An Incense Offering

Dharma Glimpse – Rob Kanyo Mican



An incense offering is a very simple thing. It’s a very simple procedure. Approach the incense burner. As you stand a few steps in front of it, bow. Step forward. Take a pinch of granulated incense in your right hand and gently sprinkle it across the smouldering charcoal. Gassho and bow, then step back again to where you started. One final bow and you’re done.

Very simple.

Different temples will have slightly different takes on this process. For example, the attendants of the Jodo Shinshu temple that I currently attend perform incense offerings before the service starts – stepping forward is done with the left foot first; stepping back is done with the right foot first. The Zen temple that I used to attend performed incense offerings at the end of the service, keeping one’s hands in gassho throughout, with an additional final bow toward the priest or disciple who ran the service.

As part of my new temple’s memorial service, however, the incense offering is integrated into the service itself. The monthly memorial service takes the time to invite all those attendants who have lost someone to stand up and offer incense. Some months that line is longer than others. And I am frequently reminded that the purpose of a memorial service is for us, the living, the friends and family members who are still here. There is a line on the temple web site that states, “The memorial service provides an opportunity to express appreciation and gratitude for the many benefits we have received from the person who passed away.”

Smoke rises from the charcoal. The fragrance increases as the incense burns. Inhaling, we can appreciate its sweet smell. But it was just a pinch. Eventually the granules burn out, the fragrance fades, and the smoke dissipates. The charcoal remains lit in the burner, but the incense is now dormant again until the next person in line steps forward.

An offering of incense is an expression of reverence and gratitude. It represents the acceptance of transiency in life. It is not done for any kind of self-cleansing, any kind of personal benefit or any kind of material gain. Offering incense is done for the sake of offering incense, right here and now, in this present moment. An act in which we can express our conviction of the oneness of all things and the transient nature of existence.

The smoke is fleeting. The fragrance expands as the incense burns. Inhaling, we can appreciate its aromatic odor. But again, it was just a pinch. Little by little the granules burn out, the odor fades, and the smoke slowly vanishes. The charcoal continues to glow, but the incense itself is dormant again until the next person in line steps forward.

An offering of incense also represents the acceptance of fulfillment in life. We see potential in the incense, much as we also see the potential in all sentient beings. Before the incense is picked up, as it lays there in the holder, it remains dormant. As the pinch of incense is sprinkled across the charcoal, it lights up, it glows, its potential is finally fulfilled as it releases its fragrance and the smoke carries it upwards towards the heavens. Likewise, our own lives remain dormant until our potentials are fulfilled, until we are lit and glowing, releasing our own potential, our own fragrant smoke.

One more burst of smoke. The fragrance soars upwards as the incense burns. Inhaling, we can appreciate its sweet perfume. Yet again, it was just a pinch. One by one the granules burn out, the fragrance recedes, and the smoke disperses. The charcoal remains smouldering, but the incense itself is dormant once again, patiently waiting for the next person in line to step forward.

The incense cannot release its potential by itself. It requires action. Likewise, unlocking and releasing our own potentials also require action.

At the same time, the incense also helps us recognize that our own lives are all just as fleeting as its sweet fragrant smoke.

Very simple.

Mind of Embracing All Things – Haya Akegarasu

Translated by Gyoko Saito and Joan Sweany

Excerpt from Kegon Sutra

Reading an early passage of the Kegon Sutra, I came across a poem by the Ho-E Bodhisattva which made me want to cry out, “How wonderful!” Here it is:

Be free from subject and object,
Get away from dirtiness and cleanness,
Sometimes entangled and sometimes not,
I forget all relative knowledge:
My real wish is to enjoy all things with people.

This poem expresses so clearly what I am thinking about these days that I use it to explain my feelings to everyone I meet.

Subject or object, myself or someone else, individualism or socialism, egotism or altruism-forget about such relative knowledge be free from it! Right or wrong, good or bad, beauty or ugliness-don’t cling to that either. Forget about ignorance or enlightenment! Simply enjoy your life with people-this is the spirit of Gautama Buddha, isn’t it? I’m glad that Shinran Shonin said “When we enter into the inconceivable Other Power, realize that the Reason without Reason does not exist,” and again, “I cannot judge what right or wrong is, and I don’t know at all what is good and bad.” I hate to hear about the fights of isms or clashes between two different faiths. I don’t care about these things.

Somehow I just long for people. I hate to be separated from people by the quarrels of isms or dogma or faith, and what is more, I hate to be separated from people by profit or loss.

I don’t care whether I win or lose, lose or win. I just long for the life burning inside me. I just adore people, in whom there is life. I don’t care about isms, thoughts, or faiths. I just long for people. I throw everything else away. I simply want people.

It makes me miserable when close brothers are separated by anything. Why can’t they be their own naked selves? Why can’t longing people embrace each other?

I love myself more than my isms, thoughts, or faiths. And because I love myself so, I long for people. I am not asserting that my way is Love-ism or Compassionate-Thinking-ism! Somehow I just can’t keep myself in a little box of ism, thought or faith.

I must admit I am timid. Because I timid, I can’t endure my loneliness. I want to enjoy everything with people.

I go to the ocean of the great mind.

I go to the mind of the great power.

Once I hated people because they lived a lie; once I saw them as devils. Once I lamented because there was no one who cared about me. But now I long for them, even when they are devils and liars, even when they are evil. I don’t care, I can’t help it-I adore them! They breathe the same life that I do, even though they hate me, cheat me, make me suffer.

I am so filled with a thirst to adore people that there is no room in me for judging whether a person is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, right or wrong. This is not the result of something that I reasoned out, such as that I live by being loved or by loving. Regardless of any ism, thought, or faith, I cannot be separated from people because of that.

My spirit shines with the mind-of-embracing-people. Without reason or discussion, I just want to hug everyone! My missionary work is nothing but a confession of this mind.