Incense Box

incense box

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.

incense smoke

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.

incense holder

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.

incense 1

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.

scorched wood

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.

human potentail 1

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.


Buddhist Winter Training and Widor Toccata from 5th Organ Symphony



The Dharma is everywhere. It is impossible to become attached to it because it teems all around us. How can we ever catch it and try to convert it, to reduce it, into human terms? It has to be free, to run free, and we should run with it!

Several million people come together for winter training in January. In Japan, it is the time to deepen your gratitude, your unconditional compassion for all beings, your awareness of the richness of our human existence. We are looking to be further awakened when we change our daily routine to attend special ceremonies and Dharma instruction. We keep in mind our founders who moved away from their ordinary lives to devote themselves to religious life.

Striking images surround us.

water ablutionsThe barrel of water deliberately filled and left outside in the freezing winter until a thick layer of ice develops on top. The aspirants wish to purify, so before dawn, they wake, dress in thin cotton robes, and sit by the side of the barrel. They break the ice and scoop out 100 buckets of freezing water to pour over their heads.

waterfall trainingWaterfall training. Priests walk from their monasteries or temples to isolated waterfalls. They perform a short ritual, chanting various mantras, and then step into the freezing water and move under the strong fall of snowmelt. Holding their palms together in gassho, they remain there, the water purifying them, cutting away worldly ego and making a space for gratitude and humility. Negative energies and karma are washed away, and they step out of the water regenerated, ready to go back into daily life to practice.

Putting on simple black robes sitting at a red lacquered chanting table. Lighting the candle, the thin stick of incense, holding juzu beads in the left hand where they touch the 5 elements at the clairvoyrant Buddhabase of each finger. Sitting for long hours in the seiza posture, the legs folded, knees bent, feet crossed behind, hands pressed lightly together in gassho. Awakening to the warmth inside and the cold outside; the protection of a roof, a soft mat to protect legs, the incredible good fortune to have encountered a wonderful teaching and so to have the opportunity to polish our Buddha nature. To follow the ancients, who have handed on the Dharma in perfect condition from master to pupil for thousands of years. To have the honour to be connected into such a faultless Dharma stream; to have guidance, to learn how to reach higher, purer states until we reach the other shore of Nirvana, and go beyond.

Everything is in place. The instruments of practice are close at hand:

The beads crafted with love, strung together with compassion for others, then blessed by Holy Beings. Each bead a blessing in itself.

Held juzu

The incense packed beautifully in a sacred box, sticks of exact length and thickness, the substance made of a mix of ingredients tested through many hundreds of years to give the thickest and most fragrant smoke. Then the means to light it, convenient, clean and efficient. The time and place to light it, to know when to load the prayers and penetrations, the foci arranged in front of us to simply connect with. So easy, so perfect. The realization that this ritual has nothing to do with intellectual beliefs. It is primitive, provided, and I have been chosen to sit here. There are no questions to ask. Doubts are trinkets manufactured from a curious and distracted intellect, which have no business with the invisible world.

incense smoke

The candle-light. Candles manufactured from the Earth to give light. The magic of fire is remarkable. Combustion making a flame alive in the air. The flame burning brightly from the inert cylinder of yellow bee’s wax. Science can never adequately explain the magical qualities of an ignited flame. The Masters burned candles on their forearms in the height of blistering summer until the wax melted on to their skin to purge their human ego and unite with the invisible world. Again, there is nothing to believe or not believe about this. It is a ritual handed down in tact from Master to Pupil.


Mantras: these are deigned for protection of the mind. No thought or question/answers are required. Their repetition is a signal to the deep conscience, the higher mind, like a hand signal or mantra. The mantra is enunciated into the invisible world, into massive sound banks of the energy of sound which build up resonances and vibrations to keep the material world in balance. The voiceless voices of good altruistic energy. A mantra unites voices and focuses aspiration. It has no business with the intellect. It brings equilibrium like salt and vitamins, light and moisture, virtue and merit.

mantras 2

The Dharma is not limited by man-made concepts like ‘form’ or ‘space’ or ‘time.’ It is ever-present and indestructible. I switch on internet radio and listen to a pipe-organ recital. The mighty church organ intricately built, massive in stature and volume, designed to fill to capacity the vessel of God’s House. The massive cathedrals and basilicas built of stone, vaulted ceilings and domes, arches and screens carved in hardwood, with spires reaching high through the sky towards God, are receptacles for the divers resonances of this instrument.


Charles-Marie Widor’s Toccata from Organ symphony No. 5 (click link to hear)  fills my wide heart. It is the glorious Dharma, indestructible, releasing power beyond the imagination, beyond the small locked room of belief. Belief is the ‘dare-you’ of the intellect! This gigantic glorification of God, of all deities, of all facets of the invisible world, does not ask to be believed in. It’s glory is evidence, if any is needed, of man’s need to reach out into the invisible world of spirit with the greatest diversity of sounds ever possible, beyond barriers and borders, creeds and cults. If we surrender ourselves to this panoply, this tear-jerking array of sounds, allow it to become our environment without conditions or questions or other intellectual paraphernalia, then it becomes the way, and we are the way. This stunning music would not exist without our hearts and minds to catch it. It is for us and of us.

sound 1

It can never be said that we are not surrounded by magic; that our lives are not fused with alchemy and energies of transformation. This music is proof that we are each part of the whole and that this is where we should stay, turning away the beckoning finger of the prosaic one-dimensional intellect. Here we can rest briefly in the supremacy of love, and then carry it around forever after. Like a mantra or the ring of a meditation bell, it is concrete, indestructible and completely unforgettable. Once you have immersed yourself in it, you will never be the same again. All senses can recall it beyond the visible – in the sky, in the ocean, in a delicious taste or irresistible odour, in the eyes of a loved one.

alchemy of sound