September 28, 2020

Japanese Incense 101: Mon-Koh 聞香 - Listening to Incense

In Japanese, the appreciation of incense is known as "Mon-koh” (聞香), which translates as "listening to incense." To those of us in the west, the idea of "listening" to something that would seem to center upon the sense of smell may seem a bit confusing. But at the heart of Mon-koh is a number of Buddhist teachings that view the world holistically where fragrance is more than just fragrance.

Buddhist Origins

Incense is intricately tied to the introduction of Buddhism from China to Japan in the sixth century. As the Japanese ruling classes that favored Buddhism came to power, so too did the inclusion of the Buddhist practice of using of incense in ritual and spiritual pursuits. Those in charge of formalizing the etiquette used in the appreciation of incense adopted the Chinese term wenxiang 聞香, which was translated into Japanese as koh o kiku 香お聞, or mon-koh 聞香 - to listen to incense.

In a talk entitled "Taking full use of the five senses—What is traditional Japanese scent and sound?” during the 13th Symposium of the Japanese Civilization Institute, the 21st successor and head of Shino School of Kodo Mr. Hachiya Isshiken Souhitsu described how listening to incense goes beyond just the sense of smell.

"We call listening to incense “Mon-koh." This discourse is not only captured by the sense of smell which we use every day, but also by nature, space, and the soul. In China, the kanji “聞” means to feel with the five senses, but if you truly spend some time practicing Kodo, you soon start to receive messages from the aromatic wood and the natural world."

The concept of Mon-koh predates the introduction of incense to Japan, and instead has its roots in Buddhist teachings adopted early on in China. Kiyoko Morita, in The Book of Incense, describes the Buddhist origins of listening to incense:

"In the Buddha's world everything is fragrant like incense, including the words of the Buddha. Fragrance and incense are synonymous, and Buddha's words of teaching are incense. Therefore, bodhisattvas listen to Buddha's words, in the form of incense, instead of smelling them. When incense use for Buddhism was introduced to China, Chinese people apparently adopted this expression: incense is something one listens to, rather than smells."

Going Deeper

The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion, or more commonly know as the Diamond Sutra (In Japanese Kongō-kyō 金剛経), teaches a method to perceive the world in wholeness that leads to deeper insights into reality. In it, the Buddha gives many examples of how our view is limited by forms and the illusion of separateness, noting that "something" is not "something," and that is why it is called "something." To the western view where A is A and A is not B, this can be quite confusing. Imagine a rose. Although recognizing a rose as anyone would, the Buddha first recognizes that a rose is made entirely of non-rose elements - the earth it grew from, the sunlight it drew energy from, the rain that nourished it, the efforts of the gardener who tended it, etc. This deeper understanding leads to greater insight into the true nature of the rose rather than just its simple outward form.

This is the heart of listening to incense. By going beyond just the sense of smell and listening with our whole being, we recognize a greater holistic view, opening ourselves to experiencing fragrance with the full awareness of its true nature. We get to experience the non-fragrance elements that make up fragrance -  the woods, plants, roots, and resins in the incense - with greater insight. Going deeper, we can experience the incense manufacturer's knowledge, the centuries of the Japanese tradition of making incense, and the craftsman's skill preparing the incense itself. Going even deeper we can experience the living essence of these materials - the sun they drew energy from, the rains in the jungles the wood grew within, the alpine mists the roots drew moisture from, the arid deserts that produced the resins. We can be transported to the time past when these materials grew in the earth - in the case of Aloeswood this may be centuries long gone by - or experience the centuries of the incense recipe used.

When viewed holistically without being limited to just a single sense, the true nature of fragrance opens us to insights that may be be received as poetic, deeply moving, or even lead to greater insights into our world, our souls, or nature itself. In this way, we open ourselves to experience fragrance not as fragrance, but as the miracle of creation it is.

As Mr. Hachiya Isshiken Souhitsu describes it:

"We listen to the fragrance from the bottom of our hearts. People communicate by the soul. If you listen to incense you’ll realize that it relaxes your soul. That vibration is also captured by aromatic wood. Through fragrance, people are able to make discourse with samurais, noblemen, and Emperors of the past."

Listening from the Heart

For those of us in the west, such insights may seem complex and even daunting. But this is a again from focusing on outward forms -  letting the complexity of such a simple concept stand in the way of the experience. The actual Mon-koh process is easy for anyone to experience because when listening to incense there is no right or wrong. When we quiet the mind of thoughts and allow the fragrance to be our guide, we open ourselves to where the fragrance may take us. Regardless of the destination, the goal is always a simple one: the appreciation of fragrance in what ever experience that means to the listener. By freeing the mind of the past and the future, and being present in Mon-Koh, the insights gained are as unique as the one who listens for them.

As Mr. Hachiya Isshiken Souhitsu notes,

"Rather than listening to my words, it is better to listen to fragrance, for the aromatic tree will teach you various things. The most important thing is to listen to nature."


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