This is a precious practice for the dharma practitioner. As those we love die, there are ways we can honor them, dedicate prayers and wish them good causes and conditions on their path to enlightenment.
Bardo Beings: when our loved ones are in the bardos they are a Bardo Being, or “gandharva” or “scent eater”.According to Lama Thubten Yeshe, while in the bardo, beings “only enjoyment is their sense of smell”. Since the deceased are only nourished through smell, making scent offerings are very beneficial, especially if it is offered in their name.
Purpose of Sur Practice: Through the merit and motivation of our practice, having sought refuge in the three jewels, the fragrant incense smoke is a generous, beautiful offering for your loved one while they are in the bardo lasting 49 days. Since hunger and thirst may lead to clinging, making a sur offering may nourish your loved one and reduce their grasping. Through this relief they may travel with more ease to the pure lands or a positive rebirth. This offering may be offered for deceased persons and pets.
Benefits. Partaking of this offering gives you an opportunity to engage in merit for our loved one and can sooth feelings of helplessness and grief. The offering purifies karma and karmic debts, removes obstacles, satiates desire and generates positive wishes for a blessed rebirth. Offer to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas first, and then your loved one, hungry ghosts, preatas, spirits and then all sentient beings. The merit of the offering is multiplied through the blessings of the teachers, the ritual in which it was made, the sacred substances that were chosen, the loving generosity of those who made it, the generosity of those who share it with you, your karma to receive it and your dedicating to the benefit of others.
What is Sur Incense. Mixture of barley flour, the “three sweets” (sugar, honey and molasses), dairy products the “three whites” (yogurt, milk and butter), sometimes potatoes and rice, six medicinal spices and sacred substances. The food becomes an aromatic substance, is consecrated and placed in a fire or burned as incense. It is carefully prepared in prayer and blessed through ritual.
When to do Sur Practice. This practice can be done daily for forty-nine days after a loved one’s death, with emphasis on dedicating the merit of this virtuous activity for the benefit of the deceased.
Ideal time of day to offer Sur Practice. Anytime between sunset until midnight. If one has stable concentration, one can do anytime of the day. Otherwise, sunset to midnight is best, when “scent eaters” naturally descend, spirits wander and dakinis gather.
You would do this practice as a break time from your sitting meditation session.
Place of doing offering. Best in the open air – outdoor, edge of balcony, garden. You can recite the prayers while you are burning the sur or you can first burn the sur outdoor and then go back in to recite the prayers.
Sound. You can call your loved one to be nourished by ringing the tiny high-pitched cymbals, called tingshas. You may strike the tingshas while the offering is burned. Consider reserving striking these cymbals for this practice or other intentional practices as they call in hungry ghosts (preatas). You can dedicate and share your offering to satisfy all those who suffer from hunger.
Duration of practice. The practice may be long or short, as time and circumstances allow.
Require initiation? Generally, this practice does not require initiation from a lama.
Additional instructions. Use one container that is clean and unbroken to burn this incense and that does not hold other incenses. Don’t let the smoke overpower the smell of the incense.
Refer to your lineage for the recitations and practice instructions.
Good article by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, “Sur Commentary: Practicing Aroma Charity for Spirits”
Sur Incense can be purchased on ebay and at TibetanSpirit.com or Essenceoftheages.com/shechen