Zen, The Art Of Incense Burning And The Tea Ceremony

Posted by Angelina Kurganska on

In the somewhat intricate world of tea ceremony, there exists a debate: incense or no incense? 

Personal preference aside, we decided to go deeper into why exactly incense can be burned during tea ceremonies. After all, this is a long tradition that has holds its roots in Buddhism and has made its way into the traditional tea ceremony. 


What Are Incense Made Of?  

Incense are made of things found in nature — mostly tree bark, but also flowers and spices, and even some animal byproducts. The raw materials used to make incense differ by country. However, in east Asia, specifically China, Japan, and Taiwan, more or less the same ingredients are used. The most popular materials in these regions are sandalwood and agar-wood; of the two agar-wood being more rare and expensive. Other common substances are cinnamon bark, lavender, lilies, patchouli, and star anise. 


japanese incense and tea


Incense Burning and Gong Fu Cha

During Song Dynasty China, incense culture was thriving just as much as tea culture itself.


Every incense comes in its own particular shape. There are sticks, cones, and spirals. In the same way, every form will mark its own passing of time. Some might burn for 10 minutes, while others for 30. Thus incense was used to keep mind of the time. As the incense was burning its last, a tea session, study period, or small break would come to an end.


We know that incense culture is deeply entangled in the roots of Buddhism. For centuries incense has been burned for purification purposes within temples. We also know that tea culture has its roots in Buddhism. It had its beginning with monks who would plant camellia sinensis (tea tree) seeds outside of temples. Then after harvest and processing, drink tea to stay awake, alert, and calm during long meditation hours (read more). It is to no surprise that these two rituals — the rituals of incense burning and making tea have been intertwined for a long time. 


When starting a gong fu cha session, sandalwood incense is commonly burned. This immediately sets a space of intent for the ceremony. It purifies the room, allowing for the tea, and most importantly, the guests to enter a clean space. While the incense burns, the tea master will prepare and clean the room, as well as organize the tea utensils. By the time the incense is done burning, the tea ceremony is ready to commence. 


Particularly sandalwood has a crisp forest aroma. The scent sets an excellent atmosphere for our more robust teas — ripe pu-erh, Wuyi oolong, and Lapsang Souchong. Even when enjoying tea in our homes, burning incense before the tea ritual can immediately transport us to a new location. Perhaps a dense forest, windy mountain peaks, misty waterfalls, or a zen garden. Then the tea comes in, bringing us further into the landscape. 


Kodo and Chanoyu 

(The Art Of Incense Burning And The Japanese Tea Ceremony)

Kodo, translated from Japanese, is “The Way Of Fragrance.” It is the subtle art of Japanese incense appreciation. Kodo is one of “the three Japanese classical arts of refinement,” alongside with Chado (The Way Of Tea) and Kado (The Way Of Flowers/flower arrangement). The three altogether are an indispensable part of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which revolves around matcha appreciation. 


In Japan, the same as in China, incense burning is deeply tied to Buddism and the nation’s culture. Incense would be burned in the temple, and samurai would purify themselves with the smoke and fragrance before battles. 


During the Muromachi Period, in 16th century Japan, incense burning developed into Kodo — a thorough appreciation of incense. It is in the same period that Chado and ikebana (flower arrangement) developed alongside it. 


ikebana and tea


In Chado, there exist certain tea games, where samurai and nobles would guess the cultivar and origin of the matcha they are drinking (read more). Similar games existed with incense. This popular pastime eventually spread across Japan, not only amongst the wealthier class. 


Incense Benefits

Listed below are the “Ten Virtues of Ko,” a list of benefits received from the burning of good quality incense:


• Sharpens the senses
• Purifies the body and spirit
• Eliminates pollutants
• Awakens the spirit
• Heals loneliness
• Calms during tough times
• Is not unpleasant in abundance
• Even in small amounts is sufficient
• Does not easily break down after a long time
• Everyday use is not harmful


    Incense burning is an integral part of Chanoyu, the traditional Japanese matcha tea ceremony. 

    While the room is being tidied and prepared for receiving guests, the master will burn incense of choice. In Japan, incense are bought from temple stores. Each temple has its own recipe for the incense, and some can identify where the incense came from by smell. Furthermore, the tea master will often choose which incense to burn based on the season. Refreshing, floral ones for the warmer Spring and Summer months, and robust woody scents for the colder time of year. An incense holder matching the appropriate season is also used. While a ceramic holder is commonly used for cold months, a wooden box may be used for the warm ones. 


    japanese incense and matcha


    After the guests enter the tea house and take their time to admire the hanging scroll and flower arrangement, they will also notice the scent of the burning incense. At once, gaining a sense of purification and relaxation. 


    Have you had the experience of drinking tea after burning incense? Or perhaps this is a common practice for you? Next time try comparing the flavor a familiar tea with and without the aroma of burning incense. In our experience, the smell transforms. Having an existing atmosphere of scents, it is not uncommon for entirely new notes of tea to reveal themselves! 


    What are your experiences? We would love to read about them in the comments below!