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May 17, 2020 4 min read

In the book of The Teachings of Buddha by Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, there was an interesting story.

"Once there was a man who was burning incense. He noticed that the fragrance was neither coming nor going; it neither appeared nor disappeared. This trifle incident led him to gain enlightenment."

I have tried to find an answer to this explanation, but currently, I could not find any, at least on the Internet.

I also believe there are different ways to explain the meaning of this short story.

Although I might be wrong, I decided to give this ago, explain the meaning of the above italic paragraph.

So here we go

There are many ingredients in incense making. And agarwood is one of them, so I would like to use agarwood as an example in this story.

The Aquilaria tree is an evergreen tree. So just like any trees, it uses sunlight to photosynthesise. It absorbs carbon dioxide and water to convert them into organic molecules and oxygen.

The root of the tree absorbs water and nutrition for it to grow. When the tree grows, its body grows. When its body grows, there is more wood. 

And when the tree reaches maturity, farmers drilled holes into the woods. The energy from the drill transfer to the wood and damages it. When this happened, the tree reacts by secreting its resin to heal and protect the tree. This resin is agarwood. 

Before we continue, let's look at a lesson we all learnt from high school.

Although I  skipped some classes, I did attend some of my chemistry and physic ones. I remembered a lesson about the law of conservation of energy.

"Energy can neither be created nor destroyed - only converted from one form of energy to another".

You see

To produce wood or to grow, the tree needs to use take in some energies:   sunlight, carbon dioxide, and nutrition from the fertiliser.

Through photosynthesis, some of these energies turn into Oxygen, while some stored in the wood. In further steps, as explained above, to protect its body against the disease, the tree secrets its resin, this is a form of energy

Incense makers then make incense out of this wood and the man in this story buy these incenses.

When he lit this incense, in the presence of oxygen, it burned and released the heat energy and carbon dioxide. It completed the cycle.

Let's get back to the puzzle.

"He noticed that the fragrance was neither coming nor going; it neither appeared nor disappeared."

The fragrance was part of the incense. When heating the incense, technically you were heating the wood. Inside this wood, there was agarwood resin. And the resin was an ingredient of this incense the whole time. So it made sense to me when he said: "the fragrance was neither coming nor going".

"It neither appeared not disappeared".

The fragrance is present in the form the incense. It is always there. When the incense burnt entirely, the energy converts fragrance into heat and carbon dioxide. 

I might be wrong, but this is my attempt to explain it.

In this book, the author did not explain the meaning of the fragrance was neither appeared or disappeared directly, but when you read the book, you would find the answer. Here are some  paragraphs that are worth to give some thoughts

"When the moon sets, people say that the moon has disappeared; and
when the moon rises, they say that the moon has appeared. In fact, the moon
neither goes nor comes, but shines continually in the sky." 

"People call one phase of the moon a full moon, they call another phase a
crescent moon; in reality, the moon is always perfectly round, neither waxing nor

You may say this story was in a book. What about the real-life experience?

So allow me to share with you a personal story.

Where did my scotch go?

I don't drink regularly but once in a while. Several years ago, on Christmas, my colleague gifted me a bottle of scotch (whiskey). I took only half a shot  (15ml in circa) and left it there forgotten.

When doing a spring clean, I could see a small layer of dust gathering on the cap.

After dusting, I noticed the whiskey was somewhat missing. I knew that because no-one touched the bottle for a long time. 

"Why did it disappear?"

Whiskey is alcohol; I thought it might just evaporate because the bottle cap might not be airtight enough.

Now, I asked myself this question: "Where did it go?".

I was curious.

One thing I know for water when I boiled it in a kettle, it became steam. The water became vapour and dissipated in the air. I could feel the humidity of the air around the kettle.

When  I opened the window, the water escaped. It might go up to the sky and come back later as rain. 

So the water did not appear or disappear, it transformed from liquid to gas (steam) and back to liquid again. My high school teacher also said the amount of water (in mass) in the earth remains constant. 

What about the scotch?

This was my alcohol because someone gifted it to me.

But an unknown third party took some from me without my permission.

So I investigated.

I realised that the culprit was the scotch itself. It wanted to escape.

How did "he" do it?

"He" evaporated and escaped through the not-so-airtight cap.


Once "he" is out. Oxygen will get "him" and turn him into aldehydes or carboxylic acids.

From Aldehydes and Carboxylic acids, people can convert them back to alcohol. So technically, the scotch does not appear or disappear; it has transformed from liquid to gas. And the process could be reversed given you have the right setup and the right equipment.

So this is what I realised after burning an incense.

Although I have not yet reached enlightenment, I definitely learnt something from the book.

Do you agree or disagree with my explanation? Again I could be wrong but I tried.

By the way, would you like to have a similar experience like the man in this story? 

How about burning some incense to find out?

Click here to see "Awareness incense".

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