Mar 18, 2009

Playing with scents, more on Kodo, the Way of Incense

On Monday, Mr. Nishiura, incense master, came from Tokyo (via San Francisco) for a chakai at Ryokusuido. The students and I were able to serve him tea and after that he presented us with a game of incense.

As the night fell, the room was lit by candle light. It bathed us all in a flattering glow and Mr. Nishiura began the incense ceremony. Like tea, there are specialized dogu (utensils). Like tea, he brought everything into the room and prepared the things for us to smell the incense. While he was doing that, the guests were passed our own brush, calligraphy set, and answer sheet. We made ink with ink stick and stone. Then we were to write our name on the outside of our answer sheet.

The game we were to play would be to compare two different incenses. He shuffled the incense packets and chose six. There would be three rounds of comparison and we were to mark on our answer sheets with a dash – if they were the same or two dots ●● if they were different. We were to write them from the bottom to the top. The resulting symbol, three lines of dashes and dots referred to a phenomenon of nature, such as fire, thunder earth etc. With this combination, there were 8 possibilities for the answer. Mr. Nishura told us that as we listen to the music of the incense and come upon our answers, the symbols will tell us something about our own nature.

We started to listen to the first incense. It was a heady fragrance and I could barely tell if there was anything at all on the burner. I inhaled with all my lungs as we only had one chance to listen before we passed on to the next one. Mr. Nishura told us not to just smell the incense. That happens with just your nose. But to inhale and listen with our whole body, not just the surface or top notes, but also to the under notes and the whole of the music. We could write down our answers after each set, or wait until the end. And we could change our answers at any time.

I must say that there was a lot going on in that first inhalation. But I really don’t have the words to describe what was going on for me. The second round we had to judge if it was the same or different than the previous round. Not only did we listen to the incense, we had to remember how the first one was and distinguish if it was different from the second one. Being a novice, I didn’t know how subtle the differences could be. I could not distinguish between the first two, nor the second set of two, nor the third set.

When all the sets were done, we passed the answers to Mr. Nishura on a tray, and he scored and recorded the answers on a beautiful sheet of calligraphy (see photo). The correct answer was that the first two sets were alike, the third set different. Mr. Nishura said that to get a high score is not the point. If you have a high score that means you are very sensitive and that you are healthy. To get a low score means that you are happy.

To be an incense master, you must also have beautiful handwriting, too.

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