In the time of the Buddha, it was common for both humans and animals to be killed and sacrificed in order 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 emit a smell that was pleasing to the gods.
These acts of devotion were meant to curry favor with the gods, encouraging them to be benevolent toward the individuals who made the sacrifices.
In his wisdom, the Buddha strictly forbade human and animal sacrifices in the Buddhist sangha. He did this for the following reasons:
1. One is only able to reach enlightenment through one’s own efforts; gods cannot intervene on our behalf.
2. There is terrible karma associated with the act of killing; it results in one taking rebirth in hell realms.
3. The act of harming another sentient being further traps us in the illusion of a separate, permanently-abiding self. This makes it harder for us to see through delusion and realize enlightenment.
However, in the face of the ban on human and animal sacrifices, 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 break down the illusion of a separate self, and we are reminded of the interdependence of all living beings. Furthermore, we experience intuitively that all sentient creatures are members of the same buddha-body and we act accordingly.
With this in mind, the Buddha made a compromise by instructing his followers to burn sandalwood as an offering for all sentient beings.
At the time, sandalwood was considered to be a precious material, emitting a very wonderful odor. So the Buddha’s followers burned it as an offering to him as an expression of gratitude for his teachings and as an offering for all of the sentient beings who supported them in their practice.
In the modern era, Buddhists mimic 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 must not be ignored.
Because of the nature of the world and the limits of our human bodies, it is not always possible to know the consequences of our actions. We might attempt to do a good thing to save other beings from suffering, but we may not know if our attempt was successful.
This is especially true when it comes to spiritual practice. As Buddhists, we chant, meditate, study sutras, and prostrate in front of our altars—not only for our own good but also for the good of others.
But it can be challenging to know if the practice is actually working.
In these moments it can be helpful to reflect on what actually happens when we burn incense. Once the incense stick is lit, smoke rises into the air and spreads throughout the room.
Thus, through the act of burning incense we indirectly touch everything around us. More than that, incense tends to have a pleasing aroma that travels along with the smoke. So everything that is touched by incense also adopts its smell.
If we burn sandalwood incense, the world begins to smell like sandalwood. If we burn lavender incense, the world begins to smell like lavender.
We do not need to go around smelling everything in the room to know that this is true, although we can if we wish, because we can use cognitive reasoning to understand this simple truth.
Additionally, we adopt the smell of whatever incense we burn on our altar and we carry it with us throughout the day. At times, 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 what happens when we burn incense. The “aroma” of our training spreads throughout the world, subtly influencing everything with which it comes into contact.
In the same way, we cannot see the smell of the incense, we cannot always see the effects of our training and the ways in which it changes the world for the better.
But if we understand that all actions have consequences, we can deduce through cognitive reasoning that the positive actions we perform in the meditation hall will have positive consequences in the rest of the world.
It can’t be helped in the same way that we can’t help but get the smell of incense on our clothes when we burn it.
Thus, in our darker moments, when we are unsure of the strength or the usefulness of our practice, it can be helpful to think about incense and remind ourselves that the benefits of our Buddhist practice reach far and wide.