that.

------------------THE REST OF THE EMAILS--------------------

-From one who has been on both sides of the fence, "Don't burn it."

You do not mention environmental illness as a reason not to burn the incense, yet it is the
most common reason now. People are full to the brim with toxins absorbed from the
environment: perfumes, deodorants, exhaust, the list is endless. I once pooh-poohed
anyone suggesting we not burn incense. Now I have been through extensive treatment for
environmental illness. It can come on slowly or suddenly. Once you have it, even one
inhalation of a substance can cause a reaction. And once you are 'filled to the brim' and
have environmental illness, it doesn't necessarily have to be a 'toxic' substance. All
natural incense can do it. This is not an allergy.
This is something that is happening because our air is too full of stuff. It is happening to
everyone. If there were a gauge people could use to see how full their bodies were, it
would cause quite a shock. There would be no more of this question, "Should we burn
incense or not?"

That one inhalation can cause an afflicted person to have a severe reaction that lasts for
hours and can be completely debilitating. I know. Now I know.
Be kind. Just be kind. That's the guideline. Tradition is a thing that has to suit the time,
and the tradition of burning incense is going to have to go personal.

-Just to know, for future reference, that SMR himself can't handle lots of incense either,
when he first comes back to his home, when we welcome him, we have to keep the
juniper smoke and stick incense in his front hall just going with a small bit of juniper and
a small piece of incense. Like about a five-ten minute burn on stick incense and just a
sprinkle of juniper.

- I was at a Werma Feast a month ago where the choppon loaded on the juniper to the
part of the sadhana that calls for it, and being in a smaller room, he was oblivious to the
size difference and did what he normally does in a room 8x as large.... There was not a
window open (although it was mild September evening,) and three of us ended up having
to leave the room, even after opening a window!!! About 6 months prior, I had come over
to our Centre at lunchtime to have a meeting in that same smaller shrineroom. It had been
used at 9:00 - 10:00 a.m. for a weekly Werma practice by the Shambhala Centre staff and
a few others. Here it was, 2 or 3 hours later, and I could hardly breathe in that room. My
lungs were stinging from the the lingering juniper smoke fumes in there. Nobody had
bothered to open a window during or after the practice apparently, and yet we bill our
Centre as "scent-free" (!) to discourage people from using strong colognes and scented
 personal products when they come there!!! How ironic, I thought. But being a
community, a group of people and full of all kinds of organizational dysfunction, it's hard
to discuss this sort of issue and get anywhere. Who wants to take responsibility? Who's
in charge? Who wants to make firm policy and be seen as a hardnose or face the
criticism of whoever? It's really slippery and I've been through the hoop of articles in our
newsletter, committees, discussion, long e-mali exchanges, and so on, so I can tell you
this from the experience of trying to do something constructive and fair about the
situation for the benefit of a few sensitive members.

We also went through a periods at our Centre where we bought what's called in the trade
"healing incense" and "smokeless incense" and even then, we broke the sticks in half in
the supply dish by the censer in the shrine table. That was supplied to us by the
complainer I cite above and it worked pretty well.

However, that person has long moved away, people forget, no one orders it anymore,
longer sticks are put out by the shrine keepers, and we're basicially back to square one.

We have also had a number of newer members who were environmentally sensitive and
came and went over the years, also complaining about the air quality. Most moved away,
actually, or quite coming to Halifax. In our neighboring centre, they hold smokeless
Werma feasts as well as standard burning ones. Needless to say, the divisions of
practitioners has not bonded people more closely together and has made it difficult to
hold the older students together to the point that they now have about one or two feasts a
year out there. Those that want to attend a feast come to practice them.
I also have witnessed a well-known Tibetan doctor and Dharma teacher (Trogawa
Rinpoche) who taught a program in NYC years ago whe I lived there. He was highly
sensitive to incense and would not allow it to be burnt while he was with us. He
suggested we simply place the unlit stick in the bowl, which we did. So there's an
acceptable solution, though as you can imagine, this will not suit all the practitioners of
the various views about such matters. It's still an offerin as is any offering you can
imagine offering, as we do in the Mandala practice, for instance, when done before a
teaching, etc. So people would do well to make accommodations for their vajra or sangha
brothers and sisters with tolerance and compassion, not get too attached to outer offerings
and ritual, and offer the essence of their luminous minds and their devotional practice in
any case to the Guru and the Three Jewels. I doubt the Buddha will mind! I doubt the
Dharma will mind....

-The Ottawa Shambhala Centre in Canada recently made the decision to greatly reduce
the use of incense. We have a sign in the main foyer indicating that "No incense is used at
the Centre. However, small amount of juniper may be burned on certain events." A
washable interface and marker are on the sign and indicates a date and time of when the
juniper was last used.

