Ash remains after incense burns. It’s what we call “incense ash”. Generally, incense sticks are burnt in temples, Taoist forums, ancestral temples and in front of tombs. Since incense is used to worship gods, buddhas and ghosts, incense ash has also become “mystical” and is given several functions including “ensuring safety” and “treating diseases”.
The “mysterious power” of incense ashes
When people smeared their blood as a sign of giving an oath in the ancient times, they usually drank wine in which incense ash was mixed. This is probably because people believed that incense ashes had some mysterious powers, which could facilitate success or replace gods and buddhas to have a binding effect in a secular society.
For example, on the eighteenth day of the tenth month of the thirty-second year of the reign of Emperor Qianlong, Lu Mao, head of the Zhangpu branch of the Heaven and Earth Society, invited his partners He Zhe and other 9 people to “establish an alliance in front of gods”. They “all drank wines in which incense ashes were mixed”.
Another example happened in 1947. A village in Rui’an, Zhejiang province, planned to have a fight with another village with weapons. Around 1,000 people from 15 years old to 50 years old were summoned and each drank wines mixed with incense ash before they departed.
Due to their belief in gods and buddhas and the “mysterious power” of incense ash, some people also believe that incense ash can cure diseases, especially those “blessed” by temples or Buddhist masters.
Tricks of charlatans
There is a folk custom to ask for incense ash from temples. Often when they have diseases which doctors can’t cure, people turn to gods and buddhas and ask for some incense ashes.
But that’s also why some charlatans can take advantage. When they treat an illness with their so-called “magic skills”, they give incense ash as a cure-all to patients.
To swindle money and fool people, some people filter incense ash and classify them into 3 kinds: they put some sugar in the first kind, put salts in the second kind and nothing in the third kind. Patients who have a good draw are given the first kind, which tastes sweet; patients who have an average draw are given the second kind, which tastes salty; those who have a bad draw are given the third kind, which tastes bitter.
Not knowing the truth, superstitious people tend to think that there are different kinds of incense ash and insist that they are meant to take a certain kind of incense ash. This behavior is even more harmful.
In fact, incense burnt to “worship gods” is made up of bits and leaves of cypress, willows or cedars and power ground from elm barks, plus a small amount of sandalwood, ruta powder, artificial essence, rose and yellow golden spice. Ash that remains after the burning of these things mainly consists of potassium, like common plant ash, and can’t be used to cure diseases. What’s more, if one takes a large amount of things full of potassium, one will suffer from heart failure and toxic gastroenteritis.
If a disease is not serious, it will be gone without any treatment, so having incense ash will not have a big impact; usually people will recover in several days. But there are some who would communicate the positive role of ash in the recovery and patients would testify to amplify the impact.
If someone is seriously ill, after taking the ash, he will end up delaying proper treatments or suffer other infections, which worsens his condition or even causes death. At this moment, the liars who administered the ash would commute the responsibility to patients, declaring that they are “not devout enough”.
In addition, it’s worth pointing out that the artificial essence consists of a chemical substance called benzoic aldehyde; if incense sticks are not fully burnt, this substance stays in the ash; if someone take a large amount of such ash, he will be poisoned. Therefore the ashes are really not something to eat.
Is it true that incenses ash can stop bleeding?
People not only drink incenses ash to treat diseases, they also use them to stop bleeding.
Lu Xun wrote in his Blessing: “She slammed onto the corner of the incense burner table. A big hole appeared on the head and started to bleed freely. She grabbed two hands full of incense ash and covered them over the wound with two pieces of red cloth: but the blood did not stop!”
There are similar scenes in Female Doctor: The Legend of Ming Fei, a TV series about Chinese traditional medicine in 2016: the leading character heard that many people came to the temple to ask for incense ash to stop bleeding and cure illness when she went to pray.
▲Photo from the TV series Female Doctor: The Legend of Ming Fei
So, can incense ash stop bleeding?
Incense ashes are products of burning. They are full of calcium ion. If a bleeding wound is is covered with incense ash, calcium ion in the form of carbonate will be released from the blood plasma to join in the clotting mechanism of the wound to accelerate recovery. Therefore, in theory, incense ash is of some use in blood clotting.
However, there is also an abundance of bacteria in incense ash so, in reality, when covering a wound with, bacteria may be brought into the wound and cause infection!
Therefore, when you can use just a band-aid to stop bleeding today, using incense ash is really not smart and not recommended.
In addition, charlatans also like playing a trick of “manifesting characters with incense ashes”. They use a piece of thin yellow paper and some incense ashes. Spread the ash on the paper and then discard the ashes. Characters will manifest instantly. It seems amazing.
But in fact, such “amazing” magical skills are operational at home: use an eraser to write on the thin paper and blow away the residuals. Spread ashes. Characters with the residuals are stained with ashes and manifest. Surprise?
Consequences of taking incense ashes
It is a pity that in the 21st century, there are still people who believe in the functions of incense ash: instead of going to hospitals and taking medicine when they are ill, they turn to gods, Buddhas and drinking incense ash.
What are the consequences for these people?
According to a report in 2003, to cure the mental disease for their daughter Xiao Fang, a couple let an “Old Buddhist Master” who claimed to be able to cure all kinds of diseases, clown about. He started by burning incense to expel ghosts and evils and continued by insisting the girl should take “incense ash” for as long as half a year. In the end, poor Xiao Fang died from bronchopneumonia due to her weak immunity at the age of only 24 years old.
According to another report in 2014, in order to cure her daughter’s disease, a superstitious mother invited a “half-immortal” to cast spells at home and forced her daughter to eat incense ash and drink waters mixed with burnt spell papers. Already ill, the young girl was terrified and called the police. Luckily, she was saved by the police in the end.
The French writer Voltaire once said that “superstition was the result of a fool who met a liar”.
“Being a fool” is not necessarily physically ill, normal people could become “a fool” due to lack to common sense or temporary confusion. “Drinking incense ash” is a typical example.