A Tibetan incense box is a beautiful object. Often carved out of rosewood, long and slim with a hinged lid, the comets and crescents, stars and lotuses penetrate deeply so that once the incense is burning inside, the smoke can seep out in fronds and sinuous drifts. The devoted workmanship of Buddhist monks and nuns, a mantra for each tap of the hammer on the chisel head, is often adorned with gold and jewels, or shiny tin.
This carving style especially allows thick purple sticks of temple incense to burn steadily, slowly, without interruption. It is not suitable for the incense rolled on to a stick, which needs to be supported vertically in some kind of holder, Indian style. These sumptuous long Tibetan sticks need long-lighting, and then are laid down along the length of the box, to burn on a bed of ash. The ash accumulates and is said to represent one’s accumulated merit, and one’s level of purification.
When I travel, I cannot use my box because it is unwise to disturb the ash, and it is impractical to try to seal the box up to keep it upright inside luggage. I find myself with you, so I am able to start a new box. It is touching that these boxes have to stay behind and perhaps will be used by the people you leave behind. Nothing is ever fixed in the free flowing Dharma.
It is astounding just how quickly the ash accumulates, lifting the sticks up higher and higher, and how much better they burn on the thicker bed of ash. From time to time, when it becomes full, I have to empty the box into a special urn, but I always leave a shallow layer of ash in the bottom of the box so that I can go on burning incense with alacrity. For a long time now it has represented the integrity of my watchfulness of the flow of life.
When I start to write or read something, it has became automatic to carefully draw out a long stick from the strange thin packaging, then proceed to strike a match and to concentrate all my energy on lighting it. After the flame has flared up for a while, I blow it out but continue to blow gently so that the incense glows hard red, curling out delicious smoke when I stop.
As I pack and plan to leave for an indeterminate length of time, I wonder whether I should try to take my box with some ash in so that I can immediately start to burn when I arrive. But my experience tells me that no matter how carefully you tape up the box and lay it flat, or wrap it in layers and layers of foil, when you arrive at your destination, the ash will have disappeared. Such is the nature of merit. There are no special dispensations or carrying forwards.
Starting a new box is difficult. It must be watched carefully. The thinnest trace of soft ash must be consolidated to make a bed to hold up the stick so that the glowing red end is supported. It goes out quickly if it extends beyond the snails trace of ash, or if the tiny support flattens out due to the weight of the stick. Then, it must be lit again and again making a practice in itself. The fragrant smoke may swell up for only a matter of seconds, and then disappear because it has gone out. The holy stick is subject to the invisible winds from the 10 worlds, just as we are.
It is easy to see that to make a wholesome bed of ash requires a great deal of time and width of being, so this is truly an act of patience. If it is done with care and positive energy, it is a wonderful practice. But inevitably, there are scorch marks on the bottom of the box representing the imperfections of our human form, showing the blocking of the ever-flickering awareness of the Great Truth. They serve to remind us to feel remorse, and they are a signal that we are not yet perfect.
The period of burning is like a universal concentration. It is joyful and even though we know that it will be short-lived, it is so worthwhile. In fact, it is a total investment in here and now. We look down smilingly into the box through one of the ornate holes to see a red glow, but then suddenly the smell of the wood of the box scorching like a bonfire, wakes us up from our complacency, our attachment to warmth and glow.
Each time I rise to check the box, I think of our love. I tend it. I ignite it and let its beautiful fragrance out through lotus petals or moons or comets. I believe in it totally, but then whilst I blink, it goes out leaving scorch marks. I light it again from the ever-burning candle patiently, concentrating on our love, and the delightful swirl of smoke rises almost as an apparition.
And so, this process will go on for many hours and days until finally there is a considerable bed of ash, and the thin crimson cylinders burn on and on without effort. This is a dedication to our love, but it is also a purification of your anger, a thinning of the thickened doors to your heart, a soothing of the pain that you mistakenly blame on me for leaving you.
We must own our own pain, our own anger, just as we must work on establishing a bed of ash for the stick of incense we light for others. We must nurture and accept, receiving teaching from life, and from those teachers we have attracted to us in order to help. We can all receive, and so strip away bitter skin and decayed leaves from ourselves to reveal our eternal light, and I would love nothing better than for you to step away from your rage and insecurity, from your bitterness and resentment, and burn fully on a deep bed of ash.