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October 31, 2022


“We say, “Everything comes out of emptiness.” One whole river or one whole mind is emptiness. When we reach this understanding we find the true meaning of our life. When we reach this understanding we can see the beauty of the human life. Before we reach this understanding everything is just delusion.”
Shunryu Suzuki

There was once a scholar of great intellect expert in many subjects, who having studied Zen, learned of an acclaimed Zen master known for his teachings. People were said to travel great distances to seek out the master’s wisdom and ask for his enlightenment on Zen. Rarely would the master turn them away. Upon hearing this, the scholar undertook a pilgrimage to visit this famed master and inquire of his understanding. Upon arriving, the scholar asked the master to share his knowledge of Zen with him. As was his practice, the master agreed and the two began a discussion. During their conversation, it became apparent that the scholar was quite full of his opinions, often interrupting the master and interjecting his own understandings. As was customary when hosting a guest, tea was served. As the scholar droned on, the master began to pour his guest a cup of tea. But as the cup approached its filling point, the master continued to pour until the cup overflowed onto the table and dripped onto the scholar’s robes. Shocked out of his recitation, the scholar exclaimed "Stop! Can’t you see the cup is already full!" Setting down the tea pot, the master said, "You are like this cup. Your mind, too, is already full so that nothing more can be added. I cannot teach you about Zen until your mind has become like an empty cup."

Our experience appreciating Japanese incense can often be like that of this scholar, our minds so filled to the brim that nothing more can be added, our attention focused more on our own thoughts than the actual experience with the incense burning right in front of us. Renown Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind famously described the need for us to empty our cup, “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” By emptying our mind when listening to incense we are better able to truly enjoy the incense before us and experience its true nature. To do so, we must first explore the potential emptying our cup presents and the common obstacles to doing so encountered when listening to incense.

In Kodo, the most formal setting for the ritual appreciation of incense, the act of listening to incense is performed in complete silence. In the West, such silence is often viewed uncomfortably or negatively. We fill our interactions with small talk out of a fear of an “awkward silence.” We fill our minds with background noise from our electronics so we can “keep busy” lest our mind become still in silence. To the Japanese however, silence has a positive association and is viewed as perfectly normal. As something to be appreciated rather than avoided, it is in silence that true meaning can be discerned from that which is not spoken, as space is created from which form and meaning emerge. The Japanese refer to such moments of silence and the space created by them as Ma 間.

The Japanese concept of Ma describes silence in terms of its infinite potential in time and space. Ma is expressed throughout Japanese culture in artwork, architecture, calligraphy, to flower arrangement through artistic interpretation of empty space that holds as much importance as the subject of the art itself. Ma is physical, implied, and intentional; much more than lack or absence within space but instead a positive powerful force invisibly evident. It represents the space between musical notes that make a melody instead of a cacophony of noise or the pause between words that create meaning. Ma is empty, yet filled with potential, powerful in its stillness. It represents a complete lack of duality where no separation exists, where all is one. In Ma lies infinite possibilities from which all things take shape and spring to life. In Japanese Buddhist thought Ma is represented as emptiness and all its potential. As Suzuki Roshi describes it, “Emptiness is the garden where you cannot see anything. It is actually the mother of everything, from which everything will come.” The kanji for Ma 間 provides a hint to its profound meaning. By combining the kanji for “gate” 門 with the kanji for “sun” 日, in Ma 間we see the gateless gate that leads to enlightenment, like sunlight streaming through the gap around a closed door.

By applying the concept of emptiness to our experience with incense, we allow ourselves to empty our cup, quieting our mind so we can appreciate Japanese incense as it truly is. Now this is not to say that every experience with incense need to be of the deep meditative ritualized experience undertaken during Kodo. Far from it. Using incense for relaxation or enjoyment or in the background of other activities is what most people seek from their experience with Japanese incense. However, by emptying our minds as best we can of the obstacles that commonly fill our thoughts, we are better able to empty our cup and truly listen to the incense before us however we experience it.


A common obstacle to appreciating incense is expectation. Long before we light incense, we have expectations for it. We may read its product description and begin to create a mental picture of what its fragrance will be like before we even receive the incense. To this we add our previous encounters with incense to our picture, coloring it with experiences from the past and projecting them onto a future experience that has yet to happen. Once we have built up our mental picture, when we light a new Sandalwood incense for example, we expect it to fit into the fictional image we have created for what our new incense should be, and we are confused and upset when it does not align with our image. This is especially true when our brand-new Sandalwood is not as sweet, or not as creamy, or is quieter and more subtle than we expected. Heaven forbid our new Sandalwood incense has unique characteristics like a sour note or a caramel note. That doesn’t match the expectation that we’ve filled our mind with at all!

There is nothing wrong with having personal preferences, as likes and dislikes are natural and bring comfort and enjoyment to our lives. However, if we allow our mind to be filled by our expectation rather than our experience with the incense in front of us, our expectations begin to color our experiences before we even have them. We expect our new incense to behave in a certain way and are distracted from the actual experience when it does not correspond to our expectation. Often, we will exaggerate the aspects we like or diminish the aspects we do not to ensure the incense before us conforms to our expected mental picture, missing the truth of the actual incense we are experiencing.

Suzuki Roshi puts it this way: “If you received things just as echo of yourself, you do not really see them, you do not fully accept them as they are.” To appreciate incense as it really and truly is, emptying our cup of expectation as much as we can and listening to the incense as it is right there in front of us is necessary. This is no easy task as expectation creeps into every experience we have, far beyond just incense. But if we are able to empty our cup even a little of what we are expecting, we will often be pleasantly surprised by our experiences with incense, as genuine and unexpected encounters may open to us that would have gone unnoticed with a mind filled with expectation.


