Sunday, April 5, 2009


(Thanks to Marc for this informative post on incense!)

Entering a Buddhist or Taoist temple, one is immediately aware of a pleasant sent in the air, the scent of incense. After exposure one can almost immediately recognize the presence of a temple or shrine based on smell alone, it is a very recognizable and distinct smell. The Japanese have been using incense within their religion and culture for hundreds of years. Buddhism was brought to Japan in the year 538 C.E. and along with it came incense. Ever since then, incense has been an integral part of Japanese religions.

There are many different ideas of what constitutes incense, but generally speaking, “Incense is defined to be both the perfume or fumigation arising from the burning of certain resins, barks, woods, seeds, fruit, etc., as well as the material being burned itself” (Bedini, 41). There are two main types of incense: direct burning and indirect burning. Direct burning involves combustion, while indirect burning involves heated stones to create the effect. Both types were and still are used by the Japanese. Direct burning incense is found in many temples, shrines, and homes. A good example of direct burning incense are incense sticks. Indirect burning is done during Kodo (the incense ceremony) or strictly on religious grounds within special incense containers.

Kodo, as stated previously, is a Japanese incense ceremony. It is a very hard ceremony to perfect. “It takes many years of study, and a great deal of practice to perform the incense ceremony properly. The art of the Japanese Tea Ceremony is itself very difficult, and takes about 15 years to master. The art of Kodo takes over 30 years!” (Oller, 2). The incense ceremony represents the Japanese appreciation for incense. There are many Kodo ceremonies, such as kneading the incense and burning the incense, and also many games that are often run by a Kodo master. Yet, Kodo is jut one of the many uses for incense.

Within both Buddhist and Taoist temples and shrines, incense is burned very often. Incense sticks are the most prevalent in temples. They serve at least four distinct purposes. First, they are burned as a form of purification. They can be used to purify both objects and people. The second use of incense is to aid prayers on their way to the other world or to ancestors. Incense is seen as a medium that allows one to have contact with spirits and deceased relatives. It is also used as to facilitate the burial process for the same reasons. Thirdly, it is used to help in meditation, to calm oneself (this calming aspect is why incense was medicinally used as well). Lastly, incense was used as a measurement for time.

The use of incense as a timekeeper was prevalent in Japan from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, and is still used today in rural monasteries. Matchcord and Candle are the two main types of incense timekeepers. A matchcord consists of incense wrapped into a cord shape, and candles consist of a solid piece of incense. Candles have designated amounts of time. They were used as timekeepers for the monks. The gathering bell was scheduled to be rung by the burning of incense.

It seems that incense and Japanese religion go hand in hand. Incense is an integral part of a Buddhist/Taoist temple or shrine. Japan has used incense throughout the years, for purposes such as prayer, burials, and time keeping. Incense is very important to the Japanese people, and is therefore celebrated during Kodo, a way of giving thanks to such an essential element of Japan.

~guest blogger, Marc Duquette