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.

Ceremonial Glamourbombing

According to Wikipedia,

A glamourbomb is an act aimed at challenging or altering perceptions—in particular, expanding the target’s view of reality, with the hope of encouraging belief in magic, and/or magical beings such as fairies, nature spirits, etc.…The word glamour is used in its older sense, as a reference to magic (based on the archaic word grammarye), particularly magic focussed on altering perceptions, which is also commonly associated with fairies. The bomb reference was meant to suggesting a style of ambush, a half-jesting resemblance to terrorism: “Something dropped unexpectedly in one’s midst, rapid disassembly…in this case, disassembly of assumptions, habits, pretensions, and rigid attitudes.” However, similar acts had been taking place long before the word was coined.

Most glamourbombing is performed anonymously or in disguise, so as to keep the focus on the act itself, and not the actor. In many cases, the effect of the act would also be lessened if its origin were known. The intent is to cause people to believe they have experienced something magical, to cause them to question the boundaries of their concept of reality, not to impress them with one’s own creativity. The intent can be to inspire feelings of awe and wonder, happiness, or fear, as long as it in some way challenges the boundaries of the real and the ordinary.

My friend and fellow magical-geekery associate Jarandhel, noted in the Otherkin community, told me about glamourbombing and how it has potential for being a pretty awesome tool for anyone interested or involved with the occult.  It’s basically a way to directly affect consensus reality, the generally agreed-upon rules about how reality is supposed to work (“you can’t fly, you can’t eat fire, you can’t summon spirits, you can’t affect probability”, etc.).  The weirder consensus reality gets, the more possible implausible things become, which has the added side effect of making magical acts tend to work better because fewer people believe that it’s utter rubbish.  It’s a neat idea, and directly ties into chaos magic notions of belief as power: the more people believer or are willing to believe in something, the more that thing is realized.

To that end, glamourbombing is effected by a kind of guerilla art, “random and senseless acts of beauty”, or artistic occult-motivated flashmob.  I mean, though I’d like it to not be the case, a lot of people don’t believe in magic, especially those in authority who decide what the world is and should be.   Glamourbombing, by leaving around bits and pieces of magic around the place where they can come in ready and blatant contact with people that jars them out of their normal routine, can shake things up just enough to get a foot in the door and make the world a weirder, if not more magical, place.  I mean, half of the occult is art, anyway, and much of art is symbolic enough to be magical as it is without any occult ritual; it’s not hard to slide in a glamourbomb into a public space or the public mind.

That said, Jarandhel was telling me this because most people who do glamourbombing utterly suck at it.  Glamourbombing needs to have artistic merit as well as occult meaning, and a lot of glamourbombs are neither.  Some people he’s heard of do nothing but leave a few dozen pinwheels in a schoolyard, or leave behind “magic potions” of colored water on a park bench.  While cute, these things aren’t anything more than glittery litter, which doesn’t really do much.  They barely catch the eye and don’t do much more than annoy a groundskeeper or something.  No, claimeth Jarandhel, glamourbombing needs to be more, much more.  So, over a hearty lunch as we tend to get with another of our fantastic friends Orthaevelve, we came up with a few ideas for how to do proper glamourbombing and what some things might actually be.

First off, glamourbombs should be transient and not permament.  This means no permanent spraypaint, no permanent graffiti, no destruction or permanent erection of structures, and the like.  This assumes, of course, that you don’t have permission to alter some structure, place, or layout that currently exists; if you own or have permission to tag something, then go all out.  Things should be inconvenient at best to remove or wash away, otherwise.  Second, make sure things actually have some magical oomph or meaning to them: legit sigils of spirits or intents, such as the LS Sigil of the Marauders Underground, are cool, as is splashing an area with enchanted or consecrated waters (peace water, sex washes, whatever).  Third, be covert, anonymous, and secret about your actions except to the people you’re glamourbombing with.  Fourth, don’t be stupid in this day of post-9/11 overbearing surveillance; don’t leave mysterious packages with blinking lights or vibrating mechanisms inside to spook people.  Beyond these rules, go all out.

