A Musing on Incense

Back when I was a child, my father (an officer in the US Navy) was stationed at one point in Sasebo, a city in the southwestern prefecture of Nagasaki in Japan.  I had the good fortune to visit him once while he was there, but I was still in like seventh grade at the time, so I was maybe about 12 or 13 years old, and didn’t have as much appreciation or means to appreciate things as I might have later on.  Still, it was neat to do so, and he picked up a few souvenirs, trinkets, and other things that may one day become family heirlooms.  One of those things he got, which he recently sent to me as a gift between house-movings, is this weird open ceramic urn of sorts.  It’s fairly large, comes with a plain wooden base, has these two brass chopsticks sticking out of it, and comes with a bag of fine grey powder.  After trying to puzzle out what it was, I figured out that it’s a 香炉 kōrō, a kind of censer used to burn incense in, which came with a pair 火箸 koji, brass chopsticks used as tongs to move charcoal within the 灰 hai ash.  It’s a simple thing, but still beautiful in its simplicity.

Looking into it recently led me to learn a bit about 香道 kōdō, the “Way of Incense”, the Japanese ceremonial art of burning and appreciating fine incense.

Of the many classical cultural arts of refinement in Japan, usually labeled some sort of 道 “way”, the big three that come to mind are 書道 shodō (traditional Japanese brush calligraphy) 華道 kadō (flower arrangement, also called 生け花 ikebana), and 茶道 chadō (tea preparation and presentation, as in tea ceremonies).  On occasion, kōdō is considered a fourth in this same category, and sometimes even replaces one of the other ones to keep the big ones in a set of three.  Of all these cultural arts or “paths”, though, kōdō might be considered the least popular nowadays, but it’s no less elaborate, intricate, meaningful, or significant than the others.  It has as many tools and implements, as much process and procedure, and as much a historical pedigree as many other ceremonial or performing arts in Japan, and is a valuable part of Japanese culture all the same.  (For those who are interested, check out Kikoh’s Japanese Incense 101 article series, which is a wonderful resource in English about Japanese incense culture and online store besides.)

At some point in the 15th century, Zen Buddhist monk and poet 一休宗純 Ikkyū Sōjun preserved and shared a short poem written in classical Chinese from the Sòng dynasty-era poet 黄庭坚 Huáng Tíngjiān outlining ten ideal properties of incense, entitled 香十徳 Kō no Ju-toku or “Ten Virtues of Incense”.  In just 40 characters (arranged in 10 series of 4 characters each), this poem conveys rather beautiful notions on the powers of what incense should be, how it should affect us, and what we should look for when approaching good-quality incense.

From what I’ve found around online, here’s the poem in Chinese characters (at least as it’s written in Japan), along with a rough translation.  I’ve found two versions of the poem that differ in slight ways (just a few minor characters that are either variants of each other or synonymous with each other), so for the lines that have a variant I’ll include the variant in parentheses, but the translation is the same either way.  I’ll also include a Japanese rendition (via kanbun) of the poem, too.

香十徳

  1. 感格鬼神
  2. 清浄心身
  3. 能除汚穢 (能払汚穢)
  4. 能覚睡眠
  5. 静中為友 (静中成友)
  6. 塵裡偷閑 (塵裏愉閑)(塵裏偸閑)
  7. 多而不厭
  8. 寡而為足 (募而知足)
  9. 久蔵不朽
  10. 常用無障

香の十徳

  1. 感は鬼神に格り
  2. 心身を清浄にし
  3. 能く汚穢を除き
  4. 能く睡眠を覚し
  5. 静中に友と成り
  6. 塵裏に閑を偸む
  7. 多くして厭わず
  8. 寡くして足れりとす
  9. 久しく蔵えて朽ちず
  10. 常に用いて障り無し

Ten Principles of Incense

  1. Sensations are considered as fierce gods.
  2. It purifies the mind and body.
  3. It can remove filth.
  4. It can rouse you from sleep.
  5. In quiet times, it becomes a friend.
  6. In busy affairs, it makes time for pleasure.
  7. Even when plentiful, one never tires of it.
  8. Even when scarce, one is still satisfied by it.
  9. Owning it for a long time, it does not decay.
  10. Used every day, it is harmless.

If I were to render it a bit more loosely-but-poetically in English as themed couplets (since I detect a bit of pairwise parallelism in the original poem, which is why I often find it written in calligraphy as five pairs of four-character statements as above):

Perceiving, it’s like a god or spirit.
Purifying, it’s for body and soul.

By it, excrement gets wiped away.
By it, exhaustion gets warded off.

In dreary times, it’ll become your friend.
In weary times, it’ll become your rest.

If it’s dense, you’ll never tire of it.
If it’s sparse, you’ll always delight in it.

Kept for an age, it won’t degrade itself.
Used every day, it won’t disturb others.

