Incense offering, or Sang-sol, is a ceremony performed by Tibetans
from all walks of life to mark important events in their lives. A
widespread national custom, it can be preformed individually or in
groups, on occasions such as the Dalai Lama's birthday, marriages,
third day of the Tibetan New Year, or preceding other important events.
     It is not clear whether the Tibetan custom of offering incense
originated in India or not, as only two references to such practice can
be found in the Indian texts. It is mentioned in the Guhyasamaja Tantra
that one should know about the three kinds of fragrance. The other
reference is to be found in the story of Bhadri of Magadha, which tells
of how she invited the Buddha to her house and made offerings of smoke
to him from the roof.
     According to the writings of various scholars, it seems that
incense offering was carried out in Tibet from the very early times
when the teacher Tonpa Sherab, founder of the Bon religion, first came
from Zhang Zhung (Afghanistan/Tadzhikistan?) to spread his doctrine in
     The oldest extant text on incense offering, dates back to the
eight century, when the Indian master Padmasambhava came to Tibet and
built Samye monastery. This manual, containing detailed instructions on
how to preform the ritual, was then hidden by him to await discovery at
some appropriate juncture in the future. Several centuries later, two
Treasure masters (tertons), one from northern Tibet and another from
the south, discovered and revealed it. based on this Treasure (terma)
text many Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya lamas composed the incense offering.
Later at the time of the third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, a lama by the
name of Yeshe Wangpo, wrote a text on the incense offering from the
Gelugpa point of view. Subsequently, three works were written on the
subject by Panchen Lobsang Chogyen (1570-1662) and another by the fifth
Dalai Lama.
The Ritual
     The Incense offering should be done in the morning on a clean and
elevated outdoor site, free of insects., either on a hill or the top of
a house and inhabited by many local gods and nagas.
     If performed during a festival, all the inhabitants of a locality
may assemble and, at the end of the offering, stand in a row and throw
a handful of tsampa (roasted barley flour) in the air. As this is
usually a happy occasion, a dance often follows. In the summer,
incense offering is often associated with picnics on top of mountains.
It is closely linked with the hanging of prayer flags from trees or
tall poles, especially on the third day of the new year, but also on
other auspicious days.
     The incense should be burned in a large urn-shaped burner (sang-
khun) and should not have been trampled by people or animals. Wood, not
coal, should be used as fuel and the substance to be burned as incense
should be fragrant, such as the leaves of fern or juniper, or the
branches of coniferous tree, rhododendron, and red or white sandalwood.
In addition, tsampa, butter, sugar, and medicinal plants, and other
substances free from the taint of alcohol, onion or garlic are burned.
     When offering incense, people should examine their motivation and
reflect that by making this offering to lamas, meditational deities and
religious protectors, they will accumulate merit, which they should
dedicate to the benefit of all sentient beings. If they have any
specific requests, such as prayers for longevity or the removal of
obstacles to religious practice, they should be made at this point.
Next the practitioners take refuge, meditate on the four immeasurable
wishes, love, compassion, joy, equanimity, and visualize themselves
as deities. The objects to be offered are then blessed, rid of their
ordinary appearances and transformed by meditation, gestures, and
mantras into an inexhaustible source of great bliss which will please
those to whom they are offered.
     The offering ends with the practitioners asking the deities to
forgive them for any mistakes in the performance of the ritual, such as
improperly or incompletely reciting the words of the text. the deities
are then asked to return to their abodes and auspicious verses are
     Incense offering can thus be preformed as an elaborate religious
ritual, an offering of a fragrant purified of its ordinary qnalities
and appearance to lamas, meditational deities, religious protectors,
nagas and local worldly gods. The offering is intended to please the
deities, who rejoice at the merit of those making the offering.
However, incense offering can also be preformed simply because it is an
ancient custom, and a traditional means of purifying the atmosphere.
Incense offering is also done to mark the passing away of important
people, lamas or officials and in these ways it is a practice common to
both Buddhists and Bonpos.
(transcribed from "ME-LONG, The Newsletter of the council for Religious
and Cultural Affairsof H.H. the Dalai Lama", N0.6, April 1990)