Incense Burners

star and crescent in Islam
Lotus Flower

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In Buddhism, incense burners, or censers, are used in all Buddhist cultures and denominations. The burning of incense takes place both in the home and in the temple, and serves as an offering to the Buddha or various deities. It is also an important ritual act that is believed to clear the air of evil spirits.

In most cases, sweet-smellling incense sticks made from herbs and spices are lit by a priest or a worshipper and placed upright in sand in a large, open container. The incense burners are usually placed on the altar with flowers and other offerings in front of the figure being venerated.

To better dispense the sweet-smelling smoke of incense to cleanse a sacred space, lumps of incense are sometimes placed in perforated metal balls which are suspended from the ceilings of Buddhist temples. These suspended incense burners then swing in the breeze or as people walk by.

Forms and Types of Buddhist Incense Burners

Buddhist incense burners take a variety of forms and are created from many different materials, depending on the region. Most are open vessels, like a deep bowl, with a handle on each side. These large incense containers are typically made of a metal such as bronze or copper and decorated with gilding or enamel details. In China, in particular, many are made of ceramic, a form based on ancient censers used in burial rituals.

Closed censers with smoke holes in the upper section are also common in East Asia. In Korea, they appear in the form of birds, animals, and mythical creatures, with the incense smoke issued from the creatures' mouths.

Another common type of incense burner is a ceramic rectangular block with several holes at the top for sticks of incense. This is often decorated with Buddhist symbols like lotuses or lions.

Around 500 AD in China, Korea, and Japan, small closed censers with a single long handle began to be used. These portable incense burners were filled with incense and carried to the altar where they were placed.

Incense burners in the form of perforated metal balls hung from the ceiling are usually decorated with inlaid designs of Buddhist symbols and motifs.

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  1. Meher McArthur, Reading Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs and Symbols (Thames & Hudson, 2004), 151.

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