A traditional incense ceremony is calming, centering the one
preparing the incense and the guests. It is performed with the
same heart-centered mindfulness as a tea ceremony. Like tea, it
also utilizes our senses to awaken the spirit and calm the mind;
and also like tea, it restores a feeling of connection with Nature.
In this article, we'll take a photographic journey through an incense
ceremony that will hopefully make you feel like you were
there, at least until you can come visit us at the Center!
Far Eastern people have been
conducting incense ceremonies
since at least the Tang Dynasty
(618 - 907 C.E.). In the courts of China
and Japan, nobles would smell various
kinds of incense in spiritual, austere
settings as well as more jovial gatherings, often incorporating games based
on guessing which kind of incense was
being burned or composing poems
about the various fragrances. These
ceremonies were akin to tea ceremonies, in that they demanded presence,
attention to detail, focus on the senses
and alluded to Daoist and Zen ideals.
In Japan, the incense ceremony
is called the Way of Incense (Kodo,
香道). The incense ceremony, like
other arts including tea ceremony
(chanoyu), became a way to share the
Zen-mind. According to Japanese
myths, Aloeswood was first discovered in Japan when a log of it drifted
ashore from Vietnam. The sacred log
was quickly brought to court and
offered to the emperor. Later, the Way
of Incense was used by Zen monks,
alone and to greet lay guests. It also
became popular amongst courtiers
and the samurai, who sometimes
would have an incense ceremony and/
or tea before facing death in battle.
In the 16th century, a beautiful poem
listing the benefits of the incense ceremony was popularized (Far-Eastern
poetry is replete with lists), though
the author remains anonymous.
We often incorporate traditional
incense ceremony into our weekly
whisked tea ceremonies (chanoyu) here
at the Center. We find that the same
focus, mindfulness and sacred energy
are present in an incense ceremony
as are for tea. The Aloeswood calms
the mind and purifies the body and
spirit, preparing you for the tea that
follows. Also, the incense ceremony
becomes an offering to Tea herself, to
the occasion and to our higher selves
(Buddha). They are both based on a
return to our hearts and a mindfulness
While the traditional Japanese and
Chinese incense ceremonies included
many kinds of fragrant woods, like
sandalwood and others, we almost
always use Aloeswood as it has such a
positive relationship to Tea.
We thought it would be worthwhile to introduce the utensils and
steps in a traditional incense ceremony, should you like to conduct one
before your tea. Of course, there are
many different ways to enjoy incense.
You can burn a stick or coil (like this
month's gift), or lay powdered incense
in a trail within a censer. Here, we
will demonstrate the more traditional way. Roasting the Aloeswood
itself will always produce the best fragrance. Burning destroys the oils
quickly and diminishes many of the
more subtle notes in fine Aloeswood.
By roasting with charcoal, one slowly
evaporates the oils from the wood,
releasing the fragrance slowly and
with a much more full-bodied aroma.
Afterwards, we will also show you
how to make a patterned "stamp" of
Like tea, an incense ceremony
awakens all the senses, filling us with
the world. When our senses meet
something beyond just pleasure -
something that fulfills and harmonizes
them - there is always the potential
for transcendence if we let go. If we
constrict, on the other hand, we may
step back and enjoy the pleasure, creating attachment. We should be as the
incense: formless and full. Using photography and some descriptions we
hope to not only share how a traditional incense ceremony is performed,
but also inspire you to the same transcendence open to the guests at such
a ceremony. Maybe these pages will
have a fragrance all their own.
Let's start with an exploration of
all the utensils used in a traditional
incense ceremony, before moving on
to the steps themselves.
Sharpens the senses
Purifies you, body and soul
Awakens the spirit
Brings peace to unsettled times
Is never unpleasant, even in extravagance
A tiny amount is sufficient
Lasts for a very long time
There is no one it isn't good for
Create a decorative space to enjoy your
incense ceremony, honoring your guests and the
occasion, much like arranging a chaxi. Start
with some deep breaths, calming the mind. Like
tea, the heart of the one preparing the incense
will matter more than which utensils are used or
even the quality of the Aloeswood itself.
Light the charcoal on the
lighting dish. Most Japanese
charcoal for incense ceremony
is self-lighting, so you just need
to start it and it will get burning on its own in a short time.
Antique lighting dishes have
criss-crossed metal wires to hold
the charcoal above the plate. At
the Center, we often use traditional charcoal from the dragon
eye tree (龍眼), and use other
charcoal (usually left over from
tea) to start the piece for incense
ceremony. This is, of course, better than using a lighter, but we
wanted to show you the most
popular and convenient method.
Use the chopsticks to fluff the rice-paper ash, which increases oxygen
flow. (It also reduced humidity in our
case, since Taiwan has a very wet atmosphere.)
Make a hole in the center of the ash and grab the lit charcoal with the
chopsticks, gently placing it into the
hole, covering it over after you place it properly. You have to make sure
that the charcoal is thoroughly lit and
only then cover it in ash.
Round the ash into a rough mound using the chopsticks and ash fan. Then
flatten it using the ash flattener and
Shape the ash. Using the ash fan, ash flattener, spatula and a
chopstick, you can decorate the ash, keeping it
in a pyramid or cone shape all the while. You can draw any pattern you
like, celebrating the occasion (again, like
arranging a chaxi for tea).
Clean off the censer with the feather brush.
With a chopstick, twirl a small
hole from the top of the cone of ash
down to the burning charcoal, so
that the heat can rise up through
the hole like a small volcano.
Use the tweezers to place a mica sheet gently on the hole, careful not
to knock ash down into the hole and
dampen the heat.
Carefully carve a rice-grain-sized sliver of Aloeswood off and use the
incense spoon to place it in the center of
the mica sheet. (You can also use incense powder here.)
Place the lid on the censer, if you have one, and pass it around.
Holding the censer with two hands (much
like a tea bowl), keep it around 10cm (5 inches) below your nose. Cover the
front with your off-hand. Inhale,
slow and deep, taking the Aloeswood into your toes, and beyond to the
spirit. Lower the whole censer to your
mid-chest to exhale so you don't blow the ash or incense around. Pass the
incense around several times in
silence, letting Nature's glory fill your senses!
In a flatter, wider, more open censer; flatten the ash using the ash
flattener. Compress it so that it is hard and
flat. Clean off the censer with the feather brush.
Place the incense mold down onto the hard ash and fill the gaps with
powdered incense using the incense
spoon. Use the spatula to compact the incense powder.
Slowly lift the incense mold up, leaving behind a beautiful pattern of
incense powder. Light one end of the
powder and very gently blow out the flame so you don't disturb the pattern.
Pass the censer around like with the
traditional ceremony, but this time you will want to hold the censer a bit
lower since there is actual smoke.
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