This is Part III of a three part series posted in a 3-week period. Here is Part I and here for Part II
Sang-sol: Feeding the Hungry Ghosts with Incense
Commonly found amongst the indigenous mountain cults of Nepal and Tibet is the ritual of burnt offerings at the mountain summit. This practice of making fragrant offerings to propitiate unseen forces is one that is found the world over, from the Vedas to the Old Testament. In the traditions of the folk-magic and religion of Tibet in particular, we find a highly developed expression of this tradition, which will serve as the basis for our discussion.
The sang-sol, or smoke offering is typically conducted to establish specific relationships with particular kinds of forces or entities that are believed to inhabit the greater cosmic landscape of the Buddhist religion of Tibet. Like other Himalayan folk, customs assimilated into the ecclesiastical traditions of the Tibetan Buddhist religion, the smoke offering maintains much of its animistic character, while having been adapted to the ideals of the orthodox philosophy. In its Buddhist variation, the burnt offerings are made to what are referred to as the four classes of guests, beginning with the Buddhas, Bodhistattvas and deities of the Tantric pantheon. Similarly the offerings are made to the supreme beings such as the Gods of the Indian religious pantheon, who are perceived as subordinate to the various fully enlightened beings of Buddhist cannon. The other categories include all sentient beings found throughout the past, present, and future that inhabit the realm of cyclic existence, as well as the ghosts and disembodied spirits with whom we are believed to have particular karmic relationships.
The preparations of medicinal plants, resins and extracts utilized in the smoke ceremonies vary regionally, and similar complex incense preparations are often found and sought in traditional Tibetan astrological medicine. The olfactory nerve responsible for our sense of smell may have an immediate effect upon the limbic system, making this sense in some ways the most primal and undomesticated of the five. This may account for the powerful changes in the state of consciousness that incense can induce. Some, though not all, ritual texts call for plants with psychoactive properties such as artemisia. While a detailed ethnography of incense ceremonies is beyond the scope of this discussion, the premise of the ritual itself offers us another glimpse into the religious customs of the indigenous mountain people of India, Nepal, and Tibet.
The ritual locates the supplicant in the median of a highly ordered mandala-cosmos, as a distinctly human operative capable of transacting between the denizens of the various planes of an invisible landscape through aspirations and ceremonial procedures. Contemporary psychological interpretations of such ritual magic would align these myriad and multitiered entities (from the celestial and to the subterranean) with compartments of our own unconscious minds. Symbolically, then, the vapors and odors of the incense are subtle enough to access unseen realms above, whilst the burning embers of the coals are able to penetrate the earth below. Whether one holds a literal interpretation of this mystical model, or a more psychological paradigm, through the burnt offerings of various medicinal herbs and plants, the practitioner has an interface with forces with which their own karmas are inextricably linked.
Of particular relevance to the present discussion is the stated ecological intention of the smoke offering ritual as it explicitly defines the human relationship to what David Abram describes as the “more-than-human” landscape. Traditionally, offerings such as the fire puja are conducted to remediate the human relationship with various beings that inhabit the local geography. Because the intervention of human building projects on the terrain is seen to interfere with the hidden entities that populate the landscape (ghosts and nature sprits such as nymphs, dryads, serpent beings, and so on), certain ritual activities must be conducted to appease them, as to prevent their interference with human affairs. Through the ritualized fumigation of the region, afflictive and harmful spirits are kept away, and beneficent spirits are pleased. Again, the karma that is created moment to moment by the very fact of human existence on the planet is addressed in this ceremony. The supplicant who performs that ritual seeks to make reparations for the act of utilizing the living landscape for human affairs.
By feeding the wandering ghosts that have attached themselves to the various rocks, trees, and other attributes of the land, the practitioner intervenes on behalf of those who would otherwise be afflicted by such entities with various illness and misfortunes. From the standpoint of traditional folk magic and its animistic views of nature, this ceremony would seem to be of a sympathetic magic of very practical nature. However, as it was later adapted to the Buddhist ethos and practice, it began to take on a much broader significance regarding the unique place of the human in the cosmological grand order, as well as the mission of the Bodhisattva. We find in this symbolic ordering of the cosmos, an ecological positioning of the altruistic and salvational role of the Bodhisattva as one who contributes to the balancing of the karmic debt between humanity and the environment. Therefore, rituals such as the smoke offering ceremony serve to maintain the integrity of the hierarchized cosmos, showing the world to be minded, or characterizing mind itself as an attribute of the world, and not something of an exlcusively human provenance.
