The practice of offering incense also has a neat little backstory. The way I heard it was that in the Buddha’s day, it was common practice to sacrifice animals to the Hindu gods and then burn their bodies on a pyre. The Buddha thought ritual animal sacrifice was cruel and needless. So instead of burning the bodies of animals, his followers burned scented wood. Pretty soon scented logs and branches gave way to smaller and smaller pieces, and eventually incense as we know it came to be.
Although the Buddha rejected being called divine during his lifetime, after he died he began to be worshipped by some as almost a god. After a few hundred years of this, some people started saying we should try to recover what Buddhism originally was all about, which was meditation. This back-to-meditation movement that probably began in northern India, but it really took off when Buddhism started to be practiced in China. The Chinese word for meditation is chan, which is their mispronunciation of the Sanskrit word dhyana, which also means “meditation.” This movement made its way through a number of other Asian countries, including Japan. In Japan, they mispronounced the Chinese word chan as “zen.” The movement later reached the West in the twentieth century, mainly through Japanese teachers, which is why we call it Zen over here.
Legend has it that the very first sermon the Buddha gave after his experience of enlightenment was about the Four Noble Truths. If you take a comparative religions course, they’ll tell you that the Buddha’s first words to his first students in his first-ever talk about his philosophy of life was, “All life is suffering. The cause of suffering is desire. By eliminating desire, you eliminate suffering. The best way to eliminate desire is to follow the Eightfold Path.” The eight folds of the path are right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Nishijima Roshi hated that interpretation of the Four Noble Truths, by the way. In a pamphlet called “The Buddhist Precepts” which you can find online if you have internet access wherever you are - he wrote, “If all things and events in this world are suffering, then Buddhism can be at best a dogmatic and pessimistic ba religion. If all suffering results from human desire, then Buddhism can be no more than asceticism. If the idea of destroying all our desires was a Buddhist idea, then Buddhism must be a religion which advocates he what is impossible; for it is utterly impossible for us to destroy our desires. Desire is the basis of our human existence itself.” He presented a different interpretation of the Four Noble Truths. He said it’s better to think of them as the Truth of Idealism, the Truth of Materialism, the Truth of Action, and the Truth of Reality.