Listening to Incense




Incense has always intrigued me, but for a long time it just smelled a lot like smoke. As I grew older, I started to wonder if maybe there was more. I began to see how incense could change the way a space felt, the way people felt, and it could change the way I felt. Today, I love incense. I love it as an offering, as an art, a practice, and as an experience. But to the uneducated, the world of incense can be complicated and enigmatic. That’s because incense is complicated and enigmatic if we approach it like critics. The truth is, you already know more about incense than you think you do. To enjoy incense more, I’ve found it helpful to start with these two questions: 1. What do you like? 2. What is your intention?

Smell and Memory

We get around mainly by way of sight, but it seems that of all the senses, our sense of smell is most closely tied to memory. While sights and sounds may bring up related memories or association, the slightest whiff of something is enough to instantly transport us back in time. These links seem to run very deep and can bring a new dimension to the role of incense as an offering.

Traditional Japanese Incense

The profile of a “traditional” Japanese incense has changed somewhat over the last hundred years. Blends have become refined, consistent, and softer. In general, traditional incenses tend be very focused on wood and can be harsh or bitter to newcomers. While there are exceptions, blends marketed for the West tend to be sweeter and more floral, with a heavy reliance on frankincense, musk, and cedar. 


In traditional Japanese incense, sandalwood provides the heart and soul of any blend. A mix of resins, barks, roots, and herbs provide added dimension and “color." Today, the most common additions are borneol camphor, benzoin, cinnamon, clove, patchouli, and spikenard, followed by a long list of herbs. Makers have a tendency to be vague about the specific ingredients in their blends, so it’s often difficult to get an idea of what a particular incense will smell like just from reading its ingredients. For more on common ingredients in traditional Japanese incense, see below.


Premium incenses will augment or outright replace the sandalwood with aloeswood, which comes from Aquilaria trees that have been infected with a specific type of mold. Aloeswood and kyara, the highest grade of aloeswood, are a big big deal in Japan. To give you some perspective: by weight, pure kyara is more expensive than gold. The better the quality of aloeswood in the incense, the less additives you’re going to find in the blend.


An ancient practice, Mon-Koh can be loosely translated as “listening to incense.” Decide on the various notes that you'll be “listening” for in a session. Use your own perception and imagination—there is no right nor wrong in this process. Make note of elements, notes, tastes, colors, places, sounds, and/or mental images by allowing the mind to be guided and inspired by the nose. Some green oil kyaras can be dark, misty, forest blossoms; some black kyaras can be wild honey; another can be a cacophony of strange sounds or the rush of an intense classical orchestral movement. Let your mind and senses play. It can be useful to write down your observations as well, inclusive of the time and date, and revisit the same wood sample later on to see if your perceptions have changed.

Getting Started


Before picking an incense, I find it helpful just to take a moment and remind myself of what I’m using the incense for. Personally, if I’m making an offering, I like a more intense, traditional style incense, while my “everyday” incense is lighter and more modern. For meditation, I choose an extra long stick with a simple blend. I might also ask myself what kind of feeling do I want to reflect? Sometimes I want something bright and energizing, other times something dark and mysterious, still others rich and spicy. Knowing what kind of energy you want to invoke can help guide you towards certain ingredients or incense makers.


The most important thing about incense is that you enjoy it. Once you have even a general idea of what the incense is for, you can factor in your personal preferences. So, what do you like? General descriptions like fresh, floral, spicy, musky, dark or specific smells like patchouli, clove, and vanilla are great but don’t worry about getting bogged down in terms. Maybe you like the smell of rain, or old books, or fresh apple pie? That’s great, too.


Now that you have the mood and flavors you want in mind, finding the right incense will be much easier. Start by looking at some common incense ingredients listed below. As you read about them, imagine the scent at the same time. Next time you encounter incense, try to detect those notes while keeping the scent in your mind. It might seem difficult at first, but you’ll quickly begin to recognize common themes. Then you’ll be able navigate incense based solely on ingredients.

It important to mention that nothing replaces actual experience. Try a lot of different incense at the beginning. Take notes and what you like and don’t like and perhaps ask for suggestions from others. Soon, you’ll be able to distinguish between different incense makers and this will help your selection process as well.

Ingredients in Detail

  1. Sandalwood (Byaku-dan) A tall evergreen tree cultivated in India, Indonesia and Malaysia, sandalwood is also mentioned in old Sanskrit and Chinese books. Those from the Mysore region in southern India are called Rozan Byakudan in Japanese, and are known for their premium quality. Sandalwood is often used for traditional Chinese medicine, incense or wooden sculptures.
  2. Aloeswood/Agarwood (Jin-koh) Soft-textured and unscented tree of the genus Aquilaria accumulates crystalized resins while being withered by various natural causes. The longer it is seasoned, the more refined the aroma becomes, often taking several centuries. It is naturally grown in the Southeast Asian countries, Indonesia, India and the Kainan province of China. It is highly valued for Japanese incense ceremonies for its aged aroma, and is also traditionally used for soothing or relaxation.
  3. Patchouli (kakkoh) Patchouli is highly recognizable for its warm, woodsy scent. Derived from an Asiatic shrub tree which resembles a beefsteak plant, the leaves yield fragrant oil. Originated in the Philippine Islands.
  4. Benzoin (Ansoku-koh) The sweet, balsamic resin from a tall deciduous tree of the family Styracaceae, Benzoin is found in tropical Sumatra. It yields a warm, mild scent.
  5. Borneol (Ryu-no) Derived from the camphor tree, the family Dipterocarpacae. Borneo camphor is a crystalline substance, which accumulates in the gaps of the trunk. A natural insect and moth repellent.
  6. Ginger Lily (San-na) The dried root of a plant, native to Vietnam, and also grown in India and southern China, this plant bears delicate, fragrant, orchid-like flowers; and is highly prized for its warm, sweet and spicy fragrance.
  7. Clove (Cho-ji) Clove is the dried flower buds from tall evergreen trees, the family Myrtaceae, and is native to the Molluques and Zanzibar Islands. It’s hot, spicy scent has made it one of the most well-known spices in the world.
  8. Frankincense (Nyu-koh) One of the most highly prized substances in the ancient world, frankincense has been used in the ceremonies of many religions. It is found in the resin of trees, the family Burseraceae, grown in northeast Africa, the coasts of the Arabian Sea and Somalia. Known as a pain-relief agent in herbal remedies.
  9. Cinnamon (Keihi) The dried bark from a plant of the family Lauraceae, cinnamon is produced in the southern provinces of China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. One of the oldest spices known to humans, it was traded between India, China and Egypt over 4,000 years ago. Cinnamon is mentioned in the Bible, as well as Greek and Roman pharmacopoeia.
  10. Star Anise (Dai-uikyo) Considered one of the main medicinal and culinary plants, the dry fruit from the family Magnoliaceae has a lively, sweet and herbaceous scent and is mainly grown in the southern provinces of China. A popular ingredient for Chinese cuisine.


Ian Falcon, MRO, is a year-long resident at Zen Mountain Monastery.