I’ve always associated the smell of smoke with my grandfather.
For as long as I can remember, he sat on the old raggedy chair in front of the television, the remote in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The room always smelled of that pungent, yet stale scent of cigarettes, leaving your throat feeling scathed as it crept in through your nose. Once my grandfather lights a cigarette and that familiar smell hit me, I would sprint through a short corridor to a room in the back corner of my grandparent’s house as the scent threatened to catch up to me, and shut the screen door before it invaded that part of the house.
We weren’t especially close. Growing up, I never really defined my feelings towards him as love.
Afterall, I didn’t know the man.
I only visited him about once every year when I stayed at my grandparents house in Japan during the summer. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t respect him. I knew that he had had a lot of experience. That he had raised two children. That he had lived through a difficult time in Japan. That he had served in the navy during World War II. You could see on his wrinkly, veiny arms that he had sustained injuries during his service, in addition to the limp in his walk.
I suppose we could have been closer if it wasn’t for the smoke. It kept me away from him.
There’s just something about that smell that I could never stand. If I see someone smoking on the sidewalk, I’ll sprint past them. If someone’s barbequing, I’ll run past them too. If I’m wearing one of those Japanese surgical masks, I’ll stuff tissues in it to block the smell.
So it’ll be no surprise to say that I’m not a big fan of the incense burning ritual, which is a large part of Japanese culture in honoring the deceased. But it’s not just the smoke that defines my opposition. It’s the belief as well.
Whenever I visit my grandmother’s house in Japan, she leads me to an altar with pictures of Buddha and the deceased members of our family. I break a green stick of incense in half, already dreading what is about to come. I struggle to light each half, and lie them down in a small bowl of ashes. The sweet, yet ashy smell rises, forcing me to breathe through my mouth as I try to somehow block or close my nostrils without being disrespectful. Then my grandmother will ring a small metal bowl with a wooden mallet, which will sound for around 30 seconds, during which we bow towards our ancestors. I think you’re supposed to be praying to Buddha when you bow, but I never do. I just think of it as greeting my ancestors because I don’t want to pray to an idol or partake in a ritual I don’t believe in. And the added smoke to the house just makes it worse.
I do think it’s important to respect your ancestors. But then again, I had no real connection to them. I don’t want to do something that I don’t believe in, let alone something that brings me discomfort. I don’t believe it purifies my spirit. I don’t believe it benefits the spirits of the deceased. And so I don’t believe it has any real connection or significance to myself. Like my grandfather, it only seemed to me like something I should respect, but didn’t see any reason to associate with any further.
You can see this altar in almost any Japanese home as a way of remembering their family members. I guess you could say that many Japanese are Buddhist, or at least practice some kind of Buddhist ritual. But my mother never taught me these values. We don’t even have an altar in our house. In fact, my mother didn’t even know what the purpose of burning incense was until she looked it up. She brought me up to believe in many things. But never rituals.
But I couldn’t avoid it forever. In fact, it was almost fitting when the pungent smell of the smoke from the incense invaded my senses as I sat through the ceremony for the one year anniversary of my grandfather’s death.
Though I don’t want to admit it, I really didn’t like that ceremony. I was constantly repressing the urge to cough or gag. I remember contemplating whether I should run from the temple to breathe in some fresh air. I thought the smoke was trying to kill me, and I couldn’t understand a word the monk was saying.
But it did reminded me of all of those rituals I had done for older ancestors. I realized that he had joined them on that same alter. That the only way I would be able to greet him now would be through that ritual. And as I came to this realization, the smoke began to remind me of my early childhood, of desperately trying to hold my breath as I walked past him. I mean, sure, they weren’t great memories, but they were memories of my family nonetheless. Because with all of those memories, I’ll always remember my grandfather who looked after me to make sure I was safe. Who never got mad at me no matter how many times I badgered him about his smoking habit, even though he probably couldn’t fix it no matter how much he may have wanted to. Who silently loved me even though I never really showed it back.
I still don’t believe in burning incense for my ancestors or for an idol. I still don’t believe in any of these Buddhist practices. And I’ll still avoid it. But when my grandmother asks me to, I don’t just think about it as greeting my ancestors. I’m not just greeting my grandfather. I’m asking him to forgive me for my lack of understanding. I’m asking him to understand that even if we weren’t close, I still love him because he is family. And even though I don’t believe in it, maybe somehow, this act will get him to understand.
I still don’t believe in it. And I probably never will. But I guess that’s just what you do for family.