The Role of Joss Sticks in Zen Buddhism

Small statue of buddha in frame on wooden shelf with incense

People burn incense for all sorts of reasons. However, those reasons are a bit different throughout different cultures.

I’m going to discuss a little about the use of joss sticks in Zen Buddhism.

The Japanese term for incense is koh, and the term for incense sticks is Senko. Joss stick is just another term for an incense stick. Incense sticks were first brought into Japan in Sakai City, originating from China during the Muromachi time period.

Many of the original importers were suppliers of Chinese medicine and herbs. In ancient times, incense was considered medicinal throughout Asia. So, incense was simply another medicine to them. These importers were known as Jinkoya’s, which comes from the Japanese word Jinko (sinking wood).

Although ancient Zen masters likely brought incense back with them from China at an earlier date, it wasn’t until later in the Edo time period when Buddhism begun to become more prevalent. Incense became popular within Buddhist culture and the need for incense sticks became much more dire. It was burned not simply for enjoyment, but for religious and spiritual practices as well.

Of course, the history of joss sticks goes back much further, as they were used in Buddhist Cha’an practice in China as far back as the T’ang time period.

Some Buddhists have different views on incense. Some consider it an offering, while other practices such as Zen, use incense for meditation and ceremonial use.

Zen monks often state that incense helps keep bugs out of their meditation chambers, and it also prevents nearby odors from becoming a distraction. It is also sometimes used as a form of clock to signify when the meditation or zazen session is over.

So important was incense to Japanese Buddhist culture, that in the fifteenth century, Japanese monks created a now famous document called the Ten Virtues of Koh, which described incense (koh) and it’s inherent benefits.

The Ten Virtues of Koh

  1. It brings communication with the transcendent.
  2. It refreshes mind and body.
  3. It removes impurity.
  4. It brings alertness.
  5. It is a companion in solitude.
  6. In the midst of busy affairs, it brings a moment of peace.
  7. When it is plentiful, one never tires of it.
  8. When there is little, still one is satisfied.
  9. Age does not change its efficacy.
  10. Used everyday, it does no harm.

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