During the Buddha's time, it was common for humans and animals to be killed and sacrificed to please the gods.
Their bodies would be placed on an altar and burned, the idea being that as the bodies burned, the smoke would rise to the heavens and give off an odor pleasing to the gods.
These acts of devotion were intended to gain the favor of the gods, encouraging them to be kind to the individuals performing the sacrifices.
In his wisdom, the Buddha strictly prohibited human and animal sacrifices in the Buddhist sangha. He did so for the following reasons:
1. One can only achieve enlightenment through one's own efforts; the gods cannot intervene on our behalf.
2. There is terrible karma associated with the act of killing; this results in a person being reborn in the realms of hell.
3. The act of harming another sentient being further traps us in the illusion of a separate, permanent self. This makes it more difficult for us to see beyond the illusion and achieve enlightenment.
However, in the face of the ban on human and animal sacrifice, practitioners still needed a way to engage in devotional practices. Devotional practices are important in Buddhism because when we engage in an act of kindness toward another individual, we build a relationship with them.
By building this relationship, we shatter the illusion of a separate self and are reminded of the interconnectedness of all living things. Furthermore, we intuitively experience that all sentient creatures are members of the same Buddha body and we act accordingly.
It was with this in mind that the Buddha compromised by ordering his disciples to burn sandalwood as an offering for all sentient beings.
At the time, sandalwood was considered a precious material, giving off a very pleasant smell. The Buddha's disciples therefore burned it as an offering to him, as an expression of gratitude for his teachings, and as an offering for all sentient beings who supported them in their practice.
In the modern era, Buddhists imitate this ancient practice by burning incense on their altars. This act of devotion is an important part of our training for the reasons listed above. However, there is also a deeper lesson that should not be ignored.
Due to the nature of the world and the limitations of our human body, it is not always possible to know the consequences of our actions. We may attempt to do a good thing to save other beings from suffering, but we may not know whether our attempt was successful.
This is especially true when it comes to spiritual practice. As Buddhists, we chant, meditate, study the sutras, and prostrate at our altars, not only for our own benefit but also for the benefit of others.
But it can be difficult to know if this practice actually works.
At times like these, it can be helpful to think about what is really happening when we burn incense. Once the incense stick is lit, the smoke rises into the air and spreads throughout the room.
So, by burning incense, we indirectly touch everything around us. Additionally, incense tends to have a pleasant aroma that spreads with the smoke. So everything that is touched by the incense also adopts its smell.
If we burn sandalwood incense, the world begins to smell of sandalwood. If we burn lavender incense, the world begins to smell of lavender.
We don't need to sense everything that's happening in the room to know that this is true, although we can if we want to, because we can use cognitive reasoning to understand this simple truth.
Additionally, we embrace the scent of the incense we burn on our altar and carry it with us throughout the day. Sometimes our family and friends can literally smell the Dharma on us!
When we engage in any of the traditional Buddhist practices, the effect is similar to that which occurs when we burn incense. The “aroma” of our formation spreads throughout the world, subtly influencing everything it comes into contact with.
In the same way we cannot see the smell of incense, we cannot always see the effects of our training and how it is changing the world for the better.
But if we understand that all actions have consequences, we can infer through cognitive reasoning that the positive actions we perform in the meditation room will have positive consequences in the rest of the world.
There's nothing we can do about it, just as we can't help smelling incense on our clothes when we burn them.
So in our darkest moments, when we are unsure of the strength or usefulness of our practice, it can be helpful to think about incense and remind ourselves that the benefits of our Buddhist practice have a considerable scope.