This ritualized placement of the individual’s sentience within the more-than-human sentience of the living cosmos is found at the heart of yoga and Buddhism as methods of psychological training, respectively. Regarding this particular quality of an enhaced awareness, Abram writes:
This ecological articulation of mind thus yields a radical and irreducible pluralism. It is only as palpable bodies that we participate in the immersive mind of this planet, and as your body is different from mine in so many ways, and as our limbs and senses are so curiously different from those of the pileated woodpecker or the praying mantis, just so are our insights and desires richly different from one another. Each creature’s experience is unique, to be sure, yet this is not at all because an autonomous awareness is held inside its particular body or brain. Sentience is born of the ongoing encounter, the contact, the tension and entwinement between each body and the breathing world that surrounds it. While each of us encounters only a corner of this world, it is nonetheless the ame outrageous world—the same Earth—onto which our various senses open, the same inscrutable Earth that each engages with its fingers or its feathered wings, with its coiled antennae or its spreading roots…Shall we finally heal that age-old wound by acknowledging Earth’s implicit involvement in all our experience—as the solid ground that supports all our certainties, and the distant horizon that provokes all our dreams?
The partitioned sentience of the individual is then revealed as enfolded within the varied textures, voices and rhythms of the living landscape itself. Abram is defines mind as an ecological principle, one that is a property of the Earth. He writes: “The fluid field of experience that we call ‘mind’ is simply the place of this open, improvisational relationship – experienced separately by each individual body, experienced all at once by the animate Earth itself.” The mountain-cult practice of the smoke offering ceremony at once establishes this reciprocity of the sentient self and the sensible world, as a kind of reparation between humanity and the environment. As Eliade writes, “All this amounts to saying that by consciously establishing himself in the paradigmatic situation to which he is, as it were, predestined, man cosmicizes himself; in other words, he reproduces on the human scale the system of rhythmic and reciprocal conditioning influences that characterizes and constitutes a world, that, in short, defines any universe.” (Eliade 1987:173)
One 16th century smoke offering text from the Drikung Kagyu lineage illustrates how, through the ritual’s performance, the multi-tiered cosmos is systematically purified:
In the upward direction, the realms above the earth are sanctified by the smoke. On surface of the earth and in its atmosphere [the realms of] gods and demons are sanctified by the flames. Beneath the earth, the realms of nagas and powerful spirit beings are sanctified by the coals. In the ten directions, the outer vessel [that is this] world is sanctified by the fragrance. All the sentient creatures [who are] the inner contents are sanctified. The six types of migrating beings, [our] parents in the three times, are sanctified. Obstructive and harmful spirits, [our karmic] creditors in past and future lives are sanctified. (Phuntsog)
The smoke offering ritual provides just one of many examples of a complex religious psycho-technology with archaic undertones, that call upon the mountain as the sacred abode whereupon the intercession between human and “more-than-human” realms takes place.
Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York, 1996; DeMichelis, Elizabeth; Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane. San Diego, 1987; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Website: http://www.fao.org/forestry/mountains/en/); Harris, Samhttp://www.samharris.org/blog/item/how-to-meditate/; Merton, Thomas. Seeds. Boston, 2002; Merton, Thomas. When the Trees Say Nothing, Writings on Nature. ed. with an introduction by Kathleen Deignan, 2003; Milarepa, “The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, vol. I”, trans. by Garma C. C. Chang, Boulder, 1962; Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. New York, 1969; Trimondi, Victor and Victoria. The Shadow of the Dalai Lama. Düsseldorf and Zurich 1999; White, David Gordon. Alchemical Body. Chicago, 1996; Wilber, Ken. The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. New York, 199; Phüntsog, Rinchen. Source of Auspicious Good Fortune.trns. by Ari-ma, 2003