A Symbol of Compassion or Something Else?

Posted by:

K. Ken Fujimoto

One of the items we use at our services that seems to be frequently misunderstood is the incense. You often hear people complain about the smoke and all, but in reality, incense is used for the fragrance or scent and not the smoke. The smoke is a by-product and not the main reason for the use of the incense. It can show us that it is burning, but is not necessary for the proper use of the incense. The fragrance of the incense can be seen to be a symbol of the great compassion reaching out equally to all and embracing them in its pure scent.

Incense can refer to a number of fragrant wood or wood products that emit fragrance. Perfumed pieces of wood can also be used. However, when we think of incense here most people think about the stick incense, the senko, but there are many other forms of incense that can be used in our Jodo Shinshu temples. There is the kizamiko, the little chips of incense that we use for the incense burning or oshoko (literally the cooking of the incense). Besides that there are the wariko, larger chips (sometimes small, tile like pieces) of the fragrant wood that can be slowly burned or cooked (I say cooked because this type is not burned directly. Indirect heat is applied to emit the fragrance), the makko, a powdery form that has been processed to an almost clay-like texture and is often shaped in the burner to burn for an extended period of time, and the zuko, a sticky, powdery form that is used in a manner similar to perfume or a deodorant. The zuko is used in very formal services and you probably would not even notice it being applied unless you are very observant. There are other types but these are the ones used in our temples.

There are also a number of different fragrances of varying qualities and value. Examples are the jinkou, (aloeswood), byakudan (sandalwood), and kira. The higher qualities are pure wood with its inherent, natural fragrance, but cheaper varieties can be mixed with bits of wood that have been artificially perfumed or be made entirely of such bits permeated with scent. The cheaper varieties are the ones that cause the most coughing and allergic reactions.

However, the main reason I wanted to write about the types and use of incense is the prevalent misuse of the stick incense, the senko, here. Though you may see it done in movies, television dramas and such, in our tradition, we do not stick the incense into the burner and stand it erect. We lay it down so that we can do oshoko, the ritual, burning of the incense. We can overlap the ends in a criss cross fashion so that each section can light the overlapping section. This makes it so that you will not have to continue lighting sticks.

As I often mention, the incense ashes will allow the burning incense to burn properly. However, this too will only work if it is used on a regular basis. If the burner is only used occasionally and the ashes become compacted into the consistency of cement, it will draw too much heat from the incense and cause it to go out. Sometimes, it if the ashes are too loose, it may smother the incense as well.

Another misuse, that seems prevalent that involves the incense burner is the habit people have of putting out the matches in the ashes. The burner is not a trash can or ash tray. Once the incense is lit, one should throw the matches away in an ash tray or something similar. Better yet, there are special receptacles for the matches that are sold and match the butsudan or altar. The matches should be disposed of in a proper and respectful manner. You may want to refer to the Japanese section in this newsletter that has a comic strip that depicts this.

Please use your incense burner and incense with the proper respect due to a symbol of the all- encompassing nature of the great compassion.

© September 22, 2014