Many of the sutras we Japanese usually recite in a temple or at home are based on Chinese translations. Owing to the enormous struggles and efforts by great masters like Hsuan-tsang (玄奘; 三蔵法師), Buddhist sutras were passed from India to China, where the Indian language was translated into the Chinese language of the time, and then imported into Japan without any modification. Thus, we now recite the sutras in the form of the original Chinese translation.
Therefore, even Japanese cannot understand the meaning of the sutras merely by listening to them. There is a Japanese idiom, "It's like listening to a sutra," which means "I cannot understand it at all," rather than "That sounds relaxing!"
Although the sutras are hardly comprehensible when you merely listen to them, their meanings are somewhat understandable to those who can read Chinese characters by visually reading their Chinese renderings. The more you study the sutras, the more you will be aware of their hidden charm.
Now I will explain one of the sutras we usually recite ("OTSUTOME in Jodo-shu").
It is KOGE that comes first(*1) in "OTSUTOME in Jodo-shu."
Gan ga shin jo nyo koro
Gan ga shin nyo chi e ka
Nen nen bon jo kai jo ko
Ku yo ji-ppo san ze bu
I aspire for my body to be as pure as an incense burner.
I aspire for my mind to be like the light of wisdom.
With every thought, I burn this incense of discipline and meditation
to dedicate myself to the past, present, and future buddhas of the ten directions.
In this sutra, the action of burning clean and fresh incense and offering it to buddhas is compared to offering "sila (戒 [Buddhist moral rules])" and "samadhi (定 [a state of deep concentration of the mind])," which are fruits of one's practice, to buddhas.
Incense has been traditionally used for several purposes. It is used for removing offensive odors, for repelling insects, for calming the mind, for attracting the opposite sex, and the like. In Buddhism, incense is mainly used to clean or purify one's body and mind, and to venerate buddhas. Incense that is spread over one's body is called Zuko (塗香 [finely powdered incense for application]), and incense that is burned is called Shoko (焼香 [powdered incense for burning]). Incense sticks, which are widely known and probably most easily available, are one kind of Shoko.
Burning incense of good quality and suited to your taste indeed makes your mind calm and relaxed. If someone asked me to give a succinct outline of Buddhist teachings, I would answer "Buddhist teachings aim to keep your mind calm and help you live your life honestly and fairly." What is meant by keeping one's mind calm is not to retreat alone avoiding troubles, although sometimes this is required. Rather, I would like to say that to address various problem in one's life, it is very important to keep one's mind calm. Contemplating one's inner self or others with a serene mind, exchanging sincere smiles from deep within our hearts, and sharing one's sadness with tears... these will spontaneously soothe away any anger or covetousness.
By burning incense of the same kind every day with a calm mind, your mind will naturally become relaxed by merely sensing the fragrance of the incense.
I recommend you to sit in front of your home altar, burn an incense stick with a calm mind, and feel the gentle spread of fragrant smoke. Offer the fragrance of the incense to Amitabha and the many buddhas and boddhisattvas, and feel the fragrance gently and softly embracing your body and mind. ◈
[Note] (*1) While in the video titled "Jodo Talk 6" which can be found on YouTube, "SAN-BUJO" (Welcoming the Buddhas in Three Verses) is recited first because the video shows an abridged version, "KOGE" should come first in the full version of OTSUTOME.