Incense burning is an ancient practice, dating back to biblical times in the Middle East (where it is thought to have originated) and as far back as the 8th century in Japan. It is considered to be a sacred offering that holds the potential to both calm the mind and give us the opportunity to “communicate with the transcendent,” as the first of the “Ten Virtues of Koh (Incense),” states. In Zen, incense is used as an offering, as a way to focus our intention, and very practically, to time a period of meditation—short sticks last about 25 minutes; long sticks, about 45 minutes.
Ganjin, a well-known Buddhist priest from China, is credited for bringing the culture of incense burning to Japan in 754 AD. While incense was originally used for medicinal purposes only, Ganjin introduced the burning of fragranced incense for religious use. Soon, Japanese aristocrats and court nobles were creating their own unique incense blends for pleasure, making the use of incense an aesthetic pastime. Eventually, the use of incense traveled beyond the aristocracy and became accessible to intellectuals and artists as well. This history led to the formation of koh-do, the incense ceremony which is considered a Japanese art form.
To offer incense, hold one end of a stick of incense to a flame just long enough for it to light. Wait a moment before blowing on the incense or using your fingers to extinguish the fire on the tip. The incense should now be glowing and beginning to smoke. As the ribbon of smoke billows up, hold the stick of incense between the fingertips of both hands at your waist and make a standing bow in front of your incense bowl (and altar, if you are using one).
Next, lightly touch the bottom end of the stick of incense to your forehead, keeping it vertical, while placing your free hand in gassho (one half of the palm-to-palm position) at the midline of your body. Touching an object to the forehead is an act of intimacy, reverence and gratitude. As you do this, take a moment to gather your mind and clarify your intention. For example, if you are offering incense in honor of a loved one, or someone who is ill or deceased, you may want to hold an image or thought of that person in mind as you offer. If you are lighting incense prior to a round of meditation, you could take this opportunity to re-commit yourself to wholehearted practice.
Then, place the incense stick in the center of your incense bowl and bring the offering hand to meet your other hand, palm-to-palm, just below eye level, in full gassho. Do another standing bow to complete your offering.
THE TEN VIRTUES OF KOH
The “Ten Virtues of Koh” is a list of the benefits derived from the use of incense. It was written in 15th century Japan and has been passed from generation to generation in order to keep alive the spirit of koh.
1. it brings communication with the transcendent,
2. purifies mind and body,
3. removes uncleanliness,
4. keeps one alert,
5. can be a 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, and
10. used every day, it does no harm.
Valerie Meiju Linet, MRO, is a clinical social worker, gardener, and poet. She currently works at the Oncology Support Program at the local hospital and has a private therapy practice in Woodstock, NY.