The Way of Incense: Koh-do
By Michael Scholes
[Originally published in the mid-1990’s in Steve Beimel’s publication, The Kyoto Diary.]
Since incense was introduced to Japan from China 1400 years ago, it has been used not only to purify ritual sites, but has also been offered to the Buddha· to ensure continued health and prosperity. Fragrance is believed to help invoke the Buddha's presence and summon forth his peaceful world. In the Buddha's world it is believed that everything is fragrant, like incense, including His words.
Many aromatherapists enjoy having different kinds of scents fill the air. As an adjunct to diffusing essential oils, burning fine wood (not from rain forests) or incense adds to the olfactory experience. In fact, the word perfume is actually derived from per-fumum meaning "through smoke" – the smoke from trees and plants. The traditional way to sample the scents of plants was to place the plant material on an open fire. The fragrance released was then inhaled. I had never been attracted to incense and would, at times, become ill when it was being burned. I recently realized that this was due to the synthetic fragrance and binders found in the majority of incense. When one experiences true incense a magical experience unfolds through natural resins and woods. Just as with natural essential oils, true incense has the ability to bring about a spiritual union between you and nature. If we were to burn some of the fragrant woods of the past, over 1500 years old in some cases, we would be able to experience the same smells the Shoguns did centuries ago. This is not possible with perfume, which oxidizes and loses its fragrance after about twenty-five years.
Traditional Japanese culture is rich with the tales and use of incense. This practice is called Koh-do (literally, The Way of Incense, or Incense Ceremony) To the Japanese the experience of smell is not limited to taking aromatic baths. It has evolved into an olfactory art whereby it is used for physical and social enjoyment. Like other Japanese ritual/social arts such as the tea ceremony, poetry, playing a musical instrument or flower arranging, incense helps refine the senses and solidify shared traditions.
The beauty of using scent daily, whether in the form of aromatherapy or incense, is that scent has a way of soothing our minds and helping us relax. This is perhaps due to the fact that scents are processed in the mid-brain area. This is where we process emotions and memory, and our basic drives such as hunger and sexual drive are located. Just a whiff of a subtle fragrance can take us on a journey to the past when we may have been with family and friends. Scent can bring up memories of a first love. The benefit of these experiences may bring reassurance during times of change or when life seems hopeless. In Japan, some doctors burn incense for patients with psychological problems, insomnia and hypertension.
The Japanese created games with incense. These games which deal with inner emotions are designed to develop aesthetic appreciation. For instance, one game involves finding visual interpretations of the seasons and explaining these thoughts through prose the composition is written and then played out using the various kinds of incense.
Scent can be a more powerful tool than words for working on emotions. Scents are processed in the "feeling" part of the brain (right side) whereas language is processed in the more logical part of the brain (left side). This is why there is no real language for smell and why we borrow language from other senses such as taste/cooking (spicy, sweet, delicious) or hearing/music (base, middle and top notes). In fact, the Japanese use the expression, "listening to incense" rather than "smeliing incense." By observing how a scent makes one feel and then trying to identify it, it is possible to bridge the left and right sides of the brain. This can be a powerful inner dialog as it gives insight into one's internal chemistry by putting words to feelings. It was through this dialog and the burning of fragrant woods that the Japanese experienced Koh-do. The experience opened up new olfactory realms – a world fragrant with psychological benefits.
The oldest record of incense appreciation in Japan appears around 595 AD. The incense used in ancient Buddhist rituals was a mixture of five to seven chipped aromatic materials, the amount depending on the Buddhist sect. Incense has been used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes as well as to heighten the mood of a gathering. Some war lords collected the precious wood to show off their wealth, an indication of the great value Japanese have placed on the possession of incense.
Many of the ingredients found in natural incense are not indigenous to Japan although the ceremony surrounding its enjoyment is uniquely Japanese. The ingredients for natural incense products are derived from plants (including musk and ambergris) and are never chemically treated or synthetic. Some ingredients naturally exude fragrance while others need to be burned, heated, applied to the body or taken orally for the fragrance to be released. Ingredients found in incense include sandalwood, cinnamon, myrrh, benzoin, patchouli, cloves and frankincense.
Other ingredients specifically include jinkoh (aloeswood) which is the soft resinous wood of an East Indian evergreen tree that has been buried in the ground and transformed by a natural aging process. Jinkoh is the most important ingredient for all Koh.. The darker, heavier and more resinous the more aromatic it becomes.
The higher percentage of jinkoh in a koh product, the higher the price and more refined the fragrance. Other incense ingredients include specific roots, rhizomes, stems, leaves and fruits.
One of the most popular forms of incense is the joss stick which is similar in shape and size to spaghetti. A joss stick can have up to fifty ingredients. These include powdered Japanese Judas tree (as a binder), bark, cloves, camphor, and ambergris. Grinding and blending are the most critical tasks in creating subtle fragrances.
To fully experience Koh-do involves much more than lighting and inhaling. Every step is as important as the scent itself. From the special tools used to the beautifully decorated incense burners and exquisitely lacquered incense burners inlaid in mother of pearl, the incense ritual is multi-sensory. Equally important is the room in which the ceremony takes place.
Like aromatherapy, it is important to practice and study Koh-do in order to get a full appreciation of the art. The teachings of Koh-do have been very closely guarded (with very few textbooks available) and were transmitted orally from the masters to the disciples only when the latter reached a certain level of proficiency. This system is still in existence although they have been slightly adapted so that less experienced people can participate. There are two styles of Koh-do taught by masters. One version represents a warrior style with its emphasis on rigorous rules and spiritual training. The other features courtly games derived from a more poetic spirit.
In the sixteenth century, Zen priests were believed to have written virtues which incense holds:
1. It brings communication with the transcendent.
2. It purifies mind and body.
3. It removes uncleanliness.
4. It keeps one alert.
5. It can be companion in the midst of solitude.
6. In the midst of busy affairs, it brings a moment of peace.
7. When it is plentiful, one never tires of it.
8. When there is little, still one is satisfied.
9. Age does not change its efficacy.
10. Used everyday, it does no harm.
No matter how you decide to experience fragrance, it is apparent that scents can transport us across time and help bring meaning to our lives.
In a world that is being threatened environmentally, economically and physically, any reminder of our higher and more spiritual purpose is welcome. By practicing the art of Koh-do, or just simply experiencing incense, it is possible to reconnect with this purpose.