About a week ago, I got a call from the company where I have purchased incense for a number of years. The woman was obviously looking to drum up a little business and, since I was running low, I ordered some. It came today.
I didn't order as much as in the past -- four boxes instead of eight. It is good incense, but it's also a bit pricey. When I gave three sticks of it to my teacher long ago and asked to be his student, he took the sticks and sniffed them and then said, "Good incense" ... and that was that
Somehow that square, neatly-taped box on the porch reminded me of a fellow Zen student who was once giving a small talk at the zendo we both attended. She was talking about focusing on the breath and the sharpness of that focus. "You have to realize that this exhalation is the last time you will exhale it. In the same way, the day will come when this exhalation is indeed the last ever. This is the kind of focus you want to bring to bear."
But which of us is strong enough for that? Breathing is so ordinary and there are so many other things to do in life. Everything else we do requires this breath, but this breath itself seldom gets the kudos or the focus it deserves. Not that we need to threaten ourselves with the death each of us will die (go sit in a graveyard or imagine your body being eaten by worms), but the breath is such a wonder; it fits so perfectly; it carries us all without complaint.
So maybe this is that last box of incense I will ever order or see. Maybe one of those sticks will be the last I ever light. Maybe this exhalation will be not just the last of itself, but the last of all.
It is nice to smell the incense with such a fine companion as the breath.