Sur: Scent Offerings

Sur is the offering of scents. In the Buddhist worldview, there are many kinds of sentient beings. Some of them survive by eating solid food, some by consuming smell and some merely through touch or psychological nutrition through the force of the mind.

Smell is one of the many kinds of sustenance. It is particularly consumed by a category of sentient beings called dri za or smell consumers. An example of a dri za is the spirit of a dead person, which roams in the intermediate state of bardo between the previous and next lives. Bhutanese offer sur after someone has died because they believe that the spirit in bardo survives on smell.

There are two kinds of sur one can offer: vegetarian sur called kar sur and non-vegetarian sur called mar sur. In kar sur, one puts vegetarian substances including karsum or three white ingredients such as butter, milk and curd. Kapchye or roasted wheat or barley flour is used as the main base. Ngarsum or three sweet things, which are sugar, molass and honey are also added.  Roasted barley flour is mixed with these ingredients to make sur to make the vegetarian sur. If one adds meat, blood or fat, that becomes non-vegetarian sur.

To some deities and spirits, one must offer the vegetarian sur and to some one can offer the non-vegetarian sur depending on the occasion. One can also add other substances to enrich the sur. This is the preparation of the raw materials during the offering of sur.

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What should one think of while offering sur?

While offering sur, one can practice meditation. By chanting the syllables oṃ aḥ huṃ, one can visualize the sur materials initially to be in the state of emptiness. From the state of emptiness, one must visualize a fabulous mass of delicious nectar arise in the form of smell. One must then multiply it into so many different forms of pleasant offerings and have the offering goddesses make these offerings to the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, deities, spirits, and sentient beings and particularly to those who survive by eating sur or smell.

There are four categories of recipients of sur known as drön zhi or four guests. The first recipient is kenchog si zhui drön or the precious jewels including the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who are objects of worship. Second category is gonpo yontengi drön or the protectors and deities who posses good qualities. Third is rigdruk nyingjé drön or the six realms of beings who are the objects of compassion and last recipient is lenchag bulengi drön or beings to whom we owe karmic debt.

Sur is the practice of generosity and offering food, particularly to those sentient beings who need to be fed with smell. When one practices the offering of sur, one should be aware of these guests and one should do the visualization as good as one can. When one offers sur for a deceased person, one often uses a small bell to call the spirit or the consciousness of the deceased to come and have sur.

Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, founder of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called "Why We Do What We Do."

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Sur is the offering of smell. In the Buddhist worldview, there are many kinds of sentient beings. Some of them survive by eating solid food, some by consuming smell and some merely through touch or psychological nutrition through the force of the mind.

This piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called "Why we do what we do".

Collection Bhutan Cultural Library
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users (default)
Author Karma Phuntsho
Editor Bradley Aaron
Year published 2015
Original year published 2014
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