In GRACEFUL LIVING by Lowell Cook2 Comments

The master asks the student, “Tell me, does the mind have a shape. Look at your mind. Does it have a color?” Well, I say if the nature of mind had a scent, it would be the smell of a winter’s sang offering! Now that I’ve got your attention with that heterodoxical statement, I’d like to humbly share my thoughts on sang, or smoke offerings. My only caveat is that, unfortunately, I do not have any realization, nor do I even have the confidence to make generalization about “the way things are.” Yet that is precisely what I am about to do.

It would seem to me that the ultimate purpose of practice, that is, the formal practice of Buddhism, inner science, is to create the circumstances conducive to awakening to reality. We sit in different styles of meditation to show the mind its temporary blindspots; we chant the hundred syllables to wash our three spheres of their sticky muck; we engage in all these strange practices so that we may be free to catch a glimpse of the nature of our mind and of the way things are. This glimpsing is our main practice. But to aid in this in the meantime, there is a Buddhist arsenal of helping practices. Sang is one of these.

It would seem to me that all these practices rest on the assumption of coincidence, that is, not just mere coincidental coincidence, but coincidence imbued with deeper significance, coincidence ripe with meaning, coincidental auspiciousness. Someone’s laughter echoes our mind and the phone rings with a call from them. The images of someone’s smile surfaces in our stream of thoughts and they walk into the cafe. Okay, okay. The workings of cause and effect are far too complex and minute for us to make naive connections like that here. Let’s try avoid falling into new age wishful naivete for the minute. Nevertheless, in principle there is something that tells us good causes equal good effect and negative causes equal negative effect. It is this assumed principle that lets us work with sang offerings to produce an abundance of both worldly and spiritual perfection. Working with the principle of cause and effect in this way is the practice of connecting with auspiciousness, with luck, fortune, and prosperity.

The material world is but the sum of the four or five elements. In performing sang we work with each of them:

Earth, fragrant junipers, the offering itself
Water, the absolution that consecrates the offering
Fire, the spark that unlocks the offering
Wind, that which fumigates the offering higher and higher
Emptiness, the source of the offering and to where it returns

The (dis)balance of the elements is health or dis-ease, stability or disaster, abundance or scarcity, success or defeat, friendship or animosity. With sang offerings, the elements are brought into harmony, creating the conditions for them flourishing in our favor, fulfilling our mundane and spiritual purposes.

Offering rituals are called chod jin (mchod sbying) in Tibetan. Chod meaning offering up to those higher than us and jin meaning bestowing generosity to those below us. Those above us are the three jewels, the three roots, all enlightened minds, as well as deities of virtuous orientation and other similarly supreme beings. We similarly perform generosity to lower beings such as obstructing spirits, in order to pacify them, and the beings of the lower realms who could use a breath of fresh air amidst endless suffering.

Phackchok Rinpoche once said, and I paraphrase, “How real are the deities? Well… How real is your suffering?” This deserves to be contemplated. Until we realize the emptiness of all experience, appearances, and phenomena, whether they be positive or negative, we have to play by their rules, the rules of the conventional world.

Thus, there is a whole host of deities to whom we offer: protector deities, guardian deities, local deities, deities connected with our birth, oath bound deities, patron deities, warrior deities, goddesses, wealth deities, nagas and so on and so forth. Offering to them, we can expect their assistance on our path. What do we need to accomplish our ultimate aim? Nutrient rich food and drink, comfortable housing, mental and physical wellbeing, suitable transportation, comfortable clothing, sufficient wealth, harmonious community, supportive environment, basic freedoms and human rights, and so on and so forth. These will all come showering down upon us in a rain of abundance.

Smoke has been used in purification rituals since human prehistory. The smoke from a purified fire of fragrant woods and leaf upon which burn plants, powders, resins, and other substances imbued with nectar can have a purifying effect on us, physically, mentally, and karmically. There are different substances with different properties and effects which can be learned about from the masters. Khenpo Choga once said during a fire puja something to the effect of, “You think I’m just wasting these precious substances. But I’m not. I’ll get them back multiplied in the next life!”

I encourage you to experiment in working with the different materials for sang practice but also to receive instructions from qualified teachers before practicing the rituals.

About the Author
Lowell Cook

Lowell Cook


Lowell Cook is a big fan of Padmasambhava. He writes, translate, and occasionally disappears to Amdo.

Featured image by Norman Jackson.

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    My only caveat is that, unfortunately, I do not have any realization, nor do I even have the confidence to make generalization about “the way things are.” Yet that is precisely what I am about to do.

    Beautiful… Honest statement !

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