On the altar there are usually three objects: a statue of manjushri, some flowers and a stick of incense in an incense bowl. The stick of incense is held in place by the ash of previous burnt incense sticks, and their little stumps lie there too.
Manjushri is on the altar with his sword to cut the delusion of separation, using his sword to cut everything into one. The flowers and the incense are both concerned with impermanence, but in slightly different ways.
With the flowers, we think of Dogen’s expression ‘the flowers of emptiness’, so it’s obvious that the flowers are beautiful and transient. The flowers on the altar now will just last a few days more. Further, flowers, additional to representing beauty and dignity and transience are symbolic of karma. Zen teachers talk of flowers and fruit as a poetic way of talking about cause and effect.
The incense is more personal to this person. In our group, the incense stocks are sandalwood. Each one is representative of the practitioner, practicing now. The stick of incense will exhaust itself completely in its practice. The uprightness of the practitioner, the uprightness of the incense, enables the integrity and space of the present moment to be upheld, so that it does not collapse into nothingness. The body of the stick’s effort, its smoke and fragrance, permeates everywhere. Its ashes are the foundation for future uprightness, for the time being of future practitioners, both this being and all beings.
At the end of your life there is not just this stump of memory.
Although you look everywhere to find your true body you cannot find it.
Not because it is nowhere, but because it is everywhere.