396. A Stick of Incense

The Dojo is full of symbols;  explicit ones like the Buddha or the flowers on the altar and implicit ones: sitting facing the wall in a replication of Bodhidharma, the path we take around the room, and so on.

If we understand symbols as simply being a concrete code for an explicit meaning, the symbol is a dead symbol and is useless. If we take the flowers on the altar as a symbol of impermanence, or we take the Buddha statue as a symbol of wisdom and compassion, that can’t do anything.

The purpose of a symbol is not to convey meaning in a concrete form, but to create a shift in feeling.

And that shift can only happen if the symbol is open.

It’s as if it is an incomplete house which you can enter and change, extend and reconfigure. The symbol is something which is both already, intensely there and which you can actively engage with.

If the house is complete and the symbol is simply a closed meaning then the house is inaccessible. Not to your mind obviously, which is delighted with the free house, but to your heart. If you’re inside the house, the house is a prison.

Our responsibility as practitioners is to engage with both the symbols in the dojo and the symbols in our everyday life in an open way, where each changes the other. 

For example, the stick of incense that we light at the start of the sitting period;  it lasts for approximately the length of a sitting. You might think that it represents passing time, and so is similar to the altar flowers, which represent impermanence.

I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. 

When the incense is burning in the bowl of ash, both in its fragrance and in its smoke, it is penetrating the whole room. What it’s expressing is vital and essential and is connected with everything—the whole universe is flooding through. And what appears to remain afterwards is the stump of that incense which is embedded in the ash. But that isn’t so: that ash comes from all the incense burned before. What holds the present moment is the complete expression of all past moments.

When we’re sitting, the obvious temptation is for us to focus on those little stumps that are left in the mind bowl. But there is an opposite, heroic trap:  because the incense has expressed itself to exhaustion, we might think this wholehearted activity is an admonition to us to do likewise. But the ego can’t burn itself, because you can’t burn a ghost.

Those stumps of ego: thoughts, frozen emotions, recurrent imagery or memory and so on that we often experience as restrictions to our sitting: it’s that sense of restriction which is the delusion: those stumps are buried within the ground of all being. We should not wish them into nothingness.