What we see here in this poem, as the name “Ten Virtues of Incense” itself indicates, are ten ideals that good-quality incense should possess and what we should look for in incense generally:

  1. It should be potent enough to perceive as an entity unto itself.  Smelling the incense should not only elevate and sharpen one’s senses, but should even bring about communion with the transcendent and the divine, bringing into connection different realms.
  2. It should refresh and purify the body, soul, spirit, and mind (literally 心身 “heart/mind-and-body”) of the one who smells it.
  3. It should eliminate pollutants and pollution (literally 汚穢 “filth, human excrement”), removing all impurity from within and without.
  4. It should bring alertness, wakefulness, and focus without drowsiness.  Even those who are asleep should be able to be roused pleasantly when they smell it.
  5. It should be a solace in solitude and a companion in quietness.  It should soothe the heart and mind, and alleviate the pangs of loneliness or boredom.
  6. It should bring a moment of peace and relaxation during busy affairs that otherwise dominate us in this world.  Even just taking the time to light the incense or taking the time to enjoy its fragrance should give us a moment to pleasantly rest when busy.
  7. It should not become annoying or unpleasant, no matter how large or abundant an amount.  The fragrance should not become oppressive or obnoxious to any mental or physical sense, but should remain enjoyable.
  8. It should be able to be smelled clearly and distinctly, no matter how small or meager an amount.  Even a small amount burned in a room should leave the room scented for a long time after it has finished burning.
  9. It should not change in potency or quality no matter its age.  Even when left unburned or kept in storage for an extended period of time, its fragrance should not degrade or break down when it finally is burned.
  10. It should not irritate, impede, or otherwise cause harm, no matter how frequently it is burned or smelled, even if used everyday.

In other words, Huáng Tíngjiān was writing about good principles for what we should look for in aromatherapy almost a thousand years ago.  And, of course, while these principles would be ideal for kōdō (where the actual act of enjoying incense for its own sake is called 聞香 monkō, literally “listening to incense”, akin to wine tasting or whiskey savoring using all of one’s senses), a good incense can be used for purposes other than being enjoyed for its own sake.  Burning incense while copying sutras, for instance, can help purify one in preparation for the sacred work of copying, while keeping the mind sharp and alert enough to avoid making mistakes, but without being overpoweringly distracting from the work as well.  When offering incense to the various buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other deities, we should strive to offer pleasant-smelling things that we can offer in abundance, but even if we can only offer a small amount, it should still be noticeable as a potent offering without causing health issues for the priests or attendees of ceremony.  For all the same reasons that tea can be drunk for its health benefits or for spiritual symbolism as much as for its own sake as a thing to delight in, incense can likewise be used and enjoyed in many of the same ways—and for that reason, just as one should strive to partake in good tea, one should likewise strive to partake in good incense.

Although Kō no Ju-toku gives its ten maxims to describe the ideal qualities of what incense should be and what benefits it should confer, I was struck by how simple these principles are and how broadly they can be applied to so many things in our lives, things that we should ultimately appreciate and which should benefit us.  I mean, sure, kōdō is the art (the “way”) of approaching incense as something to be savored and enjoyed, but as any artist of any sort (from the most venereal to the most martial) can tell you, there are ways of seeing the guiding principles from their arts as informative for all that we do in life.

So, naturally, as an occultist and mystic, I started to consider these notions as applied to spiritual practices, and thought that—just maybe—we could consider these as guiding principles for ourselves in how we consider and approach what we do for our spirituality.

Ideally, our spiritual practices should have the following ten “virtues”:

  1. It should sharpen our senses so that we can see past the merely mundane, enabling us to commune with the divine or other spiritual realities.
  2. It should cleanse and purify us on every level, not just physically but spiritually as well.
  3. It should eliminate impurities and pollution, whether our own or those around us, so as to make the world a better place.
  4. It should rejuvenate and reawaken us from whatever state we might be in, reminding us of our goals and renewing us on our path to them.
  5. It should keep us in good spirits, even (and especially) when times are hard.  Our practices should give us encouragement when we’re discouraged and solace when we’re worried.
  6. It should be a refuge and respite for us from the trials and distractions of our mundane affairs.  We should be able to steal away from the world around us, even if for a moment, to participate in our spirituality without having to be consumed by worldly matters.
  7. It should satisfy us without overwhelming us, even if we do a lot of it, without becoming a detriment to the rest of what we have to do.  We should not be left with a bad taste in our mouths, so to speak, from doing too much of our practices.
  8. It should satisfy us without underwhelming us, even if we do a little of it, without becoming a distraction for the rest of what we have to do.  Even small practices should leave an impact.
  9. It should never get old or stale, no matter how long it’s been since we started it, no matter how long it might have been since we last engaged with it.
  10. It should never become a harm, hindrance, or a burden to us in our everyday practice.  We should not be negatively impacted by our practices, especially if we engage in them frequently.

There’re lots of reasons why one might burn incense: they might do it to purify their body and prepare their mind for some undertaking, or they might do it to make offerings to the gods, or maybe they might just do it as aromatherapy for mental wellness and good health.  In all these (and all other) cases, though, no matter why we might burn incense, we should still burn good incense.

And in the same way, no matter why we might engage in spiritual practices, we should still engage in good spiritual practices.

And sure, while there are reasons why one might burn harsh incense for particular reasons, there can be times that we might need to engage in harsh spiritual practices, but by and large, that’s not what they’re for.  We don’t drink tea to poison ourselves; we don’t burn incense to choke ourselves; we don’t engage in spiritual practices to punish ourselves.  While I’d argue that we should engage in spiritual practices for more reasons than to merely enjoy and appreciate them for their own sake (which would turn meaningful ceremony into mere ceremonialism), there’s no reason to not make them enjoyable and worth enjoying, either.

Despite all the many boxes of sticks, bags of resin, and jars of other kinds of loose incense in my house, I typically don’t burn incense except as an offering to spirits or when I’m specifically suffumigating a thing or space for a particular ritual reason.  As a result, I end up hoarding the stuff, and admittedly, I like saving the good stuff for “when I need it” (whenever that might be).  After thinking about the “Fragrant Path” a little, though, and learning a bit from the “Ten Virtues of Incense”, maybe I should use incense as its own contemplation instead of just an adjunct or a mere supply, and learn a good lesson from doing so.

This post was originally made as a series of posts on Twitter, but I decided to polish it up here for posterity.

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