This week Goroshi asked everyone to think and act like the incense we use on the alter. What does it mean to “be like incense?” First, we should note that when we put the incense into the holder it must always be straight. This is to remind us of the posture we sit while in Zazen. Posture is important in Zazen as it reflects the state of our mind. If we slouch then odds are good that our mind is all over the place chasing thoughts here and there.
More importantly, for incense to work it must be burned. This burning represents the burning away of our attachments, clinging, and aversions. The key thing, however, is that incense burns at a very specific rate. If it burned too fast, it would go up in a poof of smoke. If it burned to slowly, it would simply go out. There is an ideal intensity, and this is the same with our practice. If we go at it too hard and fast, we will burn out and get discouraged. If we are too casual, we will become distracted by other things and not make any progress. Our ideal should be the ”middle way” of intense, yet balanced practice.
Roshi mentioned that incense elevates the environment in a room. How many times have you walked into a Zendo and took in the faint smell of incense? There is something special here! Smell is a powerful sense – the mind automatically assumes a certain state when sensing a certain smell. This is yet another skillful means in our practice to ease the mind into a quiet state which is so necessary for proper meditation. Goroshi noted that our practice and behavior in the world can serve the exact same function as incense. Our actions can elevate any situation. Our behavior can serve as an example to others. We always have the opportunity to elevate any situation by our very presence. This is vital as we make the vow to save all beings from suffering. We can do this right here and right now by manifesting our practice to all beings in every moment.