Incense has a long history – too long to recount in it’s entirety here. It has been used in the Temple of Jerusalem and by the Egyptians in the Near East and has been part of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan culture in particular, for centuries.
Here I’ll share my view of incense from a contemplative perspective as this is how I encountered it and is also how I view it.
Traditionally incense is burnt as an offering to a shrine, as part of a whole way of enhancing life in general.
Shrines are used in human culture to give us a physical reminder of some principle of life we choose to uphold as a priority.
We make them to remind us of the bigger perspectives to be found in the midst of the hum drum.
Shrines are usually a point of focus, like the axis of a wheel around which we move, they're often in the central position of a room.
We make them because we understand how easy it is to forget the non physical and less visible dimensions of life.
When building shrines, we make a concrete reminder of the glimpses we may have had of some greater perspective.
Usually three things that are offered to a shrine in the Buddhist tradition I know best and they are flowers candles and incense.
It is interesting to take a moment to consider why that might be.
Candles when not lit are appear to be an inert material just like any other common object.
When they are lit though something magical happens.
That inert lump starts to radiate light in a magnetising way that lifts the atmosphere of any room.
We are in fact witnessing the transition of something solid transform into light in the form of a fire that is both controlled but intense.
This is serves as a symbol of the potential in us to transform our own seemingly earth bound existence into the luminosity of mind found in what we might call spirit.
And as the body of the candle disappears the light is dispersed into the infinity of space just as our own physical bodies can become transparent to the immeasurable expanse of consciousness itself. What in Buddhism we call the liberation of the mind.
Another inspiring quality of a candle is the way it can as a singular and tiny point of light illuminate a very large space and enable both us and others to see, even in the face of an overwhelming darkness. In fact the greater the darkness the greater the impact of a small point of light.
This points to a mysterious yet profound truth that in cultivating the light of awareness in our own life we also help others by doing so.
Flowers represent the fleeting beauty of things and how the truth of impermanence and the cycles of life flow.
There is implicit in the observation of flowers a recognition that they're both there and not there. They come they go they die and they reappear again.
This is an illustration of the abundance and exuberance of the field of unborn potential that is at the heart of the human soul.
Flowers remind us in their fading that beauty dies in it’s particularity but not in it’s universality because there are always more. They both die and never die.
Incense then is the final offering. Made up of many resins and oils gathered from materials of the earth.
Incense sticks are in a sense ripe with unrealised and bound in potential.
When lit there is a process of remarkable transformation that occurs.
They start to gradually burn away to nothing but as they do the materials of the earth are liberated and their potential is released from the hold of an apparently earthbound nature.
A magical perfume and scent of great beauty starts to pervade the space that touches upon and avails itself to all present without discrimination.
It reminds us of the contemplative part of life and the heat and burning of our spiritual practice.
The Incense gives inspirational meaning to the difficulties we face when we encounter the claustrophobia of bound in, trapped feelings we all share in.
The message of incense is the message of release.
When we face these seemingly impossible obstructions in our lives with awareness our physical body itself is filled with that light.
We experience increasing enrichment as the impression of myself being bound into the bodies interior no longer holds.
Incense becomes a symbol for when the impression of me as the point upon which difficulties in life converge fades.
The bliss of mind that appears when self centred habits of thinking fade into what I call a "centre-less centre".
And it is similar in it's effect as the perfume we find in the incense that also shares itself as it transforms from a stick into a more "liberated state".
In a way the "smoke', like awareness itself. expands and diffuses through time and space to touch all things with the beauty found in the invisible aspect of our nature.
This is how I consider it.