Monday, December 13, 2010

Incense and Impermanence

These last few weeks have been quite the eye-opening experience for me, as anyone who’s been in my company or been following my Facebook is well aware. Not only am I getting re-involved in Buddhist practice in a big way, but my perception is also (ever-so-subtly) changing… Thank goodness for that! Before you read further, I would like to be explicit that, as a simple human being who has only within the last few years come in contact with the Dharma, I still have the same Samsaric mind. My dear friend Aksel said it best on his recent blog entry:

I have absolutely no meaningful experiential understanding of Dharma, primarily due to never really bothering with meditation due to laziness. Similarly my intellectual understanding is severely limited to a bit of academic study. As such I really need to turn my mind to Dharma and have therefore written this to remind myself of this[…]”

My understanding of the teachings is limited, so please don’t just take my word on it. Rather, I encourage you, dear reader, to investigate the path yourself (preferably with the guidance of an authentic spiritual teacher). With that disclaimer clear and up front, let us continue.

Today i’d like to share a lesson which I just learned from what seems the most unlikely of teachers: my incense.

Now, i know what many of you must be thinking. Incense as teacher? Surely he’s taking this Buddhism thing a bit far. How can you learn from a smelling stick? Let me explain.

Amongst the various rituals performed by Tibetan Buddhists (and, indeed, Buddhists and even Asians in general) is the lighting of incense. Often this is done as an offering to the Three Jewels (the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), to which one goes for refuge in the ceremony which marks your entry to the path. In this case, the incense was being used during a part of my preliminary practices (ngondro) yesterday. Incense offering is included in the opening prayers of the Nam Cho ngondro, and goes like this in English:

This pure, supreme incense, which bears the scent of pure discipline by the blessing of mantra, mudra, and samadhi, is offered to the realm of the Buddhas. May this fragrant incense completely please and satisfy the ocean-like assembly of Buddhas!

In attempting to establish a more regular and concrete meditative practice, yesterday was an attempt to do the ngondro prostration and recitation. Outside worked for a while, but eventually it simply became to windy. Amongst other things, when i found myself trying to offer the incense, my lighter simply couldn’t keep lit in order to perform the ritual. So eventually back to the shelter of the apartment i went, steadfast in my resolve to continue. No mere gusts would make me give up.

The first stick burned through completely, and it was only after an interesting conversation with my younger brother on how relaxed the scent made him that i decided to light another.

This time, however, the incense did not totally disintegrate after being burned. i do not know why this was the case, but for some reason the wick was especially durable. The incense remained in its holder, with several chunks all strung together and quite a bit of frayed string noticeable at the burnt end.

Seeing this, it occurred to me that up until that very moment, i’d been ignorant to the composition of incense sticks, simply assuming that a stick ran through the entirety and not ever giving it a second thought. Now i knew better. Incense is much like a candle: it can be composed of any number of substances (which causes the myriad types of fragrances to be emitted), and a wick runs throughout. This brings me to the heart of the matter, and where the lesson is learned.

For anyone familiar with Buddhist teachings, the analogy of a candle is often used to illustrate many different aspects of the dharma. For the sake of simplicity, imagine you walk into a candlelit room. Analyze the candle’s composite parts: the wax, the wick, and the flame.

Candles are, as with any compounded phenomena, made up of a series of aggregates; a collection of causes and conditions (karma) coming together which appear to be a single thing that we give the label of “candle.” This appearance, however, is an illusion, as is easily discoverable upon analysis. No single part has the inherent qualities of a candle, and thus it is said to have no inherent existence.

While the candle is there — we can see its light, feel the warmth it gives off, and interact with it in various other ways — the candle is a concept projected onto a pile of smaller pieces which went through various conditions to be recognized as such. The wax had to come from some source, as did the string for the wick; the actions of someone(s) or something(s) crafted the parts into its current form, and one probably has to buy it at the store where it was shipped to. A single change in any part of this process would result in a different candle, and indeed not even mass-produced ones are 100% alike. Candles come in all different shapes, sizes, colors, and even fragrances, as do the different types of beings, and these differences in outer appearance do not make one a candle and another not.

Returning to the picture of the candle in your mind’s eye, the metaphor is explained in this way. This life is like the flame you currently see on the exposed portion of the wick. Seeing and being aware of it in the room for the first time, you cannot know exactly what the candle looked like when it was first lit, but the evidence that it has already been burning is the exposed portion of wick that is currently aflame and the melted wax you find — just as your previous lives have already melted away. It is the flame that draws your attention.

However, upon contemplation of the flame, is it actually the same flame throughout the life of the candle? No. The flame is constantly renewed by the continuous burning of the wick (representing consciousness)… It is always changing, always a new flame from moment to moment, as are you. The wax prevents this process from happening all at once by keeping the rest of the wick hidden from the flame, just as our future lives are hidden from us.

Now expand this visualization. If you are like the flame of a candle, how many other flames are there? At least 6 billion humans, and many billions more for all the many different animals… And that’s just life here on planet Earth. If the flame is not put out — for nirvana, quite literally, means a “blowing out” — you can be quite confident that the candle will continue to burn, whether you are mindful of it or not. We’re tempting fate and a great conflagration, even as you read this.

At very least, we should seek to share and use this flame in a productive manner to benefit others, dispelling the darkness of ignorance and shedding light on the true nature of reality… That is, until all sentient beings realize the enlightened state, and all the candles go out.

Any mistakes and faults above are entirely mine. Whatever small merit may have arisen I dedicate to all sentient beings without exclusion, particularly those involved in extremely negative activities and who lack compassion. Sarva Mangalam!