Nowadays, we see many varieties of incense sticks. Some people burn incense for relaxation or to enjoy the aroma, but there is a meaningful reason to burn incense when we sit in front of a Buddhist altar. Let us talk about the meaning of incense.
Some people are reminded of the aroma of incense when they hear the word "Buddhism". Incense is made from fragrant wood or grass and so generates a nice aroma when it burns. But why do we burn incense in front of a Buddhist altar?
Cleansing ourselves with incense
Amida Buddha, whose Name is displayed in the Buddhist altar, is the greatest buddha of all and the only buddha who will grant us absolute happiness. When we meet someone important, we take great care over our appearance—and in the same way, when at the altar, we use incense to cleanse ourselves and eliminate bodily smells out of courtesy to Amida Buddha.
To see our future with burned ashes
Furthermore, the cooled ashes of the burned incense remind us that we too will someday be cremated and become nothing but white bones. In this way, the incense is also there to make us contemplate impermanence.
Amida Buddha: The original master and original buddha (teacher) of all buddhas
Master Rennyo, who was active in the Muromachi era, wrote in his letter On White Bones that "[the once-familiar form] is taken to an outlying field, and when it has vanished with the midnight smoke, nothing is left but white bones."
Every day we run about desperately trying to get all our worldly tasks done, but the reality is that with each passing moment, we are getting closer and closer to the time when we will be reduced to white ashes (death). Life is over in the blink of an eye—and all that is left after we are cremated is a handful of ashes. We have to leave behind everything we earned and fought for in this life, such as wife, children, and possessions, and enter the afterlife all alone. But when we do journey into the afterlife, where will we go to?
The reason we were born as humans is to resolve this crucial matter of birth-and-death and attain eternal happiness. This is stated as the conclusion of the letter On White Bones in this way:
"We should all immediately take to heart the crucial matter of the afterlife, deeply rely on Amida Buddha and be saved."
Whenever we smell incense, we should reflect deeply on the impermanence of our lives and focus on our crucial matter of the afterlife.
*The Letters: Letters written by Master Rennyo
In Buddhism, incense is used for two reasons: to show courtesy to Amida Buddha and to prompt us to contemplate impermanence.