Some of the things I thought might be interesting to try out as a ceremonial magician would be:

  • With chalk, doodle out an entire planetary temple on a park pavilion, inscribing different planetary symbols and godnames on the pillars supporting the roof and moving the benches to act as an altar or pew, similarly doodled upon with patterns and symbols to make the place look holy.
  • Tag the concrete tiles of a bridge or train overpass with the seals of the goetic demons from the Lemegeton.  Alternatively, write out the long string-like sigils of the planetary angels on overpass pillars.
  • Write out creation myths on park sidewalks of the Gnostic angels, heavens, aeons, and the like.  Alternatively, write out a whole conjuration or blessing word by word around the wall of some park or field.
  • Impromptu public rituals calling on Bacchus or Jupiter in a bar or outdoor party.
  • Consecrate a mass of carved pewter tokens (low-effort, easy to do) with sigils under the forces of Mercury and Jupiter and dump them into fountains or around public monuments.
  • Buy a lot of candles, flowers, and statues/icons and set up a shrine on the side of the road to some saint or deity or other; setting this on a wagon or sled and pulling it around town might be an interesting exercise, or moving it around town from day to day secretly.

Keeping in mind the rules of glamourbombing above, what kinds of things might you try out?

Craftwork update!

Gotta love the feeling of being productive and actually making stuff again.  About damn time, too; crafting this stuff is at least a quarter of the fun of the Art.

Since I had all the supplies, and now that things in my life have calmed down enough to allow me enough time during the week and weekends to focus and set my mind to some projects again, I can proudly show off two of my latest crafting projects:

  • A ritual sword, partially Solomonic in design but with certain elements that give it a much more offensive nature against harmful spirits.  Yes, dear reader, I made myself a demonsbane-type sword.  I’m going to conjure Kammael and Michael in turn as this conjuration cycle continues and get their opinions on it and how to keep it in good shape, so there’ll be a post on that in the future.  In the meantime, I’m scared to even hold the thing; it feels like a firebomb in my hands.
  • A Circle of Art painted onto a large canvas tarp, based on a design I introduced before.  Simple, elegant, and portable, and awesome-looking, besides!  I made a few wooden pentagram placards to serve as bases for candles and the brazier, too, so the whole setup is pretty cool.  Walking into it feels like stepping into a fortress observatory, so I think I did it right.
  • Although not a craft, per se, I had a hard time finding a proper blessing of chalk that didn’t specifically mention the Three Wise Men or Epiphany, so I made one up.  Here you go, if you ever need a Hermetic or Abrahamic blessing of chalk.

Now that I have these two things, in combination with the tools and supplies I already have (wand, triangle, pentacles, ring), I’m finally ready to start working with goetia and other types of demons.  This opens up a whole new set of practices to experiment with, so I’m pretty excited about this.  Yes, I know that dealing with demons is a powerful practice and can fuck my own shit up if I’m not careful, but what’s life without living, and what is living without learning?  I want the experience, and I hear some demons are pretty neat guys to be acquainted with.  Based on a friend’s suggestion and my own inclinations, I think Orobas will be the first guy in line.

My brony friends would be proud if they knew about this guy.

Though, this does bring up a good question for myself.  I’m used to using the Trithemius ritual to conjure spirits, which I’ve used for angels and genii (two totally different ranks of spirits), but nothing besides (since I haven’t done any other kind of conjuration).  Fr. Rufus Opus has said he’s used it equally well for all kinds of spirits from different grimoires, traditions, and texts, so I’m eager to try and figure out experiments with this rite and how to conjure spirits that are less-than-sanguine about the holy Trinity, qabbalistic godnames, and so forth.  The Lemegeton and Key of Solomon have good starting points for me to jump off of; a Trithemius/Solomonic blended conjuration might be an interesting thing to write up, since the Trithemius rite has the basic framework I need and the Solomonic texts have all the godnames, conjurations, and calls.