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Hongkonger Rebecca Wong Howe shows how to develop a daily practice of incense seal making. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Explainer | Meditative and mindful, lost Buddhist art of incense seal making revived thanks to Hong Kong woman

  • To make an incense seal is a simple, mindful exercise that requires a deft touch; Rebecca Wong Howe hopes to revive the dying art
  • Burning incense was one of the ‘Four Arts of Living’ during China’s Song dynasty, a way to elevate the sense of smell

Life during the pandemic has, for many of us, been stressful and full of uncertainty. Meditation can help to clear our minds, reduce stress and free up space in our heads for positivity and joy.

The act of doing something mindfully, when all your attention is focused on performing one activity, can be one way to achieve this state.

For Hongkonger Rebecca Wong Howe, this is done with the daily 10- to 15-minute ritual of making incense seals – a dying art that she is keen to revive.

In this “loving kindness practice”, as Rebecca calls it, ground incense is carefully placed in brass incense seals of different patterns or shapes, which are placed on sand in a bowl, or atop a fresh leaf from her garden.

Wong Howe makes an incense seal at her home in Shek O in Hong Kong. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

She uses fine brass instruments, even a peacock feather, to direct the incense powder into the seals.

“Our sense of smell has the most direct link to the brain, hence incense has a calming power,” Wong Howe says. “I light the incense and smoke rises from the slow burn like a wandering phoenix.”

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In Buddhist and Taoist temples, rising incense smoke signifies a person’s prayers ascending to the heavens, she adds.

The Oxford-educated Wong Howe, who calls herself a contemporary Buddhist layman, used to work as a market researcher. Now, she focuses on her religious practice primarily through dance, meditation and painting.

“I was exploring meditation with different systems, like yoga or transcendental meditation. Not everyone can sit in a cave and meditate,” she says. “Everyone is different, so we have to find a practice that suits ourselves.”
Wong Howe focuses on her religious practice primarily through dance, meditation and painting. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

She discovered the art of making incense seals 10 years ago after reading old Buddhist scriptures and, in trying it, she found the simple practice strengthened her spiritual connection to her faith.

While the act of burning stick incense dates back 2,000 years, this particular incense seal making method had been lost over the decades. Wong Howe says she “found her calling” last year in bringing it back.

Wong Howe held an incense seal making session a year ago at the Jao Tsung-I Academy in Kowloon for a group of 12, and a workshop for more than 80 attendees of the Hong Kong Book Fair this July. Those taking part said they found the practice an easy way to enter a meditative state.


“I want to make it fun for everybody. When you find it fun, you will add it to your practice,” she says.

Incense is rooted in Buddhism, has been used for centuries and is an essential part of Asian history. It is even included as one of the “Four Arts of Life” of the Chinese Song dynasty (960-1279) alongside tea appreciation, painting and flower arrangement, which aim to elevate the senses of smell, taste and touch in daily life.

“Before officials and scholars sat down for meetings in ancient China, they would make tea and burn incense. This was to align their sense of taste and smell so they were on the same wavelength,” explains Wong Howe.

Incense seal tools and ingredients that Wong Howe keeps at her home. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

What is incense?

Incense comes in powder and stick forms. The aromatic materials used for making incense include resins, barks and roots such as frankincense and sandalwood.

Incense is used as an offering to the gods and to cleanse sacred rooms and holy objects, placate malicious spirits and eradicate negative energy. It is also burned for its therapeutic properties.

How do you create an incense seal?

Prepare your base – ash or sand poured into a pot and flattened with a brush, or a freshly picked leaf – and choose a stencil-like seal and incense powders that match your mood or intentions for the day.

Incense seals come with various stencil designs. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
Wong Howe’s collection of seals include stencil designs of Chinese characters for fu lu shou, meaning fortune, prosperity and longevity, as well as the Buddhist lotus motif. Some of her incense powder blends – sandalwood, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and saffron – have medicinal properties.

“Depending on the blend, one can attract prosperity, love, remove obstacles, remove illness and connect to different deities,” she says.

Place the seal on the base and pour the incense powder over the seal. Even out the powder over the stencil with a small spatula and flatten it down. Gently tap the handle of the seal with tools to get the powder to settle into the stencil. Take as long as you need with this process.

Slowly lift the stencil – the powder should lie in a beautiful shape on the flat bed of ashes. Light the powder with a stick of incense and let it burn. Sit back and watch the smoke while breathing mindfully.

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What is the benefit of incense seal making and burning?

Having to focus on producing a neat shape can settle the mind. The delicate incense pot and tools require a gentle touch, and the super fine powder requires slow breathing.

The ritual can take anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour. If you fail at making a seal, that is OK – let it serve as a lesson in letting go and forgiving yourself.

“It’s worthwhile to still your mind,” says Wong Howe. “After doing it every morning, I have clarity of thought. I am in a better mood and that changes the way I do things. I’m not just jumping out of bed and moving into something immediately.”

Having to focus on producing a neat shape can settle the mind. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Where can I buy the materials to make incense seals?

Wong Howe shops at Dharma Arts on Shanghai Street in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei or the Thrangu Vajrayana Buddhist Centre in Kwun Tong – both in Kowloon.

She will also be hosting free monthly seal incense workshops at Arts with Smile in Wong Chuk Hang on Hong Kong Island. There will be incense-making kits for sale at the venue.

Incense seal workshops will be held at Arts with Smile, Unit 625, 2 Heung Yip Road, Wong Chuk Hang, on November 13 and December 13. For more details, visit the Facebook page.
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