Two of the gizmos I have always loved in formatted Zen Buddhist practice are bells and incense. For 40 years, both have left me speechless with a kind of visceral affection. Leaving aside the anal-retentive Zen Buddhist assertions that there is "nothing to attain," bells and incense just warmed me in unacknowledged ways ... sort of like entering a favorite pub where you were bound to find chums and cozy chatter... nothing you could exactly put your finger on, but, well, whatever it was, there it was: Bells and incense.
But in tightened economic straits, I am now at a point where I have to balance ordering more incense against the family budget. Yesterday, when I went out to the zendo to do a little zazen, I realized once more that I had been reduced to using incense that was not the "Gozan" I once ordered from Shoyeido without a backward glance. The company had sent me sample packs of incense in the past, and now I was forced to use those sticks and they simply were not "Gozan." A phone call a couple of weeks ago reminded me that I might want to order more incense (Shoyeido seems to track ordering patterns) and that -- the woman said apologetically -- the price had gone up. I didn't order any, so now I am down to the sampler packs and they are not ... old friends.
In Hinduism, the persuasion that gave lift-off to a formal Buddhism, there are two distinct spiritual paths suggested -- the path of "iti, iti" ("this," "this") and the path of "neti, neti" ('not this," "not this"). From the Hindu perspective, the former suggests viewing life as "this is God, this is God, this is God, etc. ... so what is NOT God?" The latter suggests viewing life as "this is not God, this is not God, this is not God, etc. ... so what IS God?" Buddhism falls into the latter stream, though of course using the word "God" is likely to put the anal retentive into a swivet. Zen Buddhists might be less edgy if the question were phrased as, "What is this?" OK ... pick your poison.
Strange how, despite the fact that "this is not God," still there are gods. Take, for immediate example, "this is not God." Less challenging, perhaps, but creating the same dilemma, is "this is not Gozan."
No more Gozan. Little bit by little bit, things fall away ... no more incense, no more bells, no more temple, no more texts, no more "no more" ... so ... what IS God ... what IS this? What is formal spiritual practice when formal spiritual practice dribbles off the edge of the earth or drops precipitously off some unseen cliff? When the wondrous and wonderful friends depart, what comforting redolence remains undimmed? When the gods of comfort depart ... what remains ahhhhh?
Don't get me wrong: I have no lofty perch and I missed my old friend yesterday. The incense I used in its stead was rich and bright -- sort of like some upscale stockbroker, perfectly coiffed and seemingly sure that the world is his oyster ... bright, brash and relying on income for his raison d'être. It wasn't exactly cheap-shit "vanilla" or "strawberry" or "apple" or (as I once saw in a kiosk in the red light district of New York) "pussy," but still, it wasn't Gozan.
I fired it up because I have pretty much always fired up some incense when I did zazen, but this boisterous replacement put me on edge -- did I really want such a loud-mouth companion in a companionable pub? I sat with this newcomer, but had serious reservations. As it says in The Dhammapada, "If you find no equal or better in life/ Go alone./ Loneliness is preferable to the company of a fool." Peppy and assured stockbrokers or spiritual expositors do not ring my bells.
So perhaps no incense is preferable. No Gozan, no incense. But it's a short step from that to no bells. And no zendo. And no zazen. And, like the antarctic ice shelf, bit by bit, chunks fall away into the sea until there is nothing left to fall.
Of course I can hear the god-creators in my mind, insisting that practice is this and practice is that and that one thing or another remains 'important,' but I have a family budget to consider, and a weakening desire and directedness and ... it is harder to play the anal-retentive game, to build up gossamer walls of goodness.
I miss my old friends, that's all there is to it ... and why should it be any different?