Mar 11, 2015

Incense and Poetry

One of the most popular units in the Introduction to Chado class is the Incense and Poetry night. Even the more experienced students come back to participate with the new students. It is a fabulous and emotional night of listening to the incense, composing and sharing poetry and of course sweets and tea.

We prepare the wood incense (jinko) by burying a live coal in ash, and put the mica plate on top.  It is a personal way to enjoy listening to the incense.  As the wood is heated, the volatile oils are released and we can smell the wonderful fragrance.  It changes over time, with the first notes giving way to middle and finally deeper notes.
Because the sense of smell is one of the more primitive senses, it does not have a direct path to the verbal part of the brain, so it is difficult for people to describe or talk about what they are smelling.   When we express ourselves in poetry, it involves other parts of our brain.
We had three different wood incense chips, and after each participant had a chance to listen 3 times, they could begin to compose their poem inspired by the incense.  After everyone is finished composing, we share the poems. 
With permission, I am publishing the poems composed that night.

red poplar melting
sweet ash asunder, hold me
in your nighted gaze

Delicate splinter
Decomposition's glory
3 breaths, one long sigh

Aged wooden footsteps
Still but felt across the rush
Warm embers, cool snow

High in the mountain
Smelling the wind in pines
I float with the birds
And feel the sun warm me

Spicy, a market
forgotten, lands far away,
bells ring in the breeze

Ambient temple floors
echoing the footsteps of
all who once tread there

Smoke swirling in air
children laughter
Christmas is a delight

Sweet breeze
on top of the hot desert rocks
I'm a firefly resting

opal sand filling
air with time and time again
is the dust of you

Bright yellow stillness of galleries
Salty splintered wood
odd early season twilight

Elusive tendrils
Journey amongst my senses
Evoke memories
And bring presence

Fruit and flower buds
Delicate scents fill my mind
Sweet and intricate

Grandmother's cupboard
collected years of bits and bobs
missing Montana

Apricot blossoms
wind kicks up a flurry
first spring berry crisp

In a cave the water rushes
all the muddy prints dry
in the hot bonfire
under the foggy moon

Listening to the incense, with just a few minutes, a conducive atmosphere, appreciative guests, it is a great inspiration for poetry.


  1. I enjoyed reading this post very much as I have not seen too much written on incense and its appreciation. thanks and I wish I were closer- Joe in Cincinnati, OH

    1. Joe, Thank you for your comment. It is one of the Japanese arts known as Kodo. You can find more information about it in the book titled, "The Book of Incense," by Kiyoko Morita.

    2. thx Margie, where can one purchase kodo supplies? I would like to introduce this practice to my sangha.

    3. Joe, Thank you for your comment. You can find basic kodo supplies and ko (wood incense) at Shoyeido. You can also order The Book of Incense by Kyoko Morita that gives an introduction as well as tells you how to prepare an incense burner.

  2. Wow, is it part of Urasenke to learn a bit of kodo? In Boston there is an incense group and there are tea schools, and though I have participated in both, the two groups haven't had joint events. I love both though, and it is a great idea to write poems after listening. All perfectly fitting, and very ichigo ichie.

    1. Tea Apprentice, Welcome back to the blog, and thank you for your comment. You are so lucky to have an incense group in Boston! There are procedures for ko in Urasenke, but mostly it is in the context of the ensemble exercises, one of which is "Shaza". I wouldn't call what we are doing kodo, however. More like ko asobi -- playing with ko, or just kiku oko, or listening to incense. I know that kodo is every bit as disciplined as chado, and that you have to have good brushwriting as well as a good grounding in Japanese literature (also a good nose to distinguish different types of jinko) to play those kodo games. I just like to do it, so my students get a chance now and then to listen to incense.