Another common obstacle to fully appreciating incense is judgement. Emptying our minds of this obstacle is much more easily said and then done, however. We judge everything continuously. We judge how well we slept, how good our breakfast was, the quality of our commute, our dog’s intelligence, our baby’s cuteness, never endingly comparing them all to a fictional standard for each that we have created in our own minds. When we light incense, our mind is often full of a list of automatic judgements ready to take over our experience before we even have it. How does this incense compare to other incense we’ve burned before? How does it compare to the last time we burned it? How does it make us feel compared to other incense? How does the current brand of incense compare to the previous brand? Rather than appreciating incense for what is right in front of us, we instead compare it to our own internal picture of what we believe it should or should not be, passing moral judgements of better or worse, good or bad, high or low. It’s all automatic and happens in a blink of an eye as our minds are so conditioned for judgement.

Expectation and judgement often go hand in hand, but where expectation finds us focusing on a fictional picture in our minds of what we expect the incense to be, judgement instead focuses our experience on making an evaluation of the perceived value of the incense before us. Instead of simply listening to incense, we put the incense on our personal scale based upon our past experiences and focus our attention upon where it falls short or measures up in comparison. With our attention focused on our internal scale, we end up evaluating a picture in our mind of what we think the incense should or shouldn’t be instead of actually enjoying the incense right in front of us.

Again, this process is natural as we all have standards that we compare our experiences to in an effort to enhance the comfort and enjoyment of our lives. Our standards are developed over time and experience, and as such, our comparisons are not always completely off the mark. But the difficulty arises in that these types of judgements are focused upon our own limited internal pictures, comparing experiences in the past to future experiences that have yet to happen, rather than opening ourselves to the limitless potential of the incense experience we are having. When our mind experiences from judgement, we view incense through our limited perspective - our likes, our dislikes, and the limits of our experience. If we can empty our cup of judgement even a little, we allow ourselves to experience the absolute value of the incense before us and glimpse its true nature rather than our limiting evaluation of it. In so doing, we experience incense from a limitless perspective where its true nature is free to express itself unfiltered.


Fixing our attention on a specific note from the overall fragrance and holding on to it is another common obstacle we fill our minds with when listening to incense. This commonly arises as we to seek to describe the incense we are listening to. When this occurs, our minds begin to mentally dissect the incense before us, filling our thoughts with the specific notes we’ve attached to in our attempt to describe the fragrance. When we become so attached to a specific note and fill our attention with it there is no room left for the other notes to surprise or delight us, and our experience with incense becomes limited. Just as the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon, our description of a fragrance is not the fragrance itself, but a mental picture we’ve created. As Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen said, “We human beings attach to something that is not real and forget all about what is real.”

When listening to incense, what is real is the incense burning right in front of us. If for example, we fixate on a cinnamon note within an incense, our mind fills with the cinnamon-ness of the incense, coloring the reality of our experience away from the true nature of the incense we’re listening to. We are then less likely to notice non-cinnamon notes, missing out on the subtlety of the incense’s more refined qualities, or how the interplay of its many notes creates something larger. If we have a preference for cinnamon our preoccupation with its note is even stronger and can lead to the exclusion of not just the other notes present, but the larger experience itself. Instead our mind fills with our preference for the cinnamon-ness of the incense leaving little room in our attention for anything else. In our preoccupation with our preference for the cinnamon-ness of the incense we lose sight of the larger experience that goes beyond fragrance, like the warmth the fragrance brings or the soothing calm it imparts or the peacefulness the overall fragrance may provide. This is not to say that we cease to notice the cinnamon note or are not aware it may present as the dominant note in the incense before us, nor that we enjoy the cinnamon note any less. We just notice it and then let it go, emptying our cup so there is room for all the incense has to offer.

Our preoccupation with specific notes when listening to incense speaks to our desire to describe our experience. There is nothing wrong with this desire, nor is it without merit as we require methods of cataloging our understanding. Descriptions of incense ingredients and fragrance profiles are very helpful, especially when selecting which incense to purchase or deciding which to burn. It is not describing incense that limits our experience with it. It is when we fix our attention on describing it, holding tightly to a few notes, that we lose our way and limit our experience with incense. When we let go, emptying our minds of our attachment, incense is given the freedom to expand, allowing the limitless potential of its fragrant ingredients to open to us providing insights that often transcend fragrance.

Beyond Incense

Taken together, the obstacles of expectation, judgment, and attachment are obstacles that go beyond just our practice of listening to incense. They are familiar obstacles in our everyday lives, each having roots in Buddhist thought as obstacles to enlightenment. Given that Japanese incense is itself historically rooted in Buddhism, it is not so difficult to conceive of how each can be applied to appreciating incense, as incense is an extension of our life in general. But the existence of these roots should not be taken to mean that a firm foundation in Buddhism is required to fully appreciate Japanese incense fully either. Although helpful, it is our willingness to empty our minds of the obstacles that stand between us and our genuine experience with incense that matters most. Awareness of these obstacles is the first step to emptying our minds of them, even though we will rarely fully overcome them.

The beauty of Japanese incense lies in its ability to surpass the bounds of fragrance and transport us in ways that are as inspiring as they are fragrant. Incense allows us to touch the wisdom of nature directly, learning about not only its rare and fragrant ingredients, but about ourselves as well. As Suzuki Roshi notes, “When you empty your mind, then whatever you see you meet yourself.” Experiencing incense authentically with an empty mind opens us to its true nature, and thereby to our own. That in and of itself is a wonderful gift incense can provide, if only we can empty our cup so that we can receive it.


This page is part of Kikoh's Fragrant Path: An Introduction to Japanese Incense series. This series of posts is intended to help provide greater information and understanding as you progress along this fragrant path. Learn more...