No. 7: Kyoto, Japan

Embracing meditation through the art of ancient ceremony

A Moving Meditation 

There are many forms of meditation, I’ve come to realize through diverse experiences around the world. Countless acts—beyond being still, mind blank—are meditative. Often they’re rooted in ancient Asian traditions. Buddhist monks, as I saw at The Buddhist Archive of Photography in Luang Prabang, Laos, find their path to nirvana, or enlightenment, through meditating in four positions: sitting, standing, lying down and walking. For me, the practice of forest bathing in British Columbia personified this practice—silently, slowly, gently walking through thick green woods, my senses and mind open to receive the fragrant air, squishy earth and flashes of life all around me. I was as focused as I’ve ever been in those moments, my mind peacefully free from the assault of outside thoughts. 

The several times a day that devout Balinese Hindus make their canang sari offerings also represent a meditation, as is true with so many far-flung religious rituals. Prayer, after all, is directed focus and reflection. When I traveled through Japan this year I discovered just how ingrained meditation is in every bit of the culture. It’s elevated to an art form, really. The famous—and famously snail-paced—Japanese tea ceremony is one of the martial arts, and it’s second nature to a person who’s mastered it. As a local named Naomi explained to me, it’s not taking an hour to make a cup of tea, it’s an hour of meditating together—the person serving and his or her guests. 

At Hoshinoya Kyoto, an intimate ryokan hidden beyond twists and turns in the Oi River, in the leafy green Arashiyama neighborhood, I was introduced to another centuries-old practice, one that enchanted me with its beauty. I’ll admit, when I first saw “incense ceremony” on my itinerary, I didn’t give it much thought. It was my first full day in Kyoto, and I imagined a cute 15-minute presentation. I didn’t yet understand the gravitas the word “ceremony” carries in Japan. 

That day my mother and I rose from our low, dream-filled beds for a group stretching class in the garden, beneath a magical canopy of pink-tipped baby maple leaves. We savored a hot pot feast we cooked in our room, overlooking the virescent Oi, then made rice porridge using the broth, rice and Kyoto’s original spice blend. At the appointed time, wearing our provided gray cotton PJ-like ensembles, we approached the tatami room. 

Yoko, our kōdō guide, dove right in, preparing special charcoal while inviting us to explore and sniff vials holding resin woods. Everything felt delicate—the tiniest bits of this or that. Established 600 years ago, the incense ceremony is as important as tea ceremonies and flower arrangement, just far less famous, Yoko explained. Its roots trace to the year 595, when Japanese first put fire to a piece of aloeswood (also called agarwood) and discovered its incredible smell. They used it to scent kimono for noble people and later to calm warriors of the samurai era before battle.  

“We say listen to the fragrance, not smell it,” Yoko told us as we sat on floor cushions behind small pots of ash and packages of folded paper which, when opened, revealed a collection of gorgeous gilded wooden tools. “This resin matured 100 years, so please listen to its history, and also listen to yourself. You have to sharp your mind, relax and concentrate to enjoy it.” She promised a relaxing ceremony, paired with matcha tea. 

Someone who’s not a perfectionist, or who finds precision exhausting, might find it trying, however. The ceremony’s strict rules have made it a dying practice among young people with short attention spans. (Interestingly, incense ceremonies paired with savory Japanese whisky are becoming more popular—a trend I can get behind.) It’s slow. Very slow. And the required movements are meticulous, i.e. holding wooden-handled golden chopsticks vertical and parallel in my right hand in a six o’clock position and sweeping the ash upward to create a mountain shape while slowly turning the pot counterclockwise—always counterclockwise!—with my left. 

We used ash pushers to tamp it down gently into a textured cone, then a dainty white feather tool to dust the sides clean. The coordination and exactitude required is stunning! Yoko coaxed us to “press gently, please” as we perfected our ash mountains. Finally, she directed us to carefully consider all angles of the pot before choosing the most beautiful to be the “face.” There we made a tiny line with a chopstick, and created a hole for the heat to rise. Over that, using a tweezer-like tool that exists solely for this purpose, we carefully placed a square of glass, like a slide you’d examine under a microscope, and the most minuscule rectangle of resin. 

Throughout all of this preparation my mind was free of outside thoughts. My monkey brain was quiet. I had achieved dharana or concentration—holding single focus—the sixth of eight limbs of yoga precedes meditation. Yoko’s exacting instructions for the grand finale involved cupping our right hands around the pot to inhale, and turning to the left to exhale. It was ritualistic and repetitive in a comforting way—a moving meditation. The first breath warmed my entire body, a loosening and tingling sensation through my nerves. With each slow inhalation I was present. I received the resin’s story, accepted Japan’s slowed pace, and felt mind, body and spirit soothed. 

Today, whenever I’m stressed or operating at a breakneck speed, I think about that time I spent almost an hour preparing a beautiful little pot of incense in order to take just five or six profound breaths of it. That memory, of scent, ritual and meditation, is all the reminder I need to pause, inhale and relax.