The Japanese for Incense Sticks is "Senko" and "Incense Sticks" were first introduced in Sakai City from China during the Muromachi period. The importers were medicinal and herbal suppliers. Before long some suppliers began to specialize in incense medicine, and later began making the Incense Sticks themselves. These suppliers became known as Jinkoya's, from the Japanese word Jinko which means "Sinking Wood." So the first incense sticks imported were those prepared in the herbal medicine trade of Chinese Medicine.
Later, in the Edo period when Buddhism regained popularity in Japan, incense sticks were sought by temples and individuals from these suppliers for religious offerings, and for enjoyment. No doubt, Buddhists in Japan were already familiar with incense sticks before this, and surely Zen Masters such as Dogen brought incense sticks back with them from their trips to China.
Joss sticks were not new to Buddhist practice. Incense sticks were used in Ch'an (Zen Practice) in China at least as far back as the T'ang period. Each Buddhist practice viewed incense from somewhat different perspectives. For some, the tradition of "Incense Offerings" in the nature of shokos (chipped incense) was, and is, still predominant. Zen Buddhism uses joss sticks during meditation (zazen) and shokos in certain ceremonies.
Commonly, most Buddhist teachers will say incense is not used as a psychotropic aid for meditation or religious practice, or a psychological-state altering vehicle to enlightenment. The vast majority of Buddhist monks would not prescribe incense for this purpose, and feel you should be able to meditate and achieve spiritual awakening regardless of the aromatic environment. Benefits the Zen monks may speak of are: incense helps keep the flies out of the Zendo, it prevents unwanted body odors from becoming a distraction, and that it is used as a clock or timer for sitting periods. And then they will tell you not to blink if a fly drinks the water from your eye, no odor should distract your meditation, and don't watch the clock "Time is Being!"
Incense sticks were used as clocks in China even before the famous "Incense Clocks" and "Incense Seals." (see: Silvio A. Bedinni--The Scent of Time)
Incense for medicinal purposes is recorded as far back as the earliest recorded official pharmacopoia, the "Hsin hsiu pen ts'ao" (659 A.D.)
Here is one of the oldest references to incense sticks in China:
Impromptu on a Hangover
out the midday brightness with a screen depicting dark woods,
burn a stick of heavy incense, nursing my hangover.
What's this? As evening comes I'm ready for a drink again!
Beyond the wall I hear the cry of someone selling clams." -- P'i Jih-Hsiu (c. 833-883)
Modern science, and studies of Aromachology and Aromatherapy are indicating emotional and health benefits from the use of various aromatics. Hopefully more studies are on the horizon.
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