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Inner Cultivation with Incense

The arts of Tea Ceremony, Incense, and Flower Arrangement, collectively referred to as the three ways of fine cultivation in Japan, all have a long history and deep connection with China. From mere appreciation by the elite to daily life of the ordinary, they have gone through transformation and become very much alive in the present day.

The ceremony of incense is a refined art. Through the forms of visual observation of the eyes, touching of the hands, and smelling by the nose, faculties of one’s sense body experience the incense in contemplation. Such a practice helps the mind to be clear and unsullied, towards a state of serenity, elegance, beauty, and harmony.

Popular views believe that it was in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) the Chinese monk, Venerable Jianzhen (Ganjin in Japanese) who traveled east and propagated Buddhism, brought the way of incense appreciation to Japan at the same time. In the Nara Period (710-794),  incense was used mainly in Buddhist ceremonies in temples. It was also used in the Royal Palace for ceremonies and as perfume for rooms or with cloths. Until the time of Heian Period (794-1185), incense quietly walked into the life of the elite, but mainly as fragrance. 

The connection between incense and Buddhism, especially with Zen, has been extremely close. The arrangement of the incense room is similar to the space for the tea ceremony; both originated from Zen temples of the old times. Just like the meditation hall for sitting, in the relaxed and spacious room, displayed in front of the Buddha and ancestors (statues or images) are only incense, flowers, and tea. The utensils used in the practice of incense are also simple and plain, expressing the characters of Zen.

It is said that to study the Art of Incense, one needs to practice “smelling the incense” for at least one year; from the second year can a student begin to learn constructing the incense setting; the third year one starts the comprehensive exercise; and only after four years can one get a certificate of completion. To become a “teacher” of any sort, it takes 15 years of training and practice, and becoming the top level master takes 25-30 years! The years of repeated seemingly dull practice was mainly for “melting away” of the anxious temperament, cultivating stillness within and developing a solid, stable, and persistent character in a person.

In modern life, experiencing the art of incense can help the body and mind to be in harmony. It is also full of joy in cultivation of the spirit. From the forms of incense to the formless, the practitioner contemplates on impermanence. Through smelling of the incense, one is relaxed within which helps the mind to reach a state of peace and tranquility.

[原创]Translated and edited by zenteaone.org from parts of an article in Chinese.