Culture

Appreciating Incense Trails

There are three “ways”, or ceremonious art forms, shared among East Asian cultures that have been passed down thousands of years.

The first is the Way of Tea, or the tea ceremony (茶道).

The second is the Way of Flowers, more commonly known in the West by its Japanese name ikebana (花道).

The third is the Way of Incense, kodo in Japanese (香道).

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In everyday life, the smoke of incense is believed to transcend physical planes and therefore a vehicle through which the thoughts and well-wishes of man can be transmitted to the immortals in heavens or one’s deceased ancestors.

Incense was also used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a means of delivery for cures, as smoke can more easily penetrate and disseminate within the body than solids or liquids.

As an art form, incense focuses on fragrances, and in particular, the combining of varying fragrances to achieve an “ideal” scent – full and complex yet balanced. Following on the basis of Traditional Chinese Medicine, care was taken not to combine scents that would disturb the balance and cause chaos within the body.  The zenith was creating a scent that could be enjoyed on its own while at the same time who’s combination would also enhance the medicinal qualities of individual ingredients to achieve symbiosis. Common ingredients, which are also used today, included cinnamon, cloves, sandalwood, frankincense, etc. Popular combinations were given names and referenced in literary prose and historical records. Sadly though, much of the actual recipes have been lost to time.

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The appreciation of incense can take many forms. I will focus today on incense trails. Also called incense seals (打香篆 or 香印), this technique for burning incense became widespread during the Song Dynasty.

First the common tools used in incense appreciation (from left to right)

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  1. Sliver Leaf Tweezers 银叶夹 – associated with another incense technique for indirect burning (隔火熏香), used to pick-up silver leaf (mica sheets) to place over the ash in the incense pot
  2. Incense Feather 香羽 – so named as traditionally this would have been feather tipped, used to dust off extraneously ashes from the pot and other tools
  3. Secondary Ash Press 香押 – used to press down upon the ashes to easily create a evenly surface
  4. Incense towel 香锦 – used to keep all tools clean and tidy, always placed with the open fold facing up so as to create the image of a man beading his knees towards the earth and his back bowing to the heavens (敬天敬地)
  5. Incense shovel 香铲 – used to sweep incense powder into the incense press mold
  6. Incense spoon 香匙 – used to scoop up incense powder and ashes
  7. Incense chopsticks 香柱 – associated also with other incense techniques, used to pick-up incense cones
  8. Ash Press 灰侧 – used to mix the ashes and also press down to create an even surface (requires more skill to use)

The starter base ash is typically white ash made from rice chaffs which possesses little inherent scent and thus is seen as being neutral.

To create an incense trail, the first step is to place the incense pot squarely in front of you.  If you are using a Tao style pot with three legs, center one leg towards you and the other two facing out. Then, use the incense ash press to scoop out the ashes as much as possible from a prior burning, mix up the ashes to create an even mixture and then flatten out to create an even surface parallel with the edge of the incense pot.

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Next, place into the incense pot an incense seal (香篆) of your choosing, and use the incense spoon to scoop incense powder into the indent. Then, using the incense shovel, carefully sweep any incense powder lying on the incense seal into the indents so that the indent is filled completely with powder.

Carefully lift up the incense seal to reveal the image. Going back to the Chinese philosophy of duality – the incense seal and indent is yin and the filled image is yang.

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Light an incense stick – I find using a toothpick works best – and use to light the outer end of the incense trail. Place the lid on the incense pot and enjoy.

If you wish to get started on your own incense appreciation journey, you can obtain all start materials by clicking here or going to Shop – Incense on the top of this page.

For incense powder, you can use ground spices bought from the grocery store.

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