Many have asked: what does burning incense mean? What does anything we do as human beings "mean"? In a sense, everything we do is a ritual. Ritual is an important part of living, even small rituals that may seem inconsequential. The insignificance of offering a stick of incense is key. It doesn't move you any closer to stated goals. It doesn't seem to address your current concerns, whether they are about personal relationships or world hunger. Yet, offering -- without expectation of something in return for your gesture -- is training in generosity, the act of letting go.
2. Spark appreciation
It takes time to find incense that appeals to you.
Japanese varieties can be delicate and floral. Tibetan incense evokes a warm, earthy quality. There are many subtle differences and endless varieties. But you will offer incense that pleases you. What do you like? Do you know? Another way of putting this is: what makes you happy? By enjoying incense in the context of meditation practice, you set a positive tone for your session. Practice is about appealing to the part of you that is able to relax, slow down and appreciate. Cultivating appreciation is the ground of discipline.
3. Connect to the elements
Incense has to be lit. It requires fire to ignite and oxygen to burn. We need oxygen to breath and fire to live. It is a truism to say that to survive, we need a relationship to our world, our elemental world, the world of our senses. By striking a match, lighting and sensing a stick of incense, you have reignited a relationship with the world that sustains you.
4. Come back
When you sit down to practice, the smoke from your incense joins you. Some even select the length of their incense stick to time their practice session. You may be lost in thought when, suddenly, you are brought back to the moment by the scent from a plume of incense wafting by. At this moment, you can recall the intention to practice that prompted you at the time you offered the incense and gently return to your discipline.
5. Learn a lesson
The incense stick begins at a full length and then grows shorter as it burns. There is no way to repair or retrieve a stick that has burnt. At first the scent is strong, soon the stick is gone and the scent will be faint. Sometimes the ash sits on top of the stick, like a memory of past glories, before toppling off into the incense bowl. The smoke may rise slowly like white ink from the stroke of an invisible brush or may disperse, fanned by hidden currents of air. All experience is fleeting -- like the smoke from a stick of incense. This is a true lesson.
To offer incense, you need incense, matches,
a bowl. Sand in the bowl means the incense stick will stay standing. You need to think about this before your practice session. To practice, you need time, a place, and intention. You have to work to gather what you need for practice. You have to plan and organize your life so you can sustain a practice. Your time and your space have value. They are the very commodities of existence and essential resources for practice. Always in short supply, they can be squandered or not. Prepare well and your practice will go well.
7. Join heaven and earth
Smoke moves in space. Space extends everywhere. When you light incense you can invoke space. You can do this by letting the smoke go where it wants. Who would try to tell smoke where to go? At the same time, space is a reminder of earth. Eventually, after enjoying the space of heaven, smoke will settle into dust and land on earth. We can't forget to enjoy the space of heaven in our practice. Practice takes effort –fire—but it can be lighthearted. It doesn't have to be so serious. It is natural to enjoy space. It is natural to settle on the earth.