We additionally indicate scented products should not be worn.

For us, the issue revolves around allergies rather than the risk of cancer or illness and to
further accommodate people we chose to go this route.

-I've had allergies for over ten years to many chemicals. What I've found is that the
traditional Tibetan incense (quite thick and reddish brown in color) doesn't trigger my
allergies near as much. If I use that, and only burn perhaps 1/2 a stick, I’m fine. Whereas
if I burn incense I bought from the store, I begin sneezing immediately.

I’m guessing this is because store-bought incense contains petrochemicals that affect me,
whereas natural materials don’t.

The type I’ve been using is “King Joss Stick” that my friend brought back from Tibet.
That said, I’ve seen it elsewhere under other brand names.

-It is an offering that is traditional and symbolic that’s true. That said, I don’t think it’s
necessary to burn it if people are bothered by it. Find something else - there is smokeless
incense if that would work - or you could just add more flowers, some fruit or a nice mix
of saffron and spices in a bowl. I don’t think we’re supposed to be dogmatic especially if
it causes suffering. That’s not what the offering is about. When we do group retreats here
and someone requests we don’t burn it – we don’t. People can burn it in their houses if
they want to.

-we are not a center, just a group that rents a church. In the beginning we did light
incense but a couple of people protested and since then we haven't even tried. It's a pity
because the smell of incense brings me back to a sense of practice, but the new idea about
incense seems to be that it is not universally appreciated. Supposedly it's as polluting as
secondhand smoke. Of course I continue to burn it at home.

-I am sensitive to incense but not totally. Ani Pema lights it and puts it out (that works for
me) Sometimes Acharya Dale Asrael just offers it unburned. I have a friend who cannot
attend many centers because of incense and (worse) people wearing scents. I think its
important to be sensitive to the possible sensitivities. I’m glad you're exploring this

-I say "burn, baby, burn". we are buddhists: that is clear to anyone visiting the center, and
buddhists burn incense by default, no? so, much like peanuts, wheat and meat, etc. I think
it's the responsibility of the sufferer to communicate their needs.

sometimes we would ask before lighting at my old center, but here in we just light and sit
-- and we don't even have ventilation!

- I use a "low-smoke" quality incense made by Nippon-Koda which also uses organic
ingredients. The line is called Ka-fuh. I love the "Hinoki" which is cypress. Samadhi
Cushions online sells this. I have allergies and it helps.

-It is a common issue. In the late '80's it began to happen, so in the large Main Shrine
Room we'd only light one stick. Then we started lighting a small stick and putting it in
upside down.
   Now here we ask if anyone has allergies or problems with incense before lighting up.
There is often at least one person who does, so we don't light any. However every
Wednesday morning there are faithful practitioners who practice werma and who
definitely light up the juniper which pervades the building for the morning. But juniper
smoke--immediate or lingering--doesn't seem to bother anyone.
   Lama Uygen Shenpen, the Vidyadhara's choppon and our first guide into vajrayana
ritual offerings, said one liberating thing which I always remember: "If you don't have it,
imagine it!"--and this from the lama who could turn out the most perfect tormas or what
have you. All those offering, which are the basis of imagined offerings, are just the
relative. What is most important is the absolute and its expression is kindness to others.

-At our center, we have some people who object. Our custom has become to ask at the
beginning of sitting whether anyone objects; if yes, then we still offer the incense but
don't light it; we put into the incense burner as though it were lit.
As to the days-after effect, we have one member who is EXTREMELY allergic to
everything scented, and as long as she isn't there she doesn't mind that others burn it. She
understands that she's not the only person in the universe. We do have quite a tradition
regarding incense in our sangha, and to insist that noone ever burns it seems over the top
to me.

-from the Vajradhatu Practice Manual:
"Be mindful of, and sensitive to, environmentally sensitive practitioners. If there is a
practitioner in the meditation hall who is allergic to incense, make a token incense
offering by lighting incense and immediately extinguishing it. "

- Within the community, there are those who cannot be exposed to incense and burning
For example, I am highly reactive to fast lighting charcoal.
So the solution for the centre was to install an air exchanger...I think the cost was ten
thousand dollars.
A protocol is in place to work with air in a proscribed way in order to keep the centre
scent neutral following the use of juniper and incense.

Attendees are also asked to avoid using scented personal care products...including
laundry products.
As you may know, perfume, hair spray, and many other personal care products, as well as
laundry products such as Bounce, can trigger allergic and asthmatic responses in sensitive

The discussions that led to scent/incense/juniper burning policies were lengthy and often
The results were well worth the efforts.

-For anyone interested in an article citing the harmful effects of burning

-This is something I actually feel pretty strongly about, so glad you asked.

