Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Way of Koh

You're probably familiar with the Japanese martial art Ju-do ("the gentle way"), the Japanese martial art of fencing Ken-do ("the way of the sword"), and you may have heard of the Samurai code of honor Bushi-do ("the way of the warrior"), but you probably have not heard about Japanese Koh-do ("the way of incense").

At the end of each day, I have a de-stressing ritual. I leave the anxiety, frustration, and emotion of each day at the office, so I'm always optimistic, energetic, and focused on my family when I arrive home. I chat with my wife and daughter about their day, change in my causal clothing, make a cup of Gyokuro Asahi green tea, and light a stick of incense in my 300 year old Buddhist incense burner. Then I "listen to" the fragrance. This is Koh-do, the Japanese Incense Ceremony.

During Japan’s Muromachi Period (1333-1576), Incense Ceremony became formalized as one of the one of the three leading traditional Japanese arts, along with Tea Ceremony (chanoyu) and Flower Arrangement (jkebana). In the incense ceremony, aromatic wood (koh) is burned and participants appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the aroma. Although the sense of smell plays a leading role, the appreciation of the mood/atmosphere created by entire experience of burning fragrant wood leads practitioners of the art say that they are “listening to” the aroma. Understanding the Japanese art of Koh-do is as fascinating as understanding the tea ceremony, the Japanese Flute or Sake.

Lafcadio Hearn, a 19th century American author famous for his books about Japan wrote about the experience of Koh in his book Ghostly Japan (1899)

"Wherever Buddhism lives there is incense. In every house containing a Buddhist shrine or Buddhist tablets, incense is burned at certain times; and in even the rudest country solitudes you will find incense smouldering before wayside images, -- little stone figures of Fudo, Jizo, or Kwannon. Many experiences of travel, -- strange impressions of sound as well as of sight, -- remain associated in my own memory with that fragrance: -- vast silent shadowed avenues leading to weird old shrines; -- mossed flights of worn steps ascending to temples that moulder above the clouds; -- joyous tumult of festival nights; -- sheeted funeral-trains gliding by in glimmer of lanterns; -- murmur of household prayer in fisherman's huts on far wild coasts; -- and visions of desolate little graves marked only by threads of blue smoke ascending, -- graves of pet animals or birds remembered by simplehearts in the hour of prayer to Amida, the Lord of Immeasurable Light."

There are five traditional incense materials described in early Buddhist texts. Aloeswood is associated with the Buddha Family, and symbolizes the transmutation of the "poison of ignorance." Sandalwood is associated with the Padma or Lotus Family and symbolizes the transmutation of the "poison of attachment." Clove is associated with the Vajra or Wisdom Family and symbolizes the transmutation of the "poison of aversion." Turmeric is associated with the Karma Family and symbolizes the transmutation of the "poison of jealousy". Borneol Camphor is associated with the Ratna family and symbolizes the transmutation of the "poison of pride".

If these particular incense materials were unavailable, Buddhist monks made substitutions including Patchouli, Benzoin, and Cinnamon.

My Koh-do ceremony uses a mixture of the Sandalwood, Clove, Turmeric, Camphor, Benzoin and Patchouli called Matsu-no-tomo (Friend of Pine)

The most extraordinary experience I've had with Koh-do is the burning of Aloeswood. Aloeswood is the resinous wood from the Aquilaria tree, an evergreen tree native to northern India, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. The trees frequently become infected with the fungus Phialophora parasitica, and produce an aromatic resin as a defense mechanism. This resin is Aloeswood and it's often aged for many years before burning. The Aloeswood Koh-do experience is so memorable that the Japanese have a classification system to describe the 5 aromas you may sense as the wood burns

1. Sweet -- Resembles the smell of honey or sugar
2. Sour -- Resembles the smell of plums or other acidic foods.
3. Hot -- Resembles the smell of peppers on a fire.
4. Salty -- Resembles the smell of ocean water when seaweed is dried on a fire.
5. Bitter -- Resembles the smell of bitter herbal medicine when it is mixed or boiled.

High quality Aloeswood is so rare and expensive, that I've only experienced it in Koh-do ceremonies in Japan.

So, pour a cup of tea, light a stick of incense, listen to the aroma, and de-stress. You'll recharge and be ready for the challenges ahead.


John R. Christiansen said...

I think you may have hit upon the only sensible way to survive this year's election season . . .

Unknown said...

John, I can't help but notice that this was your first post following the Bio-IT World panel discussion! Hope it wasn't too stressful?! We really enjoyed your participation. Kevin D.