Today I took my guests, a lovely couple from Boston, to visit the Temple of Literature in Hanoi before eating on a street food tour. And while we walked by a giant incense burning pot decorated with two dragons my guests asked me a difficult question: “How many incense do you light at a time?” As they have seen people burning a few incense sticks at a time, or sometimes the whole bunch of, like, 20 sticks.


At the very moment I could not explain wholly the ideas to them as I am confused by the meaning of how many incense we should burn too. So I consulted a friend of mine who studies a lot about Buddhism and spiritual life and here is the answer. Brian and Meghan I hope you have some spare time to read this as I promised to answer you in writing.



Meghan and Brian infront of the Perfume Pagoda



According to ritual, one may light one, three, five or seven incense sticks at a time. This has to always be an odd number of incense sticks that you burn. Each and every of those number has its own meaning and symbolic value.



When you burn one (1) incense stick. It represents unity, the whole, the fusion of the male and female principles. Buddhists who prays to Buddha by lighting up one incense stick wants to release the “incense of the heart”, in which there are five meanings: preventing the violation of taboos, upholding constancy and protecting against temptation, lucidity and intelligence, emancipation, lastly the endurance.



Buddhist believers praying in front of Buddha altar



When one is facing with difficulty in life or there is somethings that makes him down, he offers Buddha with three incense sticks. Burning three (3) incense sticks shows the mobility of the uneven number that tends to move towards to infinity, stability ad equilibrium. During Tet, Vietnamese New Year Festival, it is customary to light up three incense sticks, same at funerals. But one should only burn one incense stick at ordinary ritual like praying to ancestors or admiring the work of a dead king/ national hero.



Five (5) sticks of incense are only for when you pray to the Mother Goddess of the Forest, attended by the Five Tiger Lords, to ask for their protection.




Our guests in the Temple of Literature



Seven (7) incense sticks are burnt on the occasion of the “Pardon for all Wandering Souls” ( Cúng Cô Hồn in Vietnamese that happens every year on the 15th day of the seventh moon. Those seven incense sticks are then planted on their behalf near banyan trees ( or any big tree available, as Vietnamese believe spirits and ghosts live in big old trees). This is more or less a sign of Buddhist compassion. 



And about incense burning, there are some interesting rituals I can list here:


During the praying time and the incense sticks burst into flame, Vietnamese believe that some message is coming from the unfamiliar world, the second life or their ancestor wanting to tell them something.



Monks during their prayer time



The third lunar month we have the Pure Brightness Festival Vietnamese families in the Northern part go to cemetery and clean the graves and decorate with flowers and new paint. Incense sticks are burnt there to ask their ancestors to go back home for a visit. It is believed that if the burnt incense sticks are blown out three times in a row, the spirits of the dead refuse to come back for a moment to the world of mortals.



The smoke from the burning incense makes it possible to communicate between the two worlds. That’s why Vietnamese people burn incense at home at death anniversary to communicate to their ancestors, and at pagodas to try to talk to Buddha.



It is not allowed to blow incense sticks with your mouth, but to wave them in the air until there is no flame on them.



One should always plant the lit incense into the incense pot with their two hand, to show respect. 


Extra reading:


Buddhism in Vietnam


Differences between temples and pagodas


Vietnamese Tet New Year Festival 


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By Pham Tuyen