I have serious athsma and japanese incense in reason doesn't bother me, but Tibetan
incense is usually a killer. I am very into making offerings. NY gets a low smoke
japanese incense that is not smokeless but is really quite light and the sticks are only
about five or six inches so they don't burn forever.

The Japanese incense comes from the connection between Trungpa Rinpoche and Suzuki
Roshi. In recent years as people have studied with other Tibetan teachers, Tibetan
incense has snuck into many centers and I personally feel that the japanese is part of what
the Vidyadhara transmitted to us as Shambhala -- not Tibetan -- Buddhism, along with
the simple shrines and shrine rooms, and the style of chanting, etc.

-There is a document on the website that I wrote a couple years ago that
addresses this issue and how we work with it at St. Margarets Bay Shambhala Centre
(just outside Halifax). You can access it in the members section: go to Share Best
Practices, then to the box on the right: Diversity and Accessibility; then scroll down to
the Share Best Practices on that page, and to the Accomodating Practitioners with
Multiple Chemical Sensitivities article. Sorry I couldn't figure out a more direct link.
With this approach things seem to be working pretty well as far as accomodating persons
with severe reactivities. The biggest ongoing issue for most folks with chemical
sensitivities here is still the personal care products that people choose to wear. And I
think there is still some lingering angst among some members that we have been too

I know at the Halifax SC they also work with the incense issue by lighting a single piece
of incense, and then immediately turning it upside down in the incense container (if
someone is present who is highly allergic). However recently that may have changed.
You could contact Acharya Eve Rosenthal about that. I would appreciate knowing if
there are any other insights or guidelines that help with this.

-there are a few questions I have: is it the smoke or the aroma? Or both? Before I weigh
in on that, let's talk about upper respiratory challenges as they were reported a few
months ago. My own feeling is that there is probably something to the study, if
1) you burn incense like a Singapore monastery (like 20 sticks at a time, continuously all
the time)
2) if you burn the kind of incense common among Chinese both in Singapore and Hong
Kong, which is to say commercially made, with chemical aromas and chemical
accelerants. Whether you burn incense or not, for these folks you are going to need a
HEPA-level air purifier. The good ones will cost about $1000 depending on the size of
the room you have. So here's the question i would be asking if I were the Director of
your meditation center: how many people are we talking about who have these, for want
of a better word, disabilities.

If it's a small group --say 5-10-- you might consider a separate set-up for them. A group
that meets in a special clean room that has had not candle burning, no incense burning
and has been vacuumed. If they are sufficiently motivated, and have the funds, you
might ask them to contribute to the purchase of an air purifier. (the Swiss kind are the
best). I'm serious -- you need to get these people in on the ground floor of solving the

Unless you are talking about people who have participated in the culture of
smokelessness. That's a different story and for them, they can also either join the small
group, or put their fixations on the cushion and tough it out. One possible compromise
would be a brand of Chinese incense which is smokeless. For the people who are in this
"cultural" group, they should understand that burning incense is part of what we have
done for 2500 years.

Let's change gears: it's been explained to me on more than one occasion, that burning
incense has medicinal, healing qualities. But we are talking about herbal, organic,
Tibetan incense here and even in that group there are many kinds: musky, non-musky,
etc. My own feeling, without having been told this is that they follow the 5 buddha
families and from the perspective of this analysis you can include the finer Japanese and
Chinese as well. There is Ei Heiji Aloewood (joss) incense which is expensive and
actually can clear upper respiratory problems. There is Chinese Medicine Buddha incense
(sold though Samadhi Store --I've been the supplier, btw) which has similar healing
qualities. I'm not sure what this tells you, but in my travels back to the States I can feel
the culture change and one of those is anti-smoking, cigarette smoking. This is good,
since people have been smoking cigarettes only for 100 years or so. Also with bad air
quality and all the nylon carpets giving off toxins, glues that hold laminate floors,
counter-tops etc. together adding to airborne toxicity, it's no wonder that childhood
asthma is up as well as other diseases caused by these toxins.

I don't think incense smoke is part of this problem. If you are skillful you can work with
it. Sorry to belabor the point. But there is a sense in which the offering of aroma, in the
form of smoke, is as much a part of what we are about as giving communion is to a
An afterthought

1) there is smokeless (but not aroma-less) Chinese incense
2) there are electric incense sticks available in any Chinatown (Chicago)
3) there are electric candles also available (although candles burn up aroma if they are
themselves fragrance-free)

miriam hall (herspiral)           madison wi usa

Sent: Monday, December 22, 2008 11:27 PM
I also forgot to mention but today noticed visiting the Portland
Oregon airport that we also use a non-candle candle - these
lamps with oil that have no scent and no smoke - good for all
those folks who said "candles can be a problem too"...

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