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Notes on burning incense

incense smokeObviously burning incense is not directly to do with posture, but there’s an indirect connection. As part of our preparation for meditation it’s common to settle down by going through some form of ceremonial ritual.

Rituals can be very simple of very complex. One of the most common forms of ritual action is to light incense. It’s best if this is done mindfully. First one lights candles, and then the end of a stick of incense is lit in the candle flame. Usually we let the end of the incense burn with a flame for a few seconds, and then the incense is gently waved in the air. This has the effect both of extinguishing the flame so that the incense is now glowing as an ember rather than as a flame, and of sending a stream of smoke into the air. Some people will then bow before sitting for meditation.

I’ve always found that the choice of incense is important. Certain kinds of incense can produce a very calming effect, and we can very quickly build up positive associations with a particular scent, so that the mind becomes quiet and a retreat-like atmosphere settles around us.

The more refined the incense is, the more likely it is that it will have a positive emotional and mental effect. Japanese incense is generally more refined (and in fact the world of Japanese incense is like the world of wine, with a great variety of qualities ranging from merely good to connoisseur-level). Indian incense can be more rough and chemical-smelling. Tibetan incense is more natural, and although some is refined much of it is like a fire on a hillside. That’s my experience; your mileage may vary.

The following is adapted from a press-release from Johns Hopkins University. It explains how certain kinds of incense have an effect on the brain.

Many religious traditions have contended for that burning incense is good for the soul. Now, biologists have learned that it is good for our brains too. An international team of scientists, including researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, describe how burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) activates poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression. This suggests that an entirely new class of depression and anxiety drugs might be right under our noses.

“In spite of information stemming from ancient texts, constituents of Bosweilla had not been investigated for psychoactivity,” said Raphael Mechoulam, one of the research study’s co-authors. “We found that incensole acetate, a Boswellia resin constituent, when tested in mice lowers anxiety and causes antidepressive-like behavior. Apparently, most present day worshipers assume that incense burning has only a symbolic meaning.”

To determine incense’s psychoactive effects, the researchers administered incensole acetate to mice. They found that the compound significantly affected areas in brain areas known to be involved in emotions as well as in nerve circuits that are affected by current anxiety and depression drugs. Specifically, incensole acetate activated a protein called TRPV3, which is present in mammalian brains and also known to play a role in the perception of warmth of the skin. When mice bred without this protein were exposed to incensole acetate, the compound had no effect on their brains.

Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal, said, “Studies of how those psychoactive drugs work have helped us understand modern neurobiology. The discovery of how incensole acetate, purified from frankincense, works on specific targets in the brain should also help us understand diseases of the nervous system. This study also provides a biological explanation for millennia-old spiritual practices that have persisted across time, distance, culture, language, and religion–burning incense really does make you feel warm and tingly all over!”

According to the National Institutes of Health, major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the United States for people ages 15–44, affecting approximately 14.8 million American adults. A less severe form of depression, dysthymic disorder, affects approximately 3.3 million American adults. Anxiety disorders affect 40 million American adults, and frequently co-occur with depressive disorders.

Comments

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Comment from leah vincent
Time: December 23, 2008, 11:17 am

you know how everything gives you cancer these days? Singapore researchers found that people who used incense every day for decades are at a greater risk for cancers of the upper airway. This was published in The Week magazine, 26 Dec. 2008. this was disappointing news to me, i love incense. of course, “every day for decades” probably does not describe most incense users…

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 23, 2008, 2:49 pm

Ah yes, I should put a health warning on this page!

The reports of incense being a potential health risk go back a lot further than The Week article you mention.

The story appeared back in August and there was also an alert raised in 2001, in a Ball State University article.

I was shocked once when helping to clean a meditation room in an urban Buddhist center, to discover that the walls were coated with a brown film The paintwork looked fine until you wiped it with a cloth, at which time you discovered that the walls were several shades darker than they’d originally been, just a few years before. If you’re going to use incense daily I’d suggest avoiding the Tibetan or Indian stuff and go for good quality Japanese incense. You can even buy “low smoke” versions of the Morning Star brand.

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Comment from leah vincent
Time: December 29, 2008, 11:53 pm

ah, thanks for the advice!

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Comment from dhuni
Time: July 15, 2010, 8:16 am

Thanks Wildmind. As an incense maker, I think Indian incense doesn’t have to be rougher than Japanese, by the way. Properly crafted handrolled agarbatti can be just as sublime!

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: July 15, 2010, 10:54 am

The comments on your site (http://www.dhuni.co.uk) suggest you’re right. Would you be interested in sending some samples? We’re interested in expanding our online store, and your incense looks excellent.

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Comment from Sebastian
Time: December 11, 2010, 5:26 am

Being a child growing up in different part of Asia, I have been associated with the smell of incense since I Was a child, Indian incense tend to be over powering(contains a lot if artificial scent) & not quite suitable for meditation, Japanese incense in general are more subtle & the best incense I found are some high grade Chinese incense which are very light and very suitable for incense, good meditation incense should not be so powering that it can distract the
mind. Train your nose to detect artificial ingredients by inhaling them & with a sensitive nose you will feel. Pricky, choking feel on the end of the nose and also the throat feel a bit rough & itchy, good incense just flow through the nose and lungs without obstruction. It should also smell sweet.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 11, 2010, 12:20 pm

Your experience pretty much matches what I wrote in the article then:

“Japanese incense is generally more refined (and in fact the world of Japanese incense is like the world of wine, with a great variety of qualities ranging from merely good to connoisseur-level). Indian incense can be more rough and chemical-smelling. Tibetan incense is more natural, and although some is refined much of it is like a fire on a hillside.”

Some kinds of Indian incense in fact remind me of a fire in a chemical factory. It’s not all harsh, but a lot of it is very heavily perfumed and very artificial-smelling.

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Comment from Sebastian
Time: December 12, 2010, 10:05 am

Having live and work in shanghai china for the last 10 years, its very encouraging to see the Chinese rediscover the art of incense making from the Japanese and Taiwanese this past decade. Very high quality incense are rapidly and more easily available in the Chinese market.

I have recently made a trip to part of Tibet & many new brand of Tibetan incense are available in the market but I have to say most contain lots of artificial ingredients.

I will be learning the Tibetan incense making from a Tibetan doctor and hopefully able to share what have learn in the process & spread the use of quality incense that does not harm the health.

Again, the price of the incense also matches the quality & in order to get a decent incense, one have to pay higher price or else I rather suggest not inhaling poor qua
Ity incense that would otherwise harm one’s health

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 12, 2010, 12:47 pm

I’m very pleased to hear that you’ll be learning to make Tibetan incense. All the best with your project.

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Comment from Deester
Time: March 15, 2011, 12:34 pm

My husband is a Buddhist monk and we burn incense daily, at his school and at home. We have found that Shoyeido Japanese incense is the best by far. We have tried everything, trust me. It is a bit pricier than some, but the quality is incredible and it does not bother students who are sensitive because of headaches, allergies, etc. We also appreciate that they make it in traditional Japanese fashion. If you are a practitioner, you may be able to sign up for a wholesale account and receive a signifigant discount. Another excellent website for incense is Essence of the Ages. Much of their incense is made at Tibetan monasteries, and is specifically designed to help alleviate certain conditions. The profits all go to the monstery or nunnery as well!

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 15, 2011, 1:40 pm

Thanks! I added links to the two sources you mentioned. Japanese incense is by far the most subtle I’ve come across.

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