For some time I had a box of Tibetan incense sticks in the drawer of the small table I normally sit in front of when meditating. I’m sure you have a drawer like this, full of Buddhist paraphernalia – candles, bells, incense, booklets, hairy boiled sweets dropped in there by the kids etc.
Anyway, this particular Tibetan incense was eye watering stuff and I had been avoiding it. I decided it was time for a little outdoor sitting so I could set fire to it and enjoy it’s aroma with plenty of fresh air. After struggling a bit with a lighter to get the whole bunch of incense sticks going I blew out the flames to let it smoulder in the usual way.
It was, to be fair, producing a prodigious and unholy amount of smoke. I stuck it upright into some sand in front of me and started some silent sitting. A gentle breeze was blowing, and as my eyes started to close I became aware that the incense had burst back into flames.
I watched it for a few moments, and bent forward to blow it out – only to find it soon burst into flames again. The collective heat of the sticks had created enough energy to ignite the vapours being given off. I spread the sticks apart a bit to prevent them re-igniting, and tried to clear my mind (my mistake) only to find the same thought popping up again and again.
Before I had this experience I had been listening to a news story about the latest atrocities committed in the name of God by religious extremists.
I kept visualising the incense sticks as angry extremists. The heat within each incense stick was like their prejudice, and the fuming smoke was like their acrid words. It kept making me think of the teaching of the Four Nutriments, first mentioned (I believe) in the Pali Puttamansa Sutta – which in English this means A Son’s Flesh. It is a somewhat grizzly sutra, but is intended to make a very strong point. In essence, you are what you eat, drink, see, hear, touch, smell, taste, think, say and do – and if you do any of these things in a forgetful way, you are more likely to create the conditions for suffering to arise.
When we surround ourselves with people who are prejudiced, for example, then we consume their words and actions. If we have a strong seed of prejudice in us then it will be watered by the others, and will grow into our conscious mind. We become aware of our views and soon find they have transformed into speech. When we are surrounded by prejudiced people like this it is likely that our views become so strong that we will act.
This is like the incense sticks that alone might smoulder and give off smoke, but when wrapped tightly together create enough heat and smoke to burst into flames – action and transformation!
It then reminded me of the importance of Sangha, one of the three refuges of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. In the Sangha we support each other, watering our beneficial seeds and those in others to help create a peaceful community. For most lay practitioners (myself included) practicing alone can often be difficult, and can lead to sporadic meditation or giving up the precepts altogether.
Like the combined heat of the incense sticks, or in this case the combined loving kindness of the Sangha, it helps to nurture our desire to end suffering. Encouraging each other, and offering support we are more likely to transform our ignorance, bringing about transformation and healing.
Why didn’t I originally see the incense sticks as an analogue of Sangha? Perhaps because immediately before meditating my mind was still troubled from the radio broadcast. Or perhaps I still have a lot of prejudice in me. I like to think its not the latter, but then that’s my ego talking, and you know what you should think of anything your ego tells you!