October 06, 2017

Listening to Incense

The Japanese often describe the appreciation of incense as "listening to incense". To those new to fine incense, especially in the west, the idea of "listening" to something that would seem to center upon the sense of smell rather than hearing seems quite misplaced. But not really, if we look at the origins of listening with one's heart and soul.

The Way of Fragrance
The Japanese tea ceremony and Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, are well known in the west. But for centuries, Koh-do, literally translated as "the way of fragance", was practiced as a high art form as well by the Japanese social elite. But incense differs fundamentally from both tea and the Japanese affinity for nature. Whereas tea imported from China was eventually cultivated in Japan, and the Japanese love of nature is deeply rooted in Shinto beliefs, the raw ingredients for incense are not found in Japan, and to this day are imported.

Imported for China
Incense was established in Japan through the introduction of Buddhism from China in the sixth century. As the Japanese ruling classes that favored Buddhism came to power, so to did the inclusion of Buddhist rituals and their required use of incense. The Chinese term wen xiang, was adopted at this time by incense connoisseurs, translated into Japanese as koh o kiku, or mon-koh - listen to incense.

Buddhist Origins
But the idea of listening to incense dates back farther than the introduction of incense to Japan. Kiyoko Morita, in "The Book of Incense" describes the origins of the term:

"In fact, the idea of listening to incense may be traced even further back to a section of the fourteen-volume Mahayana sutra of Buddhism. There, in a dialogue between the bodhisattva Monju (a Buddhist saint of wisdom and intellect) and Yuima-kitsu (a wealthy Indian Buddhist layman, also known for his wisdom and intellect), Yuima learns that 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."

As incense is deeply connected with Buddhist practice, it makes sense that we should view the appreciation in much the same way one would appreciate the Buddha's words - by listening with